Sentenced twice for pro-Ukrainian position in Russian-occupied Crimea
The good news that a court in Russian-occupied Crimea had revoked a politically motivated sentence against Volodymyr Balukh was short-lived. The pro-Ukrainian activist has been tried on exactly the same absurd charges and received an identical sentence.
Compared with some of the cases of repression under Russian rule in Crimea, Volodymyr Balukh’s experiences are not the worst. They do, however, as the Crimean Human Rights Group points out, indicate very clearly how little justice people with pro-Ukrainian stands can expect under Russian occupation. The 44-year-old farmer from the north of Crimea had first raised the Ukrainian flag over the home he shares with his common-law wife in December 2013 during Euromaidan. It was not removed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea which Balukh opposed. He himself remains a Ukrainian citizen.
Balukh’s problems began on April 30, 2015. Two men appeared while he was helping his mother at the other end of the village. One was a police officer, the other from Russia’s FSB [Security Service]. They demanded that he come with them, but he refused, saying that he would only if there was a warrant.
Having ascertained that men had also turned up at his home, he decided to stay away and only returned on May 10. By then the FSB had turned up at his mother’s place 4 times. Both his home and his mother’s had been turned upside down and the Ukrainian flag ripped down.
They claimed to be looking for a stolen box from a tractor and that he had been in a café in Razdolne, drunk, and offered to sell the box to a stranger, giving his full name and address. The story was particularly absurd since Balukh actually owns two such tractors.
Although they abandoned their tractor prosecution, they did not stop harassing Balukh. In July 2015 he was detained for 72 hours for supposedly refusing to obey a police officer’s commands. Once again, nobody worried too much about such subtleties as making a story hold together. When, after 72 hours, he ended up in court, the judge fined him, not for such disobedience, but for supposedly drinking alcohol in a public place.
The second visitation was on Nov 14, 2015, early in the morning. Balukh says that first a man in plain clothes walked straight into his bedroom and demanded to know who he was. Then a woman turned up, said “yes, it’s him”, at which point two men in masks and another man burst in and began beating him and then dragged him out of the bedroom and forced him into their car.
Once again the actions were claimed to be in connection with a theft, this time of a car. The officers did not see the need to at least use some imagination and came up with exactly the same story about a supposed drunken offer made in a café.
Having found nothing at all incriminating, they opted for Article 319 of the Criminal Code – ‘insulting a police officer’. One of the officers – Yevgeny Baranov claimed that during that early morning visitation, Balukh had tried to run away. The police had supposedly done nothing more than used handcuffs, with Balukh allegedly using bad language. In the indictment this was presented as denigrating Baranov’s honour, infringing the normal activities of the police and undermining their authorities.
“It turns out, when they detain you, kick you around the kidneys and put their foot on your head, you’re supposed to express yourself solely using the language of Dostoyevsky, ” Balukh commented drily.
He was first sentenced to 320 hours’ mandatory labour on Feb 5, 2016 for this alleged ‘public insult’.
It transpired, however, that not all judges and prosecutors had totally forgotten their oath to serve the law. The prosecutor D. Shmelyov asked for the sentence to be revoked and ‘the case’ sent for a new court examination, with this allowed by Judge A. Osochenko.
The new ‘hearing’ on June 10 reverted, unfortunately, to the lawless norm, with Judge M. Bedritsky passing exactly the same sentence as his colleague on Feb 5. Worth noting that after the first sentence, Balukh pointed that Judge Tatyana Pyrzhalo had actually referred to the wrong testimony, not that presented during the trial. There is no information available about which testimony was used the second time, but optimism is not high.