war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Politics and human rights

Repressive measures intensify as Crimean blackout bites


Sergei Aksyonov, de facto leader of Russian-occupied Crimea, has demanded that Ukrainian media “be purged as a class”.  Most have long been driven out, but it seems that a few TV and radio channels can still be accessed in the north of the peninsula, and these must be exterminated. 

It won’t fix the electricity pylons whose destruction has plunged Crimea into darkness, but helps deflect attention from the failure of the occupation authorities to prepare for the likely blockade, and from Russia’s inability to provide electricity to the peninsula it claims was always its territory.

There have been more heavy-handed responses to the blackout – some comical, like the de facto prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya’s initiating of a criminal investigation over destruction of pylons outside Crimea.  Others are more ominous, although after almost two years of Russian occupation, predictable. 

The FSB [Russian Security Service] has summoned Safinar Dzhemilieva, wife of the exiled Crimean Tatar leader and Ukrainian MP for interrogation.  72-year-old Mustafa Dzhemiliev has undoubtedly played an important role in the Crimean Blockade, however summonses and interrogations of his wife are, like the illegal imprisonment of his son, Khaiser in Russia, flagrant attempts at intimidation.

The same is true of the FSB visitation on the elderly (82- and 77-year-old) parents of Crimean rights activist Eskender Bariev.    Bariev reports that they have also summoned his sisters, and tells the FSB to lay off his family and quit pretending to search for him.  He is not in hiding, he says, and has never concealed his position. 

While Nariman Dzhelyal, First Deputy Head of the Mejlis, or Crimean Tatar representative assembly, says that he is not aware of any major escalation in repression of Crimean Tatars, he does believe it likely that since the occupation authorities can’t touch those carrying out the blockade, they will lash out at those who support it and/ or do not concern their opposition to Russian occupation.   There have been new heavy-handed measures against Ukrainian Cultural Centre activist Veldar Shukurdzhiyev and an absurd administrative case over a peaceful attempt to take photos with the Ukrainian flag back in August appears to have been reinstated.

Dzhelyal says that he himself is not a supporter of such radical measures as the blowing up of electricity pylons, but believes that the Ukrainian government had long needed to take responsibility and prepare measures on resolving the Crimean issue.

Dzhelyal and Bariev point to the entirely specific demands that the blockade initiators have put forward.  Mustafa Dzhemiliev has made it clear that they are not against reinstating an agreement on providing electricity and some trade, but on certain conditions.  Nobody has suggested sitting down and negotiating.  Instead Aksyonov simply calls them terrorists and threatens some kind of asymmetrical response, and Russia is silent about the demands..

It is frustrating that the western media has largely followed suit.  When they do mention the demanded release of political prisoners, they put the term in inverted commas.  This could mean that they are questioning the classification, in contrast to reputable human rights organizations, including the Crimean Human Rights Group, Memorial Human Rights Centre and others.  Or they simply cannot be bothered to do their homework  and this is disturbing since it is not difficult to find information about the grave human rights abuses since Russia invaded and occupied Crimea. 

In a recent interview, Mustafa Dzhemiliev insisted on the release of specific prisoners, mentioning imprisoned Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz; Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhy; Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Gennady Afanasyev, Oleksy Chirniy, Maidan activist Oleksandr Kostenko and others; the formation of a commission to investigate the disappearances and murders since Russia invaded Crimea; the removal of the bans on entering their homeland imposed on Dzhemiliev, Refat Chubarov and others and on permission for international organizations to monitor the human rights situation and “to reinstate those democratic rights which existed in Crimea under Ukrainian rule.”.

Aksyonov’s reaction has been to bluster about purging the few remaining Ukrainian media that the occupation regime did not manage to silence earlier.  The occupation authorities and Russia have again claimed that Dzhemiliev is recruiting for Isis, and that all the blockade activists are ‘criminals’.   

In the meantime, the Russian Supreme Court took an indecently short amount of time on Nov 24 to reject appeals against the monstrous sentences passed on Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko. 

Their release has been demanded by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, etc., yet the upholding of 20-year and 10-year sentences for non-existent terrorism went largely unnoticed.  So too have the retaliatory measures against Gennady Afanasyev because of his retraction of testimony against Sentsov.  All three men have been recognized as political prisoners by the Memorial Human Rights Centre, targeted because of their opposition to annexation.  

Memorial has also declared Oleksandr Kostenko a political prisoner, and information is easily found about the surreal trial and imprisonment of a Ukrainian Maidan activist for an unprovable offence in Kyiv before Russia’s occupation. 

The same contempt for fundamental principles of jurisdiction and international law can be seen in the ongoing imprisonment of Chiygoz, Asanov and Degermendzhy, as well as armed searches, interrogations, etc. over a pre-annexation demonstration.  What is more, this case is overtly targeting Crimean Tatars. . 

There can certainly be differing views regarding the sense, morality, etc. of the blockade and now the blackout, but surely not about the totally reasonable demands made. 

If it was Ukraine’s government which failed for so long to react decisively, the international community also bears moral responsibility for basically confining themselves to stern words, with even these scarcely heard of late.  Mustafa Dzhemiliev and other leaders have put forward legitimate demands which can help entirely specific victims of Russia’s occupation of Crimea.  They deserve to be heard. 

More evidence that captured Russians were military intelligence officers

   left to right Yerofeyev, Aleksandrov (Photo: QHA)

The court hearing on Nov 23 in the trial of two Russians captured in May 2015 in eastern Ukraine demonstrated yet again what an uphill battle the men’s defence lawyers will have to convince anybody that their clients, Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Aleksandr Aleksandrov, were not active Russian military intelligence officers [GRU].  Efforts at previous hearings to claim that the men had been pressured or even tortured into presenting themselves as GRU officers fail to explain why they told this to everybody, including their compatriots during one to one conversations.

The court on Monday began with a video clip showing well-known talk show presenter Savik Shuster speaking with the men in their hospital wards.  Shuster does not explain whether the men were asked if they wished to speak with him, and the ethics of showing their interviews on television can be questioned.  They do not give the impression of speaking under duress, and say nothing that does not correspond with the video which Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] has demonstrated.  Both state that they were on duty in Ukraine in their capacity as Russian GRU spetsnaz officers. 

Shuster asks Aleksandrov if he is a terrorist.  The latter replies that he is just an intelligence officer, that he was simply obeying an order and he really wants to go home.  Yerofeyev was asked whether he would prefer an honest, open trial in Ukraine or to be exchanged as a prisoner of war and return home.  Unsurprisingly, he was emphatic that he wanted to go home. 

Yerofeyev’s lawyer Oksana Sokolovskaya demanded publicly that Shuster appear in court and explain on what grounds he had “interrogated” the men. 

Thus far, the evidence in court is based on the SBU tapes made two or three days after the men were captured, and while they were still in hospital.  The defence strongly opposed their inclusion in the file material, however there were interesting differences as to why.  During the first hearing, both men asserted that the tapes should not be considered as they had been under heavy medication.  Yerofeyev had, in the past, only ever said that he was put under pressure.  On Nov 19, however, he asserted that he had been tortured. 

Even if we assume that the men did not give their stories voluntarily to Shuster, they confirmed the same details on many other occasions. . 

The men were visited in hospital on May 20 by representatives of the OSCE Monitoring Mission who pointed out that they spoke to them “without the presence of Ukrainian authorities” and that both had said that they were Russian military servicemen on a reconnaissance mission. They were also seen by the International Red Cross who did not express any concern.

