Why do Ukrainian MPs want to prove that Ukraine is just like Russia?
The call to free Oleksandr Rafalsky was never heeded, and it is now, sadly, too late. MPs still have the chance - and the responsibility - to help others find justice in time
Ukraine’s parliament is blocking a bill which could bring justice to Ukrainians tortured into confessing to crimes they never committed and now serving huge sentences. The same MPs who rightly call for sanctions against those police, prosecutors and judges in Russia implicated in the torture and fabricated prosecutions of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and many other Ukrainians are silent about the injustice against other Ukrainians closer to home.
Draft law No. 2033a was tabled back in 2015, and even passed through a first reading in November that year. Over 13 months later, at least one of the obvious victims of a grave miscarriage of justice – Oleksandr Rafalsky - has died in prison and the bill is no closer to being passed.
The bill offers life prisoners or others serving long sentences a chance of judicial review in very specific cases. A prisoner or his/her representative would be able to apply for a review of their case if the only evidence against the person was from confessions or other testimony obtained through illegal means, for example, torture or some benefit gained from testifying against the defendant. Review would also be possible if there were grounds for believing that the evidence had been falsified and / or where the court had rejected evidence proving the defendant’s innocence. A further reason would be if the sentence did not seem proportionate to the case.
There would be no free-for-all, no easy pardon, simply the chance for a proper assessment of cases where there were real grounds for concern. One such case, which became internationally known, was that of Oleksandr Rafalsky who died recently after 15 years in prison on charges that bear no scrutiny. It is tragically too late for him, but his mother Tetyana Rafalska is continuing to campaign for others like her son.
These include Volodymyr Panasenko who was sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis solely of a person undergoing treatment for alcoholism in a psychiatric hospital. The person retracted his testimony in court, saying that it had been given under duress. Panasenko was convicted nonetheless. Somebody needed to be found guilty after all. Maxim Orlov was just 21 in 2012 when and 14-year-old Oleksandr Kozlov were convicted of double murder. The conviction was based solely on Kozlov’s testimony obtained without a lawyer present and through torture. Orlov is serving a life sentence, Kozlov – 14 years.
There have been numerous articles in the media about the draft law which gravely distort the facts and play on people’s fears about ‘maniacs and killers’ being released. The material in general is too manipulative to believe that journalists have simply been lazy and not checked the facts. Among the details always omitted are the very specific criteria and the fact that it is human rights groups that have been calling for the bill’s adoption. The draft bill is aimed at finally rectifying miscarriages of justice, not creating new ones.
There are undoubtedly individuals who have no interest in justice being reinstated. Like with political prisoners in Russia, there have been investigators, prosecutors and judges who either deliberately faked evidence or ignored clear signs that a person was innocent. Any review will bring this to light. Since some of the individuals involved now hold better posts in, for example, the Prosecutor General’s Office, they might well want to block any possible review.
Back in June 2016, one of the authors of the bill Viktor Chumak accused the two main factions in the Verkhovna Rada – the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko [BPP] and the People’s Front – of blocking the bill. He suggested then that this was because of pressure from the Prosecutor General’s Office. There have since been indications that the People’s Front will not support the bill in a vote.
None of this is official. It would be hard to find good reasons for rejecting a bill that has maximum safeguards against abuse and seeks only justice for those whose guilt was never proven. Much more convenient to simply stymie the bill and prevent it being voted on at any time when most MPs are present and accountable for their votes.
It’s called betrayal, and closely akin to that of the ‘investigators’ and prosecutors who have used torture and threats against Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia and the judges who obediently passed the sentences demanded of them. Ukraine is currently drawing up a list of such individuals in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea who should be subject to Ukrainian and international sanctions. It is galling that some Ukrainian officials have behaved no better over the years, but seriously disturbing that some Ukrainian parliamentarians appear to be giving them protection.