‘Did I Drag You by the Tongue?’
Transitions Online: A presidential order, hasty arrests, retracted confessions, and disregarded alibis mar a murder trial in Ukraine.
On the flimsiest of evidence, three young men in Ukraine are facing long prison terms for a terrible crime, caught in a chain of events set off by ill-considered remarks from the president.
Two sacristans of the Svyatopokrovsk Orthodox Church in the southeastern city of Zaporizhya and the brother of one are accused of organizing a bombing in the church in July 2010 that killed an elderly nun and caused considerable damage. They face terms of 14 and 15 years in prison.
The only evidence against any of the defendants is seven confessions, which they retracted in court as obtained through physical and psychological pressure.
The first confession was obtained the day after a television broadcast in which President Viktor Yanukovych demanded of the heads of all law enforcement bodies that the culprits be arrested within the week.
Anton Kharytonov, together with his mother, was taken to the police station the morning after the television broadcast. This was purportedly to look at a photo, but the two were separated immediately and Anton taken away. The formal document registering his detention was drawn up 13 hours later. In the interim, Anton asserts that he was repeatedly threatened, kicked, and forced to perform humiliating acts in front of the officers who photographed him on their mobile phones. Video of a subsequent interrogation shows the pockets cut out of his trousers. He says the officers threatened to cut off his genitals. Although the police in court could give no credible reason for the holes, Anton’s allegations were never investigated. He also says he was constantly told that if he didn’t confess, his mother would be arrested and his 75-year-old grandmother “left to rot” in a nursing home.
His first formal interrogation and confession came just before midnight. Following is an excerpt from that session. Given Anton’s retraction of all his confessions and his charges that they were extracted through threats, blackmail, and severe pressure, it is worth noting the somewhat strange break in the interrogation and the words spoken by the investigator that preceded it.
Investigator: I just want to remind you once again that a sincere confession and remorse will somehow soften your guilt, that’s the first thing, and secondly, there’ll be a completely different attitude to you already during the investigation if you talk with me and tell me everything openly?
Anton repeated that he hadn’t blown up the church and didn’t know who had. In a couple of minutes, the investigator said, “I think you do know. Let’s take a break for a moment, I’ll go and take a tablet.”
Anton: Can I go with you?
The video recorder was switched off, and the interrogator left the room for about 35 minutes. Anton asserts that during this time, the same police officers who dealt with him during the 13 hours of his unregistered detention came into the room and renewed their threats against him and his family if he didn’t “talk.”
Meanwhile, Anton says, the lawyer called in by investigators did nothing. Before the interrogation resumed, he attempted to persuade Anton to confess, saying they’d sort it out in court.
The investigator returned, and Anton almost immediately began to tell her – hesitantly and not very clearly – about a 16-year-old acquaintance who had supposedly told him of his plan to set off fireworks in the church.
Toward the end of the interrogation, the investigator asks: “Has your testimony been given voluntarily?” One of three psychologists who analyzed the interrogation noted here that “during a long pause he looks around, ” presumably to his unhelpful lawyer.
Anton: Well, I don’t know, probably voluntarily.
Investigator: What does probably mean, you told me now, what, did I drag you by the tongue?
Anton: No, you didn’t drag me by the tongue, so voluntary.
With regard to this interrogation and all the other videotaped investigative activities, the same forensic psychologist notes:
“There is a complete lack of free narrative stage; … interaction between Anton and the person running the investigative activity is in the form of question – answer. The answers of the accused are in the main short, often containing the semantic unit from the interrogator’s question. There are also often expressions like ‘probably, ’ ‘seemingly, ’ ‘maybe, ’ ‘I think, ’ which the investigator on several occasions told him off for.
“During the interrogations and reconstruction of the situation and circumstances of the event, Anton was being led [by the interrogator], this demonstrating a lack of independence when giving testimony.”
Anton would make three more confessions over 10 days.
Two of the forensic psychologists who analyzed this transcript and others came from two accredited institutes (Donetsk and Luhansk). They found in all cases that the three men had been placed under serious psychological pressure. The analyses point out that none of the young men gave evidence independently without the investigator asking leading questions or prompting. In response, Judge Volodymyr Minasov simply called for a third assessment, which found no psychological pressure but detected an “inclination to criminality.”
The judge rejected applications from the defense to call all three forensic psychologists in order to ascertain the reason for such divergent assessments.
Without any apparent grounds, Anton’s brother, Serhiy Dyomin, was detained on the evening of the same day as Anton. He alleges that as well as subjecting him to physical torture, the officers threatened to arrest his mother. Serhiy made two confessions. During a night interrogation he confessed to making the bomb and can even be seen hesitantly demonstrating how he supposedly did this. After explosives experts assessed his confession and concluded he lacked the knowledge to have made the bomb, he provided a second confession, saying that he had bought the device “from an unidentified individual.”
Yevhen Fedorchenko, like Anton a sacristan of the church, was arrested last and made one confession, which he also retracted in court.
The retracted confessions are not the only flaws in the case. Others include:
- Virtually nonexistent legal representation, as the lawyers called in by investigators did nothing more than urge the young men to confess. Three of those four lawyers later faced disciplinary proceedings, two of whom had their licenses suspended for six months.
- Lack of any credible motive and failure to investigate other seemingly strong leads.
- No evidence that a full examination was ever carried out into consistent allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
- Changes made to the indictment almost two years into the case removing any reference to the time when certain actions were allegedly carried out since the three defendants had alibis for part of the time.
Unlike other recent cases in Ukraine, this one involves no politicians or celebrities, but it has become widely known domestically. It is generally assumed that all three young men are innocent but that no Ukrainian court will acquit them because of the role played by the president. That fact alone makes the significance of the case inestimable.