They also spoke with Sergei Krivenko, a well-known Russian human rights activist and member of the Human Rights Council under Russia’s President  In his report , he stated that Sergeant Aleksandrov and Captain Yerofeyev had denied Russia’s claim that they were no longer in military service.  He himself pointed out that the conditions were good, with both men having separate rooms, which were clean and bright.  Neither men made any complaints about the conditions and they categorically denied any form of torture or physical pressure on them since their arrest, as claimed by Russian television.  They asked for help in contacting their families as all phone numbers that they had were either blocked, or didn’t answer. Their main concern, Krivenko said, was that they were being prevented from contacting their families, and they were asking Krivenko and the Human Rights Council to help. 

All of this coincided with the report by Pavel Kanygin from the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta who first spoke to the men on May 22, who told him in detail about the reconnaissance work they were engaged in as Russian servicemen.  He visited them again at the end of the month. He explained that he had not planned to take any photos, but the men asked him to, explaining that it was only through such visits that they could make any contact with their families. 

It was interesting that during one of the hearings, which are taking place in the presence of the Russian consul Alexei Gruby, the prosecution’s decision to provide the men with protection was read out.  Such protection was needed, the decision stated, because their lives could be in danger from radical Ukrainians and from the Russian security service.  Both men had also made written applications for protection. 

The defence asserted that this was ‘inadmissible evidence’ and should not be included.  It did not provide any arguments, and presiding Judge Mykola Didyk responded that the court would decide whether evidence is inadmissible. 

After the previous hearing, Russian commentator Ilya Milshtein  pointed to the stark difference between two trials now underway, that in Russia of Nadiya Savchenko, former military pilot, now MP and declared Hero of Ukraine and the trial of the two Russian spetsnaz officers now on trial in Kyiv.  Although Russia is now illegally holding Savchenko prisoner, all democratic countries and international bodies have demanded her release, and Milshtein quite correctly predicts the joyous hero’s welcome she will receive back in Ukraine. 

It is unclear what awaits the two men now on trial in Kyiv, and the reason has nothing to do with Ukraine.  It became clear to everybody, and most painfully to the men themselves back in May this year that when in need, they could expect nothing from Russia.  Or not, at least, if they told the truth, in which case Russia’s Defence Ministry would deny them and cut them off from their homes and family.

After initial silence, Moscow admitted the men were Russian but claimed that they had left the military at the end of 2014, and were fighting for the Kremlin-backed militants of the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ on their own initiative. 

Ukraine asserts (and the men earlier repeatedly confirmed to Russian and European visitors) that they were Russian military intelligence [GRU] officers on service in Ukraine.  By September, Yerofeyev had begun denying his earlier statements and saying, as did the Russian Defence Ministry, that he had been a ‘people’s militia’ officer on contract to ‘LNR’.    In October it was learned that a new lawyer had been taken on by Aleksandrov’s family.  It was suggested then, and has since transpired, that represented by the new lawyer Yury Hrabovsky, Aleksandrov was also to assert that he had not been an active military intelligence officer, but ‘on contract to LNR’. 

They and their defence have demanded ‘prisoner of war’ status.  This has been turned down twice, with the court stating it found no grounds for such status.

Ukraine has charged the two men with waging aggressive war, terrorism and smuggling arms.  The indictment was read out in full at the first hearing.  There is a long introduction which cites, among other international agreements binding upon Russia, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.  In that document Russia promised to not encroach upon Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence, and to never use weapons against Ukraine, except in self-defence”  The Memorandum was first breached in February 2014 through Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, and largely ignored by its other signatories (the USA and UK), but has not been revoked and therefore remains in force.

The indictment describes in detail Russia’s direct military involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.  This is denied by Moscow, but has been confirmed by NATO, the USA, and outlined in numerous reports, such as the RUSI report Russian Forces in Ukraine by Igor Sutyagin. 

The prosecution asserts that Captain Yerofeyev as commander of an intelligence spetsnaz group from Tolyatti, in Russia, and Sergeant Aleksandrov, from that group carried out intelligence and sabotage activities and also helped LNR.  As part of a group of 220 Russian military servicemen, they allegedly trained in the Rostov oblast of Russia until March 26, 2015.  They then crossed illegally into Ukraine through a border crossing under militant control, equally unlawfully bringing weapons which had not passed through Ukrainian border control.

On May 16, near Shchastya in the Luhansk oblast, they are alleged to have carried out an attack on Ukrainian soldiers and SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] counter-intelligence officers. 

One Ukrainian soldier – Vadim Pugachev – was killed, and three others were injured.  Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov were also injured and taken into custody.

There are 6 volumes of material in the case, and the testimony of the surviving Ukrainian soldiers.  One of these – Andriy Olkovych-Novosadyuk –  told the Mediazona correspondent that he had taken part in detaining Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov.  He asserts that they immediately admitted to being military intelligence officers, who were retreating and leaving mines around the Ukrainian military.

While both Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Aleksandr Aleksandrov are now repeating Moscow’s line and Yerofeyev has even claimed he was tortured into saying he was an active GRU officer, it is difficult not to suspect that it is their current position which is the result of pressure brought to bear on them.

Although Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov have now both changed their story, and their defence are united in pushing for them to be declared POW and not subject to trial, Aleksandrov has asserted only that he gave testimony to the SBU under the influence of painkilling and similar drugs. 

Not one of the other independent visitors who heard the same story back in May and early June suggested that the men were not in a state to know what they were saying.  And what they said exposed Russia’s lies about its military engagement in Ukraine.  

Dzhemilev: Free Political Prisoners & Restore Rights if You Want Power Back

Russia must free Crimean political prisoners, if it wants electricity supplies from mainland Ukraine restored, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev has stated, listing other demands linked with rights violations since Russian invaded and occupied Crimea. 

Dzhemiliev and other Crimean Tatars have denied destroying the pylons, with both Lenur Islyamov who is at the scene and Dzhemiliev from Kyiv saying that it’s unclear whether they were blown up or ‘blown down’ by the wind.  Crimean Tatars and other participants in the civic blockade are, however, preventing repair work on the pylons which were initially damaged by explosions early on Nov 20, and then again late on Saturday night. 

The blackout highlights the degree to which Russia’s claims that Crimea was always Russian have ignored the brutal truth of how dependent on mainland Ukraine Crimea is.  This is probably the reason why there was relative silence from those normally vocal in such situations – from Russia’s Investigative Committee to the most loyal propaganda channels.  While the state-owned RIA Novosti tried to be upbeat about the blackout having not caught Crimeans unaware,  it is impossible to hide the enormity of the situation and a state of emergency has been declared throughout the peninsula.

While early reports appeared to push the idea that ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ had caused the blackout, a later claim from the de facto deputy prime minister Ruslan Balbek was that “Islamic radicals” were behind the developments, with these supposedly led by Mustafa Dzhemiliev.  The assertions are nothing new with Balbek having come out in October with the claim that Crimean Tatar leaders were « recruiting for the Islamic State ».  

This might seem a good line to push after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut and others, but the absurdity is not only in the allegations against the world-respected Mustafa Dzhemiliev.  The Islamic State and terrorists generally, are not known for issuing specifically human rights-linked demands. 

In his interview to, Mustafa Dzhemiliev explained that the conditions for concluding the next agreement on electricity supplies to Crimea were:

the release of Crimean political prisoners  (these include Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz; Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhy; Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Gennady Afanasyev, Oleksy Chirniy, Maidan activist Oleksandr Kostenko and others);

the formation of a commission to investigate the disappearances and murders since Russia invaded Crimea;

removal of the bans on entering their homeland imposed on Dzhemiliev, Refat Chubarov and others;

permission for international organizations to monitor the human rights situation and “to reinstate those democratic rights which existed in Crimea under Ukrainian rule.”.

