war crimes in Ukraine

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The Major thinks that a person’s soul is in his heels

Olha Kushneryk
A depressingly familiar story of police methods for beating out confessions, with a better outcome, in the form of a prison sentence against one of the perpetrators - although still for "excess of authority" not "torture"

He beat them with his stick as hard as he could. “O God!”” “Stop!”  His brother’s agonized screams were like an electric shock through Oleksandr’s whole being. “Call a lawyer!” “Let us out!”, he called. However nobody wanted to hear him. So then he sharpened the metal clasp from his jacket along the concrete floor and slit his wrists. This was in the police station.

And outside the Orange Revolution was sweeping the country.

If not for the Revolution, the culprits would have remained unpunished and would have continued their “noble” evil. The orange colour then awoke in us the craving for justice, disobedience, resistance to arbitrary rule, to having our own human essence violated.  And who knows whether with a different mood in society the victim of police torture would have dared complain and demand punishment for his police torturers. However, that is just my assumption, and maybe in other circumstances as well the victims of this savagery would have sought to bring those responsible to answer. But then the question is whether they would have succeeded. And the reason is not just that, as they say, “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” – the prosecutor’s office, the judges are not overly harsh with the “escapades” of the operational officers who work in the front line of the fight against crime. It would appear that society as a whole is not prepared to ask tough questions. Doesn’t all of society, after all, scream that criminals should be “strung up”, so that they don’t threaten their life, health, education, property? And if, in order to efficiently uncover crimes, the police resort on occasion to unlawful methods of detective inquiry or investigation of the case, so be it.  The aim justifies the means. And therefore the confines of police stations remain dangerous places for those who are detained. Incidentally, this is mentioned by the many studies of world organizations regarding the state of democracy in Ukraine.

After all, the attitude to those detained, under suspicion, accused or convicted is a barometer of how civilized our society is. Yet another confirmation is given by the not isolated claims lodged by Ukrainian citizens with the European Court of Human Rights alleging violation of Article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, with regard to the use of inhuman or humiliating behaviour.

But let us return to the highly publicized events which this article began on. During one night in November 2004, in a bar in the Druzhba estate in Ternopil, there was a visit from some criminals. 600 UH were stolen, and some other things. The owner of the place made the corresponding report to the police. A criminal investigation was initiated over the theft. The investigators assumed that the theft might have been the work of two brothers who had previously worked in the bar. Supposedly the bar owner made this suggestion. However a little later the owner categorically denied having any suspicions against the brothers and mentioned this to the law enforcement officers. Be that as it may, on an early November evening, a car with three Ternopil police officers set off for a village in the Kozivsk district where the brothers were living. (These two young people are from Ternopil, but they sold their flat in order to buy two one-room flats, and were temporarily living with the elder brother’s parents in law). Those in the car were the acting head of the second police station of the Ternopil City Department of Internal Affairs, Hryhory Povoroznyk, senior investigation officer for the unit on fighting crimes related to property and car theft of the criminal investigation department of the Ternopil City Police Station of the Department of the MIA for the region, Roman Vartsaba, and another investigator (since he is a witness in the criminal case, not one of the accused, we will not disclose his name and position).

The unexpected visitors walked into the house and told 19-year-old Vitaly  (the younger brother) to get ready, that he was going with them to Ternopil, for a talk. The lad obeyed them. Along the way they saw his brother Oleksandr, in a part of the Druzhba estate where the dramatic event had taken place.

As Vitaly a little later testified, they wanted him to confess to some thefts – from the bar, and from flats. The young lad refused since he’d had nothing to do with the crimes. Then Hryhory Povoroznyk walked into the office, and the first thing he did was to give Vitaly a cuff around the neck. A “greeting” like that didn’t augur well for what was to follow. Hearing that the detained lad was not confessing, Povoroznyk told his subordinate to get out his baton (A rubber baton – special device PR-73 which police patrol officers have on them).  The second officer (his identity has not been established) took a wooden stick from the shelf. “Do you know where a person’s soul is? In his heels!”, the Major said in a threatening tone. A barrage of blows to the lad using both baton and stick followed.

.  The young man fell from his stool and creasing up, tried to endure the pain.  There were about ten to fifteen blows. However the poor lad had still not registered what the Major’s threatening remark about the soul and heels meant. The real torment was still to come. Povoroznyk said that he was going out for half an hour for a meal.  And if Vitaly “couldn’t remember” anything by the time he returned, that the lad would wish he’d never been born.

Vitaly waited … Roman Vartsaba  sat at his desk in the office and continued to insist that he write something. Because, he said, the first time around, the boss had still been nice. The lad, already beaten, kept repeating that he hadn’t done anything. Povoroznyk returned around seven in the evening.  You could smell the alcohol on him. Having found out that Vitaly hadn’t written anything, he told him to get on the stool. The young man refused. Then Roman Vartsaba, having punched him twice in the stomach, together with the police office who had already armed himself with a stick, forced Vitaly to kneel on the stool – so that it would be more convenient to beat him on his heels – “to beat out the soul”.

Povoroznyk himself used the rubber baton. The young man screamed desperately.

His agonized groans could be heard by his brother who was being held in the temporary holding cell. He asked the officer on duty to call a lawyer, to stop his brother being beaten.  Oleksandr hurtled around the cell like a trapped animal.  There was no way he could help his brother who was going through inhuman pain.  In despair he sharpened the clasp from his jacket and cut his wrists. He hoped that they would call an ambulance. That this would divert attention away from Vitaly and that they’d stop beating him.

