war crimes in Ukraine

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Immunity has a Human Face

26.06.2011    source:
Halya Coynash
The case of Yakov Strogan whose arrest following his public allegations of torture by police officers is of enormous significance because of the lesson it is clearly trying to give others, and the very dangerous conclusions which will be drawn by certain police officers if justice does not prevail


When, in the film “Matilda”, Danny DeVito bellows to his daughter to be quiet because: “I’m big, you’re small, I’m smart, you’re dumb”, we smile. We are already aware of Matilda’s extraordinary abilities, and the rules of the genre dictate that baddies get their comeuppance.

Beyond the film cameras it’s not so easy, particularly when control is determined by entirely different levers. When those in authority can, for example, beat “confessions” out of detainees or quite simply extort money using threats and torture. When they know that the victims won’t dare complain and that they can rely on the Prosecutor, other police departments, and, unfortunately, the courts.

Scandal cannot always be avoided.  There was general outrage over the senseless death of young student Ihor Indylo in a Kyiv police station. The young man died in the early hours of 18 May 2010, on what should have been his twentieth birthday.  He had had a few drinks with a friend who couldn’t be there on his birthday and then got into a row with a police officer living in his student hostel.  No crime was committed, but the officer asked him to go to the police station and he went.  What happened later only became known thanks to one television channel, but the outcry forced the authorities to react. 

The current official version is that Ihor Indylo, a healthy young man, died “through the professional negligence” of two officers who didn’t respond when he himself fell from a bunk in a police cell. Incidentally the court in December 2010 upheld the decision not to remand the two officers in custody and demanded only a signed undertaking not to leave the city.  By comparison, in that same month the former Minister of Internal Affairs, Yury Lutsenko, one of the Tax Code protesters, Serhiy Kostakov, and Yakov Strogan who had for four months been trying to get a criminal investigation launched against his alleged police torturers, were all remanded in custody and remain there now.

Around International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June human rights organizations traditionally endeavour to bring the issue of police torture into the limelight. The authorities in turn try to ignore the issue, or embellish it with yet more noble intentions and fine-sounding words.

There will be a great deal to talk about this year since the divide between empty phrases and adequate response is rapidly placing Ukraine’s development as a democratic country in jeopardy.

More and more concern is being expressed, not only in Ukraine, over the use of the law enforcement agencies in obstructing or even crushing peaceful assembly. Over the last year there has been a sharp rise in the number of deaths of people in police custody. One normally needs time to study likely reasons with premature conclusions better avoided. Yet what if the reasons fairly hit one in the eye?

Ukrainian governments have long demonstrated quite unwarranted optimism regarding the willingness of European and international bodies to be content with documents, preferably draft versions, rather than action. One such example is the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT). Ukraine ratified this back on 21 July 2006.  Ratifying is easy, but a national preventive mechanism against torture needed to be developed within a year and that has still not been done.

Blind faith in the persuasive power of empty promises and assurances is misplaced.  Nobody believes in them anymore and they have good grounds. Such grounds are and will be the subject of numerous reports, recommendations, etc.  All of this is undoubtedly important in order to understand the scale of the problem and measures needed.

Yet what is needed so that people don’t give up, don’t decide that they shouldn’t ask for trouble when they can’t achieve anything anyway?

Impunity has a human face and we must not forget individual victims.  Maximum publicity is vital for Yakov Strogan, although not only because an innocent man with a wife and baby son is facing imprisonment for a non-existent crime.  The case is also of enormous significance because of the lesson it is clearly trying to give others, and the very dangerous conclusions which will be drawn by certain police officers if justice does not prevail.

After all, from August to December 2010 Yakov Strogan effectively said:  “You’re big, I’m small, but you have no right to subject me to torture”. What is more, he said it many times and very publicly.

On 18 August after a scuffle between Strogan and his neighbour where the latter tripped and fell on glass from a broken bottle, police officers turned up at Strogan’s flat.  He was first taken to a police station where they tried to get him to sign a confession. He consistently refused, and they decided to continue their methods of persuasion in a forest.  He was subjected to torture, losing consciousness a few times, but still refused to confess to a crime he hadn’t committed. He was then held for four days while the officers tried to extort 10 thousand dollars out of his wife.  They only released him when it became clear that his wife would not find the money.

Yakov Strogan decided not to remain silent. There was no need to search for him since he himself several times went to the Prosecutor, trying to get a criminal investigation initiated.  Should there be any doubt, we are talking about an investigation into his allegations of having been subjected to torture by officers from the Kievsky District Police Station in Kharkiv. Most crucially:  during those months the enforcement bodies were not looking for him. Up till December he appeared publicly, repeating his allegations.  This included on 1 December at parliamentary hearings in Kyiv. A week after the hearings, Strogan was arrested.  He was charged with attempted murder … over the scuffle in August.  There was now a “witness” and a new forensic medical assessment. No explanation, admittedly, has been forthcoming, as to why all of this took place only in December..

The judge saw no reason to bother her head with such details. Nor was she concerned about the fact that he had been detained by officers from this same police station, or the clear signs of torture on his body when he was brought to court after a night in police custody.

The hearings into this case are presently underway. The court recently rejected the Kharkiv Human Rights Group’s application to release Strogan under their guarantee, and he remains in custody. At a recent hearing, the court rejected an application to hear a new witness for the defence who had seen the broken glass with blood on it.  The woman didn’t have a document confirming her place of work, but it would have taken her an hour to go and collect it. The court simply refused to hear her testimony. 

Her statement is vital since, along with a new “witness”, a knife has appeared: with blood, but without Strogan’s fingerprints.

The court has, admittedly, been unable to close its eyes to serious doubts raised by the forensic medical assessment of the new-old victim of the alleged attempted murder. It partially allowed the application from Strogan’s lawyer and for the next hearing, on 30 June, the forensic expert has been called, and various documents are to be provided.  After this the court will decide whether to call for a new forensic assessment to be undertaken outside Kharkiv.

In short, the number of questions forced by this case is huge. If they are not asked and if answers are not insisted on, then we can assume that there will be no more questions.   If Yakov Strogan is left to his torturers, then it will be totally redundant to ask who would dare complain of police lawlessness. 

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