These scarcely ‘radical’ demands must be met, Dzhemiliev says, or they cannot guarantee that the electricity lines will be reinstated.  He says that the activists will allow access to the power lines providing electricity to mainland Ukraine, but not to Crimea. 

In fact, of course, the confrontation on Saturday afternoon, Nov 21, between the blockade activists and National Guard soldiers and police showed that force can be used to overcome any blockade.  Thus far, Ukraine’s leaders are not doing this. 

Mustafa Dzhemiliev was highly critical of the heavy-handed methods used by Ilya Kiva, deputy head of the Kherson regional police.  Instead of explaining that work needed to be done to ground the pylons as an urgent safety precaution, his men had stormed the activists causing injury and outrage.

Asked if Ukraine can afford to impose an electricity blockade on Crimea, Dzhemiliev was emphatic.  “Of course Ukraine can.  Why can’t it if the country is at war?  It’s absurd: why should we provide the occupiers with all necessities?  You don’t behave like that in a civilized country. If the occupiers have seized our territory, then they need to be forced out of there and not provided with comfortable conditions.”

Mustafa Dzhemiliev said that Crimean Tatars had come to them from Crimea or phoned him thanking them for the development.  He also asserts that the 350 MW which he says Crimea can produce itself, against the needed 1000 MW is enough to provide energy to hospitals and schools. 

This, unfortunately, seems optimistic.  A state of emergency has been declared with schools, businesses, etc. closed on Monday.  There are reported to be massive queues for bread with people worried that deliveries will be stopped by the blackout.  The most worrying situation is obviously in hospitals.  The Crimean Human Rights Group reports that while some are using generators for emergency care and for operations, at least one hospital in Sudak does not have its own generator and is already facing constant disruption. 

Suggestions have been made that Ukraine’s leaders are effectively letting Crimean Tatar and other activists carry out a blockade that they support but don’t want to initiate.  This would not explain the heavy-handed measures used on Nov 21 in which one journalist and a number of activists were injured.  

It was after that confrontation and ensuing protests that Mustafa Dzhemiliev and Refat Chubarov held talks with President Petro Poroshenko and reached broad agreement on a trade embargo, with the Cabinet of Ministers to draw up a list of foods that can be allowed.  There is no agreed position yet on energy supplies.  Dzhemiliev says that Poroshenko understands the Crimean Tatars’ position and they can understand his, namely that there is an agreement on providing electricity which must be observed. 

Fine, Dzhemiliev says, but adds that a new agreement must be signed to come into force from Jan 1, 2016 and with respect to that agreement their conditions are clear.  Before that, he suggests, electricity may be partially restored, although he can’t say at the moment.  “A lot will depend on the behaviour of the occupiers, in the first instance with respect to our prisoners”. 

Moscow has received an unpleasant jolt and knock to its ‘Crimea is ours!’ narrative, but how it will react is hard to predict.  With almost total control over the media, and considerable support among Russians, despite the unpleasant consequences, for its forcible annexation of Crimea, it will simply find some way to deflect public attention.  It is also, of course, working on measures to bypass dependency on Ukraine, and, according to the latest Levada Centre survey enjoys massive (87% ) support for annexation.  52% people called the catchphrase ‘Krymnash’ [‘Crimea is ours’] “a symbol of triumph and pride that Crimea has returned to Russia”.

This sudden escalation of the blockade and the categorical demands put by representatives of Crimea’s main indigenous people should provide a useful, if belated, jolt to Ukraine’s leaders.  It has certainly made it clear that much more is needed than statements condemning political persecution of opponents of annexation and other violations, and Ukraine does have levers at its disposal.  

Dutch referendum puts Ukraine in spotlight

Screenshot from GeenStijl video promoting referendum

GeenStijl, the Dutch online group promoting a referendum on ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement seems to want to exploit this agreement to push its Eurosceptic agenda.  The author warns that “Ukraine’s aspirations, for which so many have died, could fall victim to Europe’s own identity crisis”

Ukraine’s Maidan revolution was sparked in late 2013 when then-president Viktor Yanukovych suddenly changed his mind about signing an EU association agreement, after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The EU flag was prominent during the months-long revolution, as Ukrainians demanded to be part of the democratic world.

The association agreement itself was far from a definite step towards actually joining the EU, but in reality a set of trade regulations. Its significance was generated by its main opponent, Putin himself, who made it clear that signing the agreement meant rejecting Russia. Nothing in the agreement suggested that Ukraine could no longer have political, commercial or cultural relations with Russia.

Yanukovych fled to Russia and Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, signed the association agreement in June 2014. Since then, most EU member countries have ratified the agreement without much controversy. But the Netherlands has not done so yet, and a provocative online group called GeenStijl has managed to collect 440, 000 signatures to organise a referendum about the association agreement. A minimum of 300, 000 signatures are needed in the Netherlands to compel the government to hold an advisory referendum on an issue, under a law that came into force on July 1, 2015. This will be the first such referendum in the country.

Eurosceptic agenda

GeenStijl apparently wants to exploit the association agreement with Ukraine to advance its Eurosceptic agenda. Ukraine’s aspirations, for which so many have died, could fall victim to Europe’s own identity crisis. In a YouTube video that GeenStijl posted during their campaign to collect signatures, the group said it wanted a referendum because the association agreement “is a good example of the EU’s appetite for expansion, which increasingly leads to far-reaching decisions being made, without democratically consulting the people of Europe.”

 “With its association agreement with Ukraine, the EU is really pushing its boundaries to the limit, ” the video’s narrator continues, then repeating Putin’s line that ultra-nationalists have seats in the Ukrainian parliament (as they do in most EU countries too, the narrator neglects to mention). “Eastern Ukraine was even engulfed in a civil war that closely involves Russia, ” the narrator says. Again, it is Putin who characterises his own invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea as a “civil war”.

The video acknowledges that EU association agreements can be symbolic, as in the case of the one with Jordan. But according to GeenStijl, in the case of Ukraine, as with Georgia and Moldova, the EU is “creeping towards the Russian border”. “Now the EU and NATO are trying to incorporate these countries, ” the narrator says. “In short, a geo-political hornets’ nest, but without much honey, ” he adds.


Banking bailouts

The narrator calls Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova “corrupted oligarchic societies with broken economies that will need banking bailouts, and therefore will turn into net receivers of taxpayers’ money as soon as the agreement comes into effect on January 1, 2016.”

Does the association agreement with Ukraine guarantee banking bailouts using EU taxpayers’ money? It doesn’t appear to. It is 2, 135 pages long. Most likely no one voting in the Dutch referendum will have read it – perhaps not even skimmed it. They will probably vote on April 6, 2016 based on the myriad issues raised during the campaign. GeenStijl claims that the “opinion of the Dutch majority is being ignored”, since a majority have said that they are opposed to Ukraine joining the EU – again muddying the waters.

Reactions from people on GeenStijl’s Facebook page offer insight as to why they gave their signatures in favour of a referendum. Some indeed fear that the EU would have to spend large sums of money supporting Ukraine, as it has done with Greece. Others are concerned that large numbers of Ukrainians will move to the Netherlands. And some think that signing an agreement with Ukraine is equivalent to an act of war against Russia. Dutch people have already been directly involved with the Ukraine war through the tragedy of flight MH17, which was shot down by a Russian Buk missile system, and this has created a negative perception of Ukraine as well as Russia.

To counter the propaganda used by GeenStijl the website and Facebook page Oekraïne-Referendum was set up in late October by Ukrainians and Dutch people whose goal is not to stop the referendum, but to objectively inform Dutch citizens about Ukraine, what the association agreement really means and its benefits for the EU and specifically the Netherlands. The Netherlands is the third biggest investor in Ukraine (800 million euros in 2015, according to the Dutch Foreign Ministry).

