Russia orchestrates fast-track trial to imprison pro-Ukrainian activist in Crimea
The trial in Russian-occupied Crimea has begun of Volodymyr Balukh, a Ukrainian from North Crimea whose latest arrest came just a week after he nailed a plaque to his home in honour of activists slain during Euromaidan. The case has reached the court with suspicious speed given that the only thing that is entirely clear-cut is the political motivation behind the charges. This has already prompted the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre to declare the Crimean farmer a political prisoner and he is one of the prisoners whose release the European Parliament demanded in their March 16 resolution.
Balukh was arrested on December 8, 2016, after the FSB carried out searches of his home and that of his elderly mother in the same North Crimean village. The FSB claimed to have found 90 bullets and several trotyl explosive devices in Balukh’s attic. There was nothing to link Balukh with any act of violence, and the Ukrainian activist had every reason to expect FSB searches. These had taken place in the past, and were particularly likely given that on Nov 29 Balukh had nailed the plaque renaming his home No. 18 “Heroes of Nebesna Sotnya St’ (Nebesna Sotnya, or Heavenly Hundred refers to the over 100 Maidan activists who were gunned down). There had been demands from the head of the local council for the sign to be removed which Balukh had ignored.
The first hearing took place on March 16 at the Razdolne District Court, The Crimean Human Rights Group reports that the testimony was heard of four supposed witnesses, as presented by the prosecution - a neighbour from the village, Balukh’s wife Natalya and two police officers.
Balukh was held in a cage during the hearing, with around 15 court and convoy guards present in what is doubtless a small courtroom.
There have been flagrant violations of Balukh’s procedural rights from the beginning, and this ‘court hearing’ was no exception. Balukh’s lawyer had asked to be able to speak with Balukh before the hearing and pass him documents. The guard refused to pass the papers to him, and judge Maria Berditskaya tried to read them aloud, despite this being confidential material between a lawyer and his client. She only stopped when the lawyer made a formal complaint about the breach of his client’s right to defence, yet still read them herself before allowing them to be handed to Balukh.
The choice of ‘prosecution witnesses’ was indicative of the nature of this trial. The first person is somebody from the same village who spoke highly of Balukh and denied the claim that the latter knows how to use firearms.
The next was Balukh’s wife who said that no less than 16 people had taken part in the search, and had wandered around their home without either her or her husband.
Two Razdolne police officers were questioned. They said that the FSB had initiated the search and drawn up the protocols for it. Alexandra Krylenkova explains that the first officer was asked why, during the search, he had ‘guarded’ Balukh, thus preventing the latter from following the ‘search’. He claimed that this was because “a person in such a state is in stress and could jump from the window”. He had then, he said, been called to look at the supposedly ‘found’ ammunition, etc., though mistakenly named the calibre.
One quite bizarre move was the judge’s order to bring Balukh’s son, who is currently in South America, to the court by force for the next hearing, scheduled for 20 March. This could be a delaying tactic, yet there is every sign that the occupation regime want to ‘convict’ and sentence Balukh soon, and there is no rational reason for summonsing his son.
Balukh’s wife believes that somebody was in her home while she was at the court hearing. She asked the local police duty officer to come and check, but he refused.
Balukh turned 46 in custody on Feb 8. There are concerns for his health, and his lawyer has previously said he saw signs that Balukh had been beaten.
The grounds for concluding that Balukh is facing persecution for his pro-Ukrainian position are compelling. Since December 2013, the only time the Ukrainian flag did not fly above his home was when the FSB already under Russian occupation pulled it down. He has rejected Russian citizenship.
Balukh’s first encounter with the FSB was on April 30, 2015. Two men, one from the FSB, appeared while he was helping his mother and demanded he go with them. He demanded a warrant, and having ascertained that the men had also turned up at his home and carried out a search, he stayed with a friend for two weeks. The FSB used the time to harass his mother, carry out searches of both homes and rip down the Ukrainian flag.
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. They were later to abandon the tractor prosecution, though the harassment continued.
The second visitation was on Nov 14, 2015, early in the morning. This was also claimed to be in connection with a theft, with the officers using 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’, for which he was sentenced to 320 hours’ compulsory labour on Feb 5, 2016 for this alleged ‘public insult’. The conviction was absurd enough to be revoked at appeal level, however this was clearly not the result required, and in June 2016 a second court passed exactly the same sentence.
Now Balukh is facing a potential 4-year prison sentence (under Article 222 § 1 of the Russian criminal code.)