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Bad Start to Crucial Odessa May 2 Trials

Halya Coynash 
48 deaths as well as the active attempts by the Russian propaganda machine to present the events as a ‘massacre’ have placed the investigation and all resulting prosecutions in the limelight. The first results could have been much better

The first trials have begun over the disturbances and fire on May 2 in Odessa in which 48 people died and over 200 were injured.  The number of deaths as well as the active attempts by the Russian propaganda machine to present the events as a ‘massacre’ have placed the investigation and all resulting prosecutions in the limelight.  The first results are not good.

Foreseeable chaos

Hearings into the first criminal trial began on Nov 27 in the Prymorsky District Court with the first problems of a practical nature.   The modestly-sized courtroom was unsuited for a high-profile case involving 21 defendants (11 of whom are in custody, the others under house arrest); their legal representatives, victims and the latter’s representatives; convoy officers; the prosecution and panel of judges. 

Sergei Dibrov from the publication , writes that everybody had just about squeezed in when it became clear that the defendants could not be brought in to the area behind bars for those on trial.  The court therefore asked those present, in the first instance, journalists to leave in order to bring the defendants in.

That wasted 50 minutes, then it transpired that there no microphones in the room meaning that it was hard to pick up even the people’s names.

The comedy with moving people in order to get defendants in and out was repeated because the judges went into the consulting chamber to consider an application by one of the defendants, a Russian national, for the withdrawal of the panel of judges.

Dibrov points out that yet again it was the journalists who were removed, and stresses that according to the Criminal Procedure Code journalists have the right in first instance, together with the families of the accused and victims to be present at court hearings. “Therefore the obvious dissatisfaction among several members of the panel of judges at the presence of journalists arouses, at very least, surprise.

Given the fact that the defendants are charged with organizing mass-scale disturbances, and the number of deaths, it was obvious that a large number of people would wish to attend.  A larger hall clearly needed to be provided. 

Later, the hearing scheduled for Dec 3 did not take place with the case being passed to the Odessa Regional Court of Appeal to have its jurisdiction changed.  Dumskaya quotes judge Anatoly Derus for the information and says that the case will be considered by a different court.  A lawyer representing one of the defendants explained that the court had turned to the higher instance court because it is under pressure from various sides which could result in a miscarriage of justice. 

The defendants

It is probably unfortunate that one side – the pro-federalist [anti-Maidan] activists – is being tried first, especially with the case against one pro-Ukrainian unity activist not even completed, and no sign of any prosecutions over events at the Trade Union building on Kulikovo Pole where the fire took place.

20 pro-federalist activists from Narodnaya Druzhyna; Odesskaya Druzhyna and Pravoslavnoye Kazachestvo are on trial. 

Three men are accused of having organized the attack mid-afternoon on a peaceful pro-Ukrainian unity demonstration in the centre of Odessa. Sergei Dolzhenkov is in custody, however the other two – Artem Davydenko and Vitaly Budko [‘Botsman’] are on the run – in Russia, the Crimea or in the area under Kremlin-backed militant control in Donbas.

The investigators believe that those individuals, having received funding from former members of the authorities, planned mass disturbances in order to destabilize the situation in Odessa and the oblast, seize administrative and other buildings, including the armoury of the Interior Ministry university where a large number of Kalashnikov rifles are held.

They are accused of having led a group of around 500 pro-federalist or ‘anti-Maidan’ individuals geared up for fighting who attacked the march by the pro-Ukrainian activists and football fans.

The case of one pro-Ukrainian activist – Sergei Khodiyak – has been separated from those, and the investigation is not yet complete.

There is also a separate case over the events on Kulkovo Pole and fire at the Trade Union building which claimed the lives of 42 pro-federalism activists.

The SBU [Security Service] and Prosecutor General’s Office are also carrying out investigations with the latter’s in particular looking at the role that police officers played in the tragedy.

Sergei Khodiyak

The investigators accuse Khodiyak of shooting at pro-federalist opponents on Grecheskaya Square [Greek Square] using a hunting rifle and of injuring at least six people – police officers, pro-federalists and journalists. One person later died of his injuries.

The pro-Ukrainian unity activist was placed under house arrest on May 20., however, reported seeing him on Nov 18 watching a court hearing and tackled the police over this.  The police responded by saying that house arrest cannot be extended beyond 6 months, hence all restrictions against Khodiyak have been lifted.

This may be the case but it cannot fail to raise eyebrows given that 10 of the defendants are in custody and the charges against Khodiyak are serious.

Countering the ‘massacre’ narrative

The claims that ‘radical nationalists’ deliberately trapped people inside the Trade Union building and set it alight have been made since the day of the events, especially by Kremlin-loyal media, and show no sign of abating.  The events that led up to the tragedy on Kulikovo Pole are either ignored, or blamed on the pro-Ukrainian activists and football fans.

The facts are against them. 

Video footage and independent reports, including from the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, confirm that it was the pro-federalist activists who attacked a peaceful march.  Most of those shot dead were pro-Ukrainian activists.

There is strong evidence that the claims that activists fled for their lives into the Trade Union building are largely inaccurate.  Many of the activists were already in the Trade Union building where barricades had been erected well in advance.  There were also activists shooting at pro-Ukrainian activists from the roof and from one of the floors.

Those outside had no idea that there were so many people (up to 400) in the building. 

A number of those below began frantically trying to rescue people as soon as it became clear that the building was on fire and the main exit blocked.

There is no evidence for the most outrageous claims (including that people who escaped were then beaten to death).  There were a few highly inadequate reactions from individuals but they were not the norm, and were confined to rough treatment of people who had escaped themselves. 

The Russian propaganda machine has a vested interest in pushing the ‘massacre’ line but it will keep running up against the facts.  The victims of the fire died because the fire brigade which is just around the corner took 40 minutes to arrive.  There are also multiple questions over the behaviour of some police officers. 

See:  Manufacturing international outrage over an Odessa Massacre that never was

A more comprehensive account, with evidence from video footage, etc. can be found in the following texts:

Odessa "Massacre" Propaganda vs. the Facts

Dangerous silence over police role in Odessa May 2 events


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