Zero information

 “The referendum itself, the first and natural reaction of myself as a native Ukrainian, would be negative, obviously, because it’s being used against Ukraine approaching the European Union step by step, ” says Mikhailo Khrystenko, an IT manager in the Netherlands who is involved with the campaign. “Then if you cool down and think about the referendum as a tool, as a democratic tool, I think it’s good. The problem is whether it’s being used in the right way, and that’s basically what we’re trying to not so much influence, but provide the right information to the people so that they go to the referendum and they vote for, that they at least know what they’re voting for, ” he adds.

The amount of information in the news in the Netherlands about Russia and Ukraine is “close to zero”, Khrystenko says. “After the revolution or during the revolution you saw some footage, you saw some TV programmes about that, but basically when the bloodshed stopped, or mainly stopped, so when it went down, also the media coverage went down, ” he continues. “So right now, and I think it’s basically caused by the referendum itself, you see a little bit of a spike of the information coverage in different programmes, but it’s not nearly enough. People are still thinking myths of the Cold War... Ukraine has had a bad history of being known for Chernobyl, for recently Crimea and revolutions, bloodshed, corruption, that’s all the facts, right. People are not having the total coverage, the total picture of what’s that all about, ” he says.

The migrant crisis is having a big effect on Dutch public opinion, according to Khrystenko. “People are scared, ” he says. “You see in every city here, in every village, even in my village here that’s close to the German border, we have lots of immigrants getting in, refugees. It means that they are going to be eating Dutch pie, eating European pie, that’s understood, and basically the right parties and populistic parties are using that a lot against, or in their campaigns, and this specific one against our campaign is definitely part of those right movements, ” Khrystenko explains.

Dutch people are not necessarily getting information directly from Russian propaganda channel RT, but the Russian message is definitely pervasive in the media, Khrystenko says. “Dutch media, I think, I think it’s media all over Europe, is basically consuming the information streams from Russian media official channels without really checking the facts, or just scratching the surface, not looking deeply enough to understand what the underlying reasons are, and that leads to some of the facts that they’re just taking over, ” he says.

Kremlin happy

 “We launched that website and we already see in the first two weeks, we see basically lots of feedback, we see what the feedback is and we’re trying to respond to that, ” Khrystenko says. “And we see that we’re not being perceived as an independent party, we realise it perfectly well, so we definitely need to get out either to the political parties, or to NGOs, maybe, or to other known faces who can speak on their own behalf, speak out their minds, but then we can work with them and provide them the facts as we see them. It’s up to them basically whether they want to support us or the other party, ” he adds.

News of the referendum has predictably been welcomed by pro-Kremlin media in Russia. Under the  headline “The Dutch vote against Ukraine, ” commented cynically: “Russia wasn’t against the political aspect of Ukrainian integration, but in terms of the economic aspect said that it would take retaliatory measures. And not for no reason. The fact is that now Ukraine, as a member of the CIS, has a preferential trade regime with Russia. After Ukraine joins the EU customs tariffs between them would be annulled, and a flood of goods could surge into Russia from the EU and the US.”

Even if the majority of voters in the referendum are against the agreement, it is unlikely that the Dutch government will not ratify it. The EU could also approve the association agreement even if the Netherlands does not ratify it. But as a platform for criticising Ukraine, and directly or indirectly putting forward Putin’s version of events, this referendum is ideal.

Republished with permission from

Against torture and ill-treatment

Kremlin-backed militants flaunt video with tortured disabled ‘saboteur’

The so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [‘LNR’] has released a video on which a man ‘confesses’ to having carried out sabotage and intelligence activities for Ukraine’s military. Despite being severely disabled, with both arms amputated, he has clearly been badly beaten and finds it difficult to even speak.  

Leonid Pasechnyk, who is referred to as the ‘LNR’ state security minister stated on Nov 25 that they had detained somebody they call a saboteur who had blown up the ground underneath railway lines near Lutuhyne  and an electricity pylon in Khrashchevate. 

He claims that as the result of their ‘investigative operation’, they have established that the person is 45-year-old Vladimir [Ukrainian: Volodymyr] Zhemchugov, a Ukrainian national, registered in Krasny Luch, though living in Georgia.  He is alleged to “have carried out several terrorist acts blowing up electricity lines and railway groundwork on the territory of the Republic”.  He supposedly caught the attention of Ukraine’s military and security service [SBU] during his trips to Georgia where his wife lives, and was ‘recruited’ in Kyiv in the Spring of 2015. 

The video which in more distressing form corresponds with Pasechnyk’s story was posted by the pro-militant News-Front.  Zhemchugov says that he had openly opposed the overthrow of power in the Luhansk oblast, and had been approached by a person who suggested he actively help the Ukrainian military.  He says that he had initially done this by providing information, but then, at a meeting in Kyiv, was invited to become part of a partisan resistance movement and carry out acts of sabotage.

He says that in Khrashchetvate he realized that one of the mines he had placed had not exploded and went back to set it up again.  It exploded and when he came to, he realized that it had blown off his hands, and – at least on the arm that is visible – the lower part of the arm. 

Pasechnyk says that Zhemchugov was also blinded, and claims that no force was used against him.  It is unclear from the video whether the man can see, but there are marks indicating beating, and he is obviously dazed and in physical distress.  This is two months after the alleged explosion during which time the militant claims that he has been receiving medical care. 

The actual story is blurred. reported back on Oct 1 that two Russian “volunteers” had tried to blow up the pylon, planning to pass it off as carried out by Ukrainians.  Zhemchugov’s date of birth corresponds, but in the earlier report he is called a Russian national.

Pasechnyk reports that “the Kyiv office of one of the international organizations is planning to impact upon the exchange of prisoners of war”.  He notes that there has been an open appeal from his wife, and officers to provide him with equipment and Ukrainian doctors to transport him to Kyiv. 

Then, ominously, he states that “work is continuing with Zhemchugov, investigative units of the ministry are working and he is in hospital under the care of doctors”.

The ‘work’ carried out can certainly be seen on the video. What is not totally clear is why the militants have resorted to this grotesque display of their methods now.  

Ukrainian MP Iryna Herashchenko reports that Zhemchugov’s wife phoned her very late and totally distraught, having just seen the video.  Heraschenko says that they have been trying to secure Zhemchugov’s release for 2 months now, and that the militants are not allowed the International Red Cross to see him. 

This is not the first time that Kremlin-backed militants have openly displayed tortured prisoners like ‘trophies’.  The most notorious occasion was on Ukraine’s Independence Day, Aug 24, 2014, where militants from the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ staged a shameful march through Donetsk of Ukrainian prisoners, and a similar display in January this year.  The video footage is generally widely broadcast by Russian pro-Kremlin channels.  Even where physical force has probably not been applied, as in the case of 30-year-old Maria Varfolomeyeva, a Luhansk journalist seized in Jan this year and still held prisoner, the militants and Russian Life News have videoed her being psychologically tormented

Volunteer Gaide Rizayeva was taken hostage twice by Kremlin-backed militants in Donbas.  “You expect to die every day and live in uncertainty, when the door of your cell opens and you don’t know how the day will end. Last year separatists killed people in front of us so that we would begin telling the truth. A lot of people were killed, many will not now be found”.  She spent 7 months altogether and says she wouldn’t wish that on anybody, but she would like at least one Ukrainian parliamentarian to experience a single day of such captivity. That would surely make them accelerate the exchange of all prisoners, civilian and military. 