His arm was covered in blood. Yet the duty officer didn’t even give him a bandage, but handed him the laces from his trainers (they’d been taken off the shoes before he was put in the cell), so that Oleksandr could bind his wrist with them. I’m writing these lines and wondering what words could express the cynicism and indifference of that person who simply handed him shoelaces… And I can find no such words. Perhaps that duty officer in everyday life, in a crowd would not stand out. A normal guy. Or was it Povoroznyk, beating those detained on the heels, who beat the soul out of his subordinates?

Vitaly couldn’t stand the torture and wrote the so-called confession. That supposedly at one time, while in the home of somebody he knew, he’d stolen 130 dollars from the cupboard. That satisfied his tormenters and they took him to a cell.  Meanwhile Oleksandr had been released. Maybe his bloodied wrist helped get him out. The young man went to Hospital No. 3 to get his arm seen to.

And Vitaly, after the beating, endured the pain in his feet. He told his cellmates what they’d done to him. It’s worth noting that only one of the four men detained who spent that night in the cell later gave evidence about that conversation. And that is with him being referred to in the proceedings under a different name, in accordance with the Law of Ukraine “On ensuring the safety of people who take part in criminal proceedings”.  The others said only that Vitaly had groaned and that seemingly his feet hurt.

The next day Vitaly was released. He signed a statement to the effect that he had no complaints against the police offices. And what else was he to do -  express his criticism and once again end up in the hands of the brutal Major?

The victim somehow managed to drag himself to the service station where his brother worked. The staff there will confirm that the young man’s back was “blue”, that he was walking on tiptoes, and that he couldn’t stand on his heels. The next day Vitaly made a statement to the prosecutor’s office. He was examined by forensic medical experts. The conclusion was: light bodily injuries caused, probably, by a rubber baton and stick.

Criminal proceedings were initiated against Hryhory Povoroznyk and Roman Vartsaba.  They denied any wrongdoing, and claimed that they hadn’t beaten the young man. Incidentally, what were the grounds on which they detained him anyway?  The Code of Criminal Procedure clearly stipulates what the conditions are under which a person may be detained. Such conditions are, for example, when the person is apprehended at the place of the crime, when he or she attempts to run away, when witnesses say that it was specifically that person who committed the crime.

.The list is exhaustive and law enforcement officers do not have the right to go beyond what is permitted. However in practice bans are easily avoided, using so-called administrative arrests. Thus, the grounds for detaining Vitaly were that supposedly he had been guilty of some act of petty hooliganism on a street in Ternopil.   The grounds were fabricated since Vitaly was taken into custody not off the street, but from a house in the village.

Exceeding ones authority, that is, the deliberate acts by a public official which clearly go beyond the rights and powers granted him, which caused considerable harm to the legally protected rights and interests of a citizen, and that was accompanied by violent acts which were painful and humiliating to the victim. This is what the Article says under which Hryhory Povoroznyk and Roman Vartsaba were tried. The latter was found guilty also of official fraud. Four years deprivation of liberty with a ban on holding any office connected with law enforcement work for three years – that was the sentence meted down to Povoroznyk. Vartsaba was sentenced to three years deprivation of liberty however the sentence was suspended with a probation period of two years. He was also banned from holding any office connected with law enforcement work for two years. .The victim’s civil suit was allowed, and the convicted men were each ordered to pay him compensation of two and a half thousand UH.

Last Wednesday the appeal court reviewed the case. The appeal had been brought by Povoroznyk who considered the verdict of the Ternopil City District Court unfair. His lawyer tried to convince the judges that his client’s guilt had not been proven, and that it was all based only on Vitaly’s evidence. The prosecutor, Halyna Burlaka, gave grounds for refuting this, saying that the man’s guilt was proven by the weight of evidence. Positive character references from his work were cited as extenuating circumstances - Hryhory Povoroznyk  has solved many crimes, including cases of murder, he has two small children, one being seriously ill. The family lives in a hostel. However these circumstances had already been taken into account when the first instance court passed sentence. Therefore the panel of judges decided to uphold the verdict.  So that was the finale.

Can one assert that Vitaly’s dramatic experience was just an unfortunate exception to the rule?  One would like that to be the case… However another, no less dramatic incident comes to mind. In September 2004 in the village of Omikivtsi in the Ternopil region a taxi driver was murdered. The brother of the dead man was taken into custody on suspicion of having committed the crime.  What did the officers do to that detained person if he was prepared to slander himself – he wrote a  “confession” stating that he had murdered his brother. In spring of this year the real murderer of the taxi driver was convicted of the crime.

“Svoboda” [“Liberty”]

21. 06. 2006

“Prava Ludyny” commentary: For the first time (at least in my memory) the newspaper of the Ternopil Regional State Administration is writing about incidents of torture in the police force.  The author - Olha Kushneryk is herself a lawyer and journalist, specializing in legal issues. She is aware of a lot of incidents involving unlawful violence however the case described in this article of the police officers Povoroznyk  and Vartsaba is one of the few which reached the court and ended in the above-mentioned verdict.  It is true, yet again under the Article about “exceeding ones authority”, and not “torture”. And, as we see from the text, the second investigation officer got off with a suspended sentence.

Oleksandr Stepanenko

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