Crimean Maidan activist tortured into denying he was tortured

Oleksandr Kostenko, Ukrainian Maidan activist and Russian-held political prisoner has been taken to a prison in the Kirov oblast, in Russia and will not be present at an important court hearing in Simferopol on Friday Nov 13.   The appeal against the refusal to investigate evidence of torture will almost certainly be rejected, but it is needed for the European Court of Human Rights where this case is undoubtedly headed.

Kostenko’s lawyer Dmitry Sotnikov explains that the Crimean military court is to hear his appeal against the rejection by military investigators of his application to investigate alleged injuries inflicted by a number of identified FSB [Russian Security Service] officers on Kostenko during his detention and first interrogation.  At that time the only ‘lawyer’ present was one appointed by the investigators, and a ‘confession’ was obtained from Kostenko, together with a statement that he had been beaten on the street by unidentified individuals.  Kostenko was supposed to have decided there and then, despite a broken arm and numerous injuries requiring medical treatment, to hurtle off to confess to the FSB investigators. 

Despite the fact that Kostenko retracted the initial ‘confession’, saying it had been tortured out of him, and the records clearly showing that he had been detained by FSB officers, without a broken arm, bruising, etc, Judge Mozhelyansky from the Kiyevsky District Court in Simferopol decided to take only the original ‘confession’ and first interrogation into account and found Kostenko guilty. 

Sotnikov writes that Kostenko’s relatives report that the investigators have put pressure on witnesses of Kostenko’s arrest on Feb 5.  One of the key witnesses, Kostenko’s father Fyodor Kostenko disappeared on March 3 this year after visiting Kyiv in connection with his son’s arrest.

The court has summoned four senior officials from the Russian Investigative Committee who Sotnikov stresses were obliged by law to carry out a proper investigation and initiate criminal proceedings. 

If the appeal is rejected, this will mean a new application to the European Court of Human Rights.  It is an application that must win, Sotnikov writes, and he is doubtless correct.  The rights to life, to freedom from torture, to a fair trial, etc. all include the right to a proper investigation of allegations that these rights have been violated. 

Kostenko was taken into custody on Feb 5, although a criminal investigation was only initiated on Feb 6,  He was convicted in May on surreal charges pertaining to an alleged and unprovable offence that Russian-occupied Crimea has no jurisdiction over.   

Kostenko, the prosecution claimed, and the court accepted, had slightly injured a Crimean Berkut officer on Feb 18, 2014 during the EuroMaidan protests in Kyiv.  This was deemed to fall under Article 115 § 2.b  of the Russian Criminal Code (deliberately causing mild damage to health for motives of political, ideological, racial, ethnic or religious hatred or enmity, or for the same motives in relation to a social group).

The investigators claimed that in Jan 2014 Kostenko joined the EuroMaidan protest in Kyiv “in order to show armed resistance to law enforcement officers”.  On Feb 18, so the investigators’ version goes, “out of a feeling of ideological hatred and enmity to law enforcement officers” he deliberately aimed a cobble stone at V.V. Poliyenko, an officer of the Crimean Berkut special force unit.  This supposedly resulted in Poliyenko receiving an injury “in the form of a large haematoma on the left shoulder”.

This could have only carried a sentence of community work since the prosecution had been unable to claim that the Berkut officer had been a Russian law enforcement officer at the time of the alleged deed, and a second charge was thrown in.  Kostenko was also accused under Article 222 § 1 (unlawfully obtaining, keeping or carrying the main parts of a firearm”).  The investigators claimed to have found a rifle barrel when searching his home.  Kostenko and his lawyer say that the rifle barrel was planted, and certainly none of the safeguards against evidence being planted were applied.

Sotnikov says that not one of the official witnesses of the search has confirmed that weapons were found in Kostenko’s flat.  The officers claim that Kostenko Senior immediately identified the gun barrel as belonging to his son, but there is no record of this, nor of Kostenko’s father having, as the investigators assert, given permission for the search (needed as there was no search warrant).   How the permission was obtained is not clear since the witnesses arrived after it had (allegedly) been given, and Fyodor Kostenko has vanished without trace.  

This prosecution is among the most chillingly lawless in Russian-occupied Crimea and Oleksandr Kostenko has been recognized as a political prisoner by the Memorial Human Rights Centre. 


Halya Coynash

The right to a fair trial

Ukraine to answer in Strasbourg for imprisonment of controversial blogger

Ivano-Frankivsk blogger Ruslan Kotsaba has been in detention now since February 2015, on charges as contentious as the journalist’s public pronouncements.  His lawyer says that she is preparing an application to the European Court of Human Rights and accuses the authorities of deliberately dragging out the court proceedings.

Kotsaba was arrested on Feb 7 and charged by Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] with State treason (Article 111 § 1 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code) and under Article 114-1 § 1.  The latter is over espionage, although in this case, he is accused of obstructing the lawful activities of the Armed Forces and other military formations. 

In March, Kotsaba’s lawyer Tetyana Montyan published the indictment and, aside from a video address to President Petro Poroshenko from Jan 17, 2015,   the charges appear to be based on his willingness to cooperate with Russian pro-Kremlin media and on his views.  State treason could carry a sentence of 12-15 years imprisonment.

On this video he publicly called on “all adequate people” to refuse mobilization, asserting that it had been  declared in breach of Ukraine’s legislation, since Ukraine has not declared martial law.  He asserted that he “would rather serve a sentence in prison than go to a civil war, to kill or help kill my compatriots who live in the East.  Even if they think differently or believe that the Kyiv government does not deserve their subordination.”

The prosecution alleges that Kotsaba provided false information to back his claim to likely conscripts that mobilization is unlawful and that there is unwarranted fratricide in civil war in Donbas.  The indictment asserts that the said video “received a significant number of hits in the Internet and was circulated among compatriots”.

In fact, the video had been watched by an extremely modest number of people until the SBU made its author so famous.  There was certainly no evidence that it had any impact on the level of mobilization, yet the prosecution is claiming that it falls under Article 14 as being ‘subversive activities obstructing the armed forces”. 

The indictment goes on to list occasions where Kotsaba gave interviews to Ukrainian and Russian television channels in which he spoke about his video and expressed the view that the events in eastern Ukraine constitute civil war.   There is only one occasion where a Russian channel offered Kotsaba money for his reports which he was to post himself on YouTube, giving unrestricted rights to use them.  

Montyan spoke with a Radio Svoboda correspondent after the latest court hearing on Nov 13.  She said that what is happening is not a trial, and that a person is simply being held in prison on the pretext that a large number of witnesses need to be questioned.  All of these witnesses, she alleges, say the same thing and nothing that they say concerns the essence of the charges laid against Kotsaba.

“We view this as deliberate dragging out of the trial, a violation of the norms of the European Convention on reasonable timeframes for court examination”. 

She adds that Kotsaba’s detention is constantly extended on the grounds that the articles he is charged under allow for no other restraint measure. The defence suggests that the very existence of such a norm in Ukraine’s Criminal Procedure Code is in breach of the European Convention.  The European Court of Human Rights has noted on many occasions that the severity of charges cannot be the sole grounds for detention.  Montyan says that Ukraine must be held answerable for the existence of such a norm and for the fact that Kotsaba has had his detention automatically extended for over nine months. 

Only three out of five witnesses had appeared at the hearing on Nov 13.  The previous hearing, more than a month earlier, on Oct 1, had been deferred because there was no convoy.  So far 33 witnesses out of 58 have been questioned, and the next hearing is scheduled for Nov 26. 

Very many of us are revolted by Kotsaba’s readiness to collaborate, whether for remuneration or for free, with Russia’s propaganda channels.  There is, however, no law prohibiting this.  Nor is it easy to understand how the prosecution will be able to prove that Kotsaba’s criticism of Ukraine’s mobilization constituted state treason, not expression of his opinion.  The Independent Media Union of Ukraine was swift to voice concern about the dangerous precedent that his detention creates. 

Despite all the questionable nature of Ruslan Kotsaba’s activities, criminal prosecution creates a precedent when any journalist or public activist will be accused of state treason for utterances which contradict the official position of the state authorities”.  

And held in detention for many months, not because Kotsaba’s guilt has been proven, but because of the severity of these highly worrying charges. 

On refugees

Bemused anger as Poroshenko vetoes vital law for people forced to flee their homes

   Photo: UNHCR I.Zimova

In yet another blow to the huge number of Ukrainians forced to flee their homes in Crimea and Donbas, President Petro Poroshenko has vetoed a law lobbied by groups working with displaced people [IDP], human rights NGOs and the office of the Council of Europe’s Secretary General.  The reason given is that the law makes it impossible to monitor whether displaced people are really living at the place where they’re registered. 

The law vetoed was passed by parliament on Nov 3.  It envisaged the following amendments to the earlier law on displaced people:

-        indefinite papers for IDP (replacing papers that needed to be extended every 6 months);

-        the need to get a stamp from the Migration Service on the back of the document was waived;

-        checks on where displaced people are living were abolished;

-        the bill abolished the need to inform the Migration Service of your actual place of residence and to sign in at the Migration Service every 6 months.

The amendments were drawn up to simplify a procedure which had created unnecessary hardship for people already displaced from their homes and facing enough problems. 

It took parliament around 9 months to finally pass a bill setting out procedure for registering IDP and regulating issues regarding employment and social payments.  A draft law had originally been adopted on June 19, 2014.  It was not, however, the one that had been discussed with civic groups, but a new document only tabled on the day of voting and basically failed to address any of the very real problems which confront people forced to leave their homes.  That bill was vetoed a month later by Poroshenko, however a new bill was adopted at the absolute final moment by the old parliament, and was then not signed into force by the President until Nov 20, 2014.   for a further month. 

On March 4, 2015, a Cabinet of Ministers resolution required people who have moved from areas under occupation to constantly confirm their actual place of residence.  Without the relevant stamp from the Migration Service, the IDP document, entitling them to social payments, material assistance, etc., becomes invalid.   This, human rights activists say, is reinstating the old system of propiska, or registration.  Outrage was expressed by human rights groups working with displaced people, many of whom saw the measure as a way of reducing the number of people entitled to government assistance.

While broadly welcoming adoption of the original bill, civic organizations stressed the need for amendments, and a draft law was drawn up by  a group of MPs in cooperation with human rights organizations.  Draft Law No. 2166 was passed as a basis on May 19, yet still took until the beginning of November to be adopted.

And the end of November to be vetoed, with the President having submitted proposed amendments on Nov 25.

According to civic activist Oleksandra Dvoretska, the bill now vetoed also deals with the issue of registration of children who have been moved from occupied territory without their parents.

A crucial amendment concerned the IDP papers which could now also be received by foreign nationals and stateless persons, with that document obtainable from the Department for Social Protection, and not needing a Migration Service stamp and twice-yearly extension.

The veto was unexpected.  Poroshenko points to the lack of regulation and a mechanism for checking prolonged absence of displaced people from their place of residence and information about their movements within Ukraine.

The proposed amendment envisages a mechanism for checking where IDP are and how long they have been away.

The MPs who drew up the bill have objected and call the President’s criticism unfounded.  Georgy Logvinsky promises, however, that the draft law will be reviewed in the near future, with the proposed amendments taken into consideration.  He believes the changes simplifying procedure can be retained.

At a press conference over the development, rights activists effectively called on the President to join the modern world, and understand that instead of forcing people to run around getting stamps and signatures, a single database needs to be developed. The activists are planning to post an electronic petition on the President’s website demonstrating the urgent need displaced people have for the amendments and calling on him to sign draft bill No. 2166. 

In August the number of displaced people in Ukraine was estimated at 1.4 million, the largest number in Europe since the end of World War II. 

Halya Coynash

Law enforcement agencies

Why Poroshenko’s Support for Shokin Is Dangerous

Protesters gathered outside of President Petro Poroshenko’s home in Kyiv October 31 to demand that he dismiss Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. Credit: Reanimation Package of Reforms

Reposted from the Atlantic Council

On October 31, protesters parked ninety-three cars outside the private residence of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to demand that he fire Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. Protesters held signs demanding change and a few held placards supporting the President. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the Euromaidan protests, but on a much smaller scale.

Elected on a promise to reform Ukraine and fight corruption, reformers now fear Poroshenko has gone off course.

The current imbroglio centers on Shokin, a Poroshenko ally and protector of the country's corrupt old guard. Ukrainian reformers, including prominent civil society organizations and more than 100 members of the Verkhovna Rada, have demanded that Poroshenko fire Shokin—a request Poroshenko has ignored. Here's why Poroshenko's ongoing support for Shokin is so dangerous.

On October 31, protesters parked ninety-three cars outside Poroshenko's private residence. Credit: Anti-Corruption Action Center.

In a recent Brussels meeting with the President of the European Commission, Poroshenko received a promise that in exchange for implementing graft-fighting measures, the European Union would eliminate visa requirements for Ukraine's 46 million citizens. In return, Ukraine would implement a series of anti-corruption reforms. At the top of the list is the nomination of a new independent prosecutor tasked with bringing down corrupt government officials. An eleven member selection panel—seven nominated by the Verkhovna Rada and four by Shokin—are to choose the best candidate for the post.

Shokin's nominees are closely associated with the old system. At the Prosecutor General's Office, Yury Hryshchenko managed Volodymyr Shapakin, the so-called "diamond prosecutor" who was arrested earlier this year in a sting operation for bribery with $400, 000 dollars of cash in his office and $100, 000 of diamonds in his home. First Deputy Prosecutor General Yury Sevruk has stymied reforms in the Prosecutor General's Office. Reformers believe that making anti-reform individuals like Hryshchenko and Sevruk directly responsible for selecting the most important anti-corruption figure makes the process a mockery.

But it gets even worse. After Jan Tombinski, the European Union's Ambassador to Ukraine,  criticized Shokin's appointments, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry sent a letter to the National Council on Reform urging Shokin to replace his appointees to the selection panel with qualified candidates.

Shokin doubled down, dismissing outside criticism and asserting his right to put whomever he wants on the panel. Shokin followed this up by allegedlythreatening to prosecute Ukraine's Foreign Ministry "for criminal acts intended at undermining the authority of state institutions" in a letter that Ukrainiska Pravda obtained and published. It seems Shokin prefers to use his prosecutorial discretion to threaten the very people seeking to free Ukraine from its endemic graft.

His behavior raises an obvious question: Why doesn't Poroshenko fire Shokin?

"Poroshenko came of age in a system where the Prosecutor General was used as a weapon against political opponents, and Poroshenko remains determined to maintain control over this critical lever of power, " said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv, in an interview on November 3.

Others have suggested that Poroshenko's majority in the Verkhovna Rada is not very stable, and investigating corruption in his own coalition could lead to the loss of his parliamentary majority.

Ukrainians stand to pay a high price for Poroshenko's focus on self-preservation. According to Kaleniuk, Poroshenko's support for Shokin not only jeopardizes visa-free access to the EU, but risks costing Ukraine $4.4 billion in desperately needed financial assistance—$1.2 billion from the EU and $3.2 billion from the International Monetary Fund.

Ukraine's civil society reformers are right to demand the Prosecutor General's ouster—and Poroshenko's decision to protect Shokin is inexcusable. If Poroshenko continues down this path, he will surely receive more visits from the determined activists of the Euromaidan.

Josh Cohen, a former USAID project officer who managed economic reform projects throughout the former Soviet Union, is a business development professional. He also contributes to foreign policy-focused media outlets and tweets at @jkc_in_dc.

Penal institutions

Yevhen Zakharov: The Prosecutor’s office is not carrying out its oversight duties in penitentiary institutions

The third anniversary is approaching of the entry into force of the new version of the Criminal Procedure Code [CPC]. However some experts say that officials working on crimes have still not adapted to the demands of the document, and there remain numerous infringements of the rights of parties to the proceedings in their actions. Is this the case?  Why, when assessing the effectiveness of the CPC, should we not use cases of unlawful force by members of the law enforcement bodies?  What categories “were forgotten” by those who drew up the Code and how are those people to defend their rights. Why are human rights groups unable to provide high-quality help to prisoners?

-   Mr Zakharov, do you know what place Ukraine holds among European countries with respect to the number of rights violations?

-   It depends how you measure this. If from the point of view of the number of applications to the European Court of Human Rights, which you probably meant, then one of the first.  However this figure is not a reliable indicator since such applications include those that are inadmissible, that do not reflect real violations, etc. It would clearly be more sensible on this issue to go by the number of judgements passed, or by applications deemed admissible.

However those applications concern violations which took place several years ago, not today. Furthermore, a considerable percentage of the applications pertain to non-implementation of rulings from national courts in accordance with Article 6 § 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.  This undoubtedly creates a negative image of the country since the international community is shown that tens and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens are unable to defend their rights.

This problem is systemic. It has not been solved for years since it arose due to the failings of legislative practice.  However this is only one segment which does not characterise the entire picture. Thus a definitive indicator cannot be linked to ECHR practice. 

In my opinion a lot more attention should be given at the present time to violations of human rights which are taking place in connection with the military conflict in the east of the country.

-    Yet problems with human rights occurred before the conflict began.  Specialists traditionally viewed them within the framework of criminal process which by its nature imposes certain limits on people who for one reason or another are drawn into its orbit.

-    Infringements within the framework of criminal proceedings are also one many components of the overall problem. For example, infringements of human rights caused by the adoption of this or that decision by officials in the administrative sphere are no less numerous, and perhaps more, than in the criminal sphere. Yet, in speaking about infringements which a person can face when interacting with the law enforcement bodies, we understand this to refer to encroachments on fundamental inalienable human rights and the consequences can be irreversible.

-   Did the human rights situation in Ukraine improve with the adoption of the 2012 version of the Criminal Procedure Code?

-    As a result of the new CPC, according to which a person’s detention is possible, as a rule, only with the permission of an investigative judge, the number of detentions fell significantly, and the number of cases of unlawful force by employees of the law enforcement bodies when detaining people accordingly dropped.

Furthermore, since the CPC clearly stipulates the grounds for the use of detention as restraint measure – suspicion of committing serious or particularly serious crimes, as well as crimes committed by repeat offenders, the number of such detainees has fallen significantly. For example, before the Code came into force there were around 40 thousand people held in detention, now there are no more  than 16, 500. 

-    What about other problems? For example, one specialist told our publication about a recent study carried out by the International Renaissance Foundation in 5 Ukrainian regions. It found that when being detained people were not having their right to remain silent explained, that there was delay in calling a lawyer, and that the person could not be provided with a translator or with medical care. Why does this happen when the said details are clearly prescribed in legislation?

-   Such infringements do indeed take place. And when they say that the number of them has fallen, it should be noted that the reason for this, I repeat, is the decrease in the number of detentions. In other things the situation is practically unchanged.

-   Specific professional associations are endeavouring to resolve the above-mentioned problems. For example, the attorney society adopted a Declaration on Human Rights in Criminal Proceedings. Have you read this document and how much can it be an effective tool in defending human rights?

-   This document can scarcely be deemed effective since it does not have any legal force. These calls from the attorney community are not backed by any obligations. That means that neither the court nor other parties to the proceedings mentioned in the document have to listen to it.

-   What about the system of free legal aid?  Has realization of the fact that each person drawn into criminal proceedings can expect to have a lawyer changed police psychology?

-   Ukrainian human rights organizations, together with the Kharkiv Institute for Social Research, studied this question in 5 regions of Ukraine not affected by the military conflict. Unfortunately, it is presently impossible to carry out such monitoring either in Crimea or in the south-east of the country although in my opinion it is precisely there that one sees the greatest number of human rights violations.

However the results received from peaceful areas showed that the presence of a free lawyer is the second most important factor (after the reduction in the number of detentions) for the fall in the number of cases of the use of unlawful force by police officers. For example, at the end of the project we found that the number of such violations, as compared with 2011, when the last analogous study had been carried out, had halved. The number of people who have suffered torture had also halved, from 120 thousand to 57 thousand.  The figure is however excessively high. 

-    Incidentally, what is the algorithm in general for how a person whose rights have been violated in places of confinement should act?  Who can they turn to if their legal representative does not, for one reason or another, carry out their functions properly?

-   When a convicted prisoner ends up in places of confinement, he can forget any hopes for legal aid. Most lawyers consider their work to be finished when a sentence comes into effect. At best the lawyer might write a cassation appeal.

If the high court hands down a ruling against the prisoner, it is considered that he no longer needs legal aid.  However this is not entirely the case.

At present, unfortunately, the system of free legal aid does not cover people who are imprisoned. Those convicted prisoners who have money can, via their relatives or friends, turn to lawyers who, for a fee, will defend their rights in places of confinement.  However, bearing in mind the nature of the criminal process, one can say that the majority of prisoners are from poorer groups in society and do not have the possibility of paying for a lawyer.

Of course, such people can approach human rights organizations, and in fact do. However such organizations should not be viewed as a panacea. After all, the most that human rights workers can do in such a situation is to call on the management of the penitentiary institution or the prosecutor’s office.  Which, in fact, the prisoners themselves can do.

Most regrettably, such appeals have virtually no effect and penitentiary staff are pretty passive in reacting. The prosecutor’s office carries out its function of overseeing adherence to the law in penitentiary institutions very badly. People held in such places can testify to this, and so can human rights workers.

We can thus state that people in places of imprisonment are not provided with legal aid, and this is one of the most serious problems of the penitentiary service.

-    How can you prove a rights violation. How effective can a person’s efforts to uphold his or her rights be?

-   I think the situation could be significantly improved if the system of free legal aid covered convicted prisoners also. They need to be given the chance to have a free lawyer to defend their rights and legitimate interests in places of confinement.

We also need to work on the transparency of penitentiary institutions.  The first steps for this have already been taken with the adoption of amendments to the Penal Code in April of last year.  According to those, deputies, their assistants, journalists and doctors are now able to visit penitentiary institutions. At their own initiative, a group which can contain a deputy or assistance, no more than 2 journalists and no more than 3 doctors can visit a prisoner. This is largely done where there has been an allegation of a rights violation which needs to be checked immediately.

Using such innovations, our organization has taken part in many such visits. Unfortunately, it is physically impossible for one or several human rights groups to cover all penitentiary institutions in Ukraine and visit all people requiring legal aid. There should be far more mobile monitoring communities.

— What about other categories of people whose rights have been violated but not within the framework of criminal proceedings.? For example, we know that in children’s homes, school-orphanages, psychiatric institutions for the elderly, centres for illegal migrations, and other people deprived of the possibility of taking decisions for themselves as to where they live?  Is anybody dealing with this issue? Is the appropriate monitoring being carried out?

-   Unfortunately it has to be said that these groups are just as unprotected as convicted prisoners.  Because of the circumstances of living in such institutions, they do not have any possibility of seeking a free (or paid) specialist providing legal services where their rights or legitimate interests are violated. The situation would change radically is these categories also had access to free legal aid.

Maximum openness of the systems used in such institutions needs to be provided. At present a huge number of obstructions are put in the way of civic organizations carrying out monitoring in this sphere when they try to obtain access to people needing defence.  Given the small number and limited opportunities of such organizations, the majority of obstructions are not overcome.

-    What about people whose indefensible position never before aroused doubts? Who would have thought that judges or law enforcement officials would be faced with mass dismissals? The European Court of Human Rights has pointed to the unlawfulness of such a position, as well as the Venice Commission. What is your opinion on this subject?

-   Human rights organizations have repeatedly said that one cannot pass laws that run counter to the Constitution and violate the principle of rule of law. How can one deal with a situation where a judge appeals against his dismissal to the High Administrative Court and that decides in favour of the application, and then the Supreme Court, reviewing the case, adopts the opposite verdict? This lack of clarity will undoubtedly be grounds for an application to the European Court of Human Rights, and the consequences of the case will be far more serious than the case of Volkov vs. Ukraine.  There could be many such cases.

As a human rights activist and citizen I cannot accept the idea of mass dismissal of judges, of whom there are at present around 9 thousand. Whom will replace them? Who will consider the millions of cases when one lot of judges relinquish their powers, and the other has not yet assumed them? How will the continuity of court examinations be ensured?  The initiators of this idea have no answers to such questions, and the suggestion therefore seems extremely dubious.

I totally agree that there are judges who need to be dismissed. Those who passed wrongful rulings, examined ‘commissioned’ cases; infringed their judges’ oath, etc. However those facts need to be proven according to legally established procedure. The same applies to decisions regarding their dismissal, otherwise the consequences of implementing such ideas will be very negative.

The interview was given to the journal Law and Business, with the interviewer Kateryna Belyaeva



News from the CIS countries

Ludmila Alekseeva calls the accusations against Memorial Human Rights Centre madness

Diana Evdokimova interviews Liudmila Alekseeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Novye Izvestiya

The General Secretary of the Council of Europe, Mr Tjorborn Jagland has called on the Russian authorities to protect the Memorial Human Rights Centre, it was reported on Wednesday. Earlier, Memorial had received by post an official notification of the outcome of a regular inspection by the Russian Ministry of Justice which accused the NGO of undermining the foundations of the Russian constitutional order, inciting the overthrow of the existing government, and replacing the political regime in the country. After this, Russian human rights activists signed a statement in support of Memorial. One of those who signed the declaration was Liudmila Alekseeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. In an interview with Novye Izvestiya she expressed her opinion that the Ministry of Justice should justify such serious accusations and talked about the plans of the human rights community to support Memorial Human Rights Centre.

Diana Evdokimova: What do you think of the conclusions to which the Ministry of Justice came after its scheduled inspection of Memorial Human Rights Centre?

Ludmila Alekseeva: The accusations are unprecedented. This really is some kind of madness. The Ministry of Justice, which ad infinitum contravenes the law with regards to human rights activists and other NGOs, suddenly comes up with the accusation that the Memorial Human Rights Centre is violating the constitutional order. How could they in principle allow such accusations to be made? In essence, they are claiming that Memorial has committed a really serious criminal offence. Is that what they want to do, bring criminal charges against human rights activists?

How possible is it that they are indeed planning to bring criminal charges against the staff of the Memorial Human Rights Centre? 

I don’t know what the Ministry of Justice is trying to do. But if that happens, then it will be possible to talk about the renaissance of Stalinist times, of repressions.

Along with a number of other human rights activists, you have signed a statement in support of Memorial Human Rights Centre. Aren’t the human rights activists afraid that similar inspections will now be launched against them?

No, if you’re afraid of wolves, don’t go into the forest. If the Ministry of Justice really does consider Memorial guilty of such crimes, then we are guilty as well. We are all doing one and the same thing. We are defending human rights. If this is a violation of the foundations of the constitution, then, along with Memorial, we are violating them. But we just don’t know what is going on in the crazy minds of the officials. We shall defend ourselves in accordance with the law. We are not going to abandon our comrades just because the Ministry of Justice has attacked them.

What else are the human rights activists planning to do to help Memorial Human Rights Centre?

The day after tomorrow we’ll hold a meeting of the Council of Human Rights Defenders on this issue. All its members will be there: me, Lev Ponomarev (executive director of For Human Rights), Valery Borshchev (co-chair of the Association of Independent Observers), Sergei Kovalev (chair of Memorial Society) and others. Apart from this we really want Aleksandr Cherkasov (chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre) to be there. He should attend this discussion so that we do not do anything that Memorial does not want to be done. On the whole we intend to undertake the most decisive actions that we are capable of.

Will you be making any particular suggestions yourself?

I will be suggesting that we take the Ministry of Justice to court, to demand they give the basis for such accusations, and that they apologize. For the moment, we haven’t worked out a general strategy.

Won’t this provoke yet another increase in pressure on NGOs? 

It’s highly likely that there will be repressions, but we are ready for such a turn of events. In any case, the human rights activists will resist them. I know one thing – there is a civil society in our country. NGOs are the backbone of this civil society, especially the human rights activists. Once we have come into existence, it is impossible to annihilate us by force. The Soviet government tried it. The Moscow Helsinki Group, of which I have the honour of being chair, was founded in 1976. They also told us that we were violating the foundations of the Constitution. Members of the Helsinki Group received heavy sentences and did time in the camps. 

Nevertheless on 12th May next year the Moscow Helsinki Group will be marking its 40th anniversary. And where is that Soviet system which fought against us? It will be just the same with this Ministry of Justice which is accusing Memorial Human Rights Centre of violating the constitution. While I don’t know where they will be – but I do know that we shall survive! Because we are civil society. Human rights activists survived the Soviet period, and now they have turned into a great force. There is no region where there is not at least one NGO. What’s there to be afraid of? They are the ones used to sleeping on soft beds, and eating well. We live in a different way, we are not afraid of any persecutions.

What will Russia lose if the Memorial Human Rights Centre ceases to exist?

Well, it won’t cease to exist. What can they do? Take away our registration? Well, so what? The Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976 did not have any registration. We registered in 1992 when we were already known all around the world. What else can they do? They can’t ban us from working. Others will take our place. Their actions are just pointless.

What sort of role does this NGO play in our country? 

You have to remember that Memorial Human Rights Centre is an absolutely invaluable organisation. It concentrates its efforts on regions where there are conflicts, of which, alas, there are so many in our country. It is a huge, difficult and dangerous work. Thanks to the fact that Memorial works in such hot spots, other human rights organisations have the chance to work in all the remaining regions of Russia. After all, human rights violations happen everywhere. 

Memorial does the work that Russia’s post-Soviet authorities should, but do not, do. I’m talking about the preservation of the memory of the real, tragic history of the Soviet period, about the millions of people who were shot to death and suffered in the camps, those who died as a result of the repressions and injustice. Many organizations are engaged in this work, but Memorial here plays a key role. 

It is enough to remember their outstanding projects. On the initiative of Memorial, the Solovetsky Stone was established on the Lubyanka as a monument to the victims of political repression. Just recently, on 30th October, there was the day of remembrance for these people. But on 29th October Memorial held a commemorative reading of the names of those who were executed. And every year there is a queue of those who want to take part in this event. Memorial publishes wonderful books. In a word, this is a splendid organisation. For me it is obvious that Russia should be proud that an organization like this exists on its territory.


Translated by Frances Robson

“Prava Ludiny” (human rights) monthly bulletin, 2015, #11