war crimes in Ukraine

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EuroMaidan activist sentenced to 4 years on surreal charges

Halya Coynash
The trial in Russian-occupied Crimea of Oleksandr Kostenko is one of unprecedented cynicism and of critical importance, sending a message to any Crimean, or Ukrainian national who appears in Crimea that they can face trumped-up charges over which courts in Crimea can have no jurisdiction, yet still find themselves behind bars.

A court in Russian-occupied Crimea has found Oleksandr Kostenko guilty of committing an offence in Kyiv in February 2014.  Despite lack of any jurisdiction, as well as entirely unprovable charges, the judge in Simferopol followed the prosecutor’s demand and sentenced the Maidan activist to 4 years and 2 months imprisonment.

Kostenko’s lawyer, Dmitry Sotnikov will be appealing the ruling, and promises to apply to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.  The Court in Strasbourg will doubtless also be interested in the circumstances behind Kostenko’s detention and the evidence of torture which the Crimean authorities have effectively refused to investigate.  Even on the eve of the final court hearing on May 15, Sotnikov says, Kostenko was deprived of food for three days and beaten.  Due to his client’s weak condition, Sotnikov had asked for the court hearing to be deferred but this, like all other applications in this case was rejected.

Kostenko was mainly charged with having slightly injured a Crimean Berkut officer on Feb 18, 2014 during the EuroMaidan protests in Kyiv.  The previous court hearing on May 8 highlighted the absurd nature of the prosecution’s case.  A video clip produced by Anatoly Shariy, a blogger of very specific fame, had been added to the case at the prosecutor’s insistence.  In it Shariy claims to have a recording of a conversation between Kostenko and a former MP from the far-right VO Svoboda party, during which Kostenko is alleged to have told the other person that “one Berkut officer has already broken”, and they “need another half hour working on “a second officer.  In the background, you can hear groans and the apparent sounds of blows.

The material was not only of questionable authenticity but of no relevance to the charges against Kostenko, yet the defence’s demand that Shariy be summoned for questioning was rejected. 

This video may have been the reason for another claim by the investigators – that Kostenko held a leading post in the “Ukrainian radical nationalist political party ‘Svoboda’.  This claim was in any case rejected by ‘Svoboda’ who say that Kostenko was not even a member.

Another supposed witness for the prosecution was allowed total anonymity with the man, known only as Stas, interviewed via Skype.

The charges against Kostenko were not serious enough, even according to Russian legislation, to warrant Kostenko’s detention yet he has been in custody now since Feb 5, 2015.  The detention was almost certainly aimed at extracting the necessary ‘confessions’ and testimony through physical and psychological pressure.  There were also attempts to remove the defence lawyer who has bluntly called the prosecution politically motivated and pointed to quite staggering irregularities such as the failure to keep any protocol of the first court hearing on April 21.

Oleksandr Kostenko was arrested in Simferopol on Feb 5.  This date is confirmed by his friends, yet the criminal proceedings against him were only initiated a day later.  The suspicion seems warranted that having detained a Maidan activist, they then came up with criminal charges.

He was charged with an alleged offence almost exactly a year earlier, 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 also threw in Article 222 § 1 (unlawfully obtaining, keeping or carrying the main parts of a firearm”) and claim that they found a rifle barrel when searching his home.  Sotnikov points to irregularities here as well, with none of the safeguards against evidence being planted having been applied.

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”.

Even could an alleged act by one Ukrainian national against another in Kyiv be tried under Russian law in Crimea, it would still be impossible to prove that the supposed offence actually took place, and that a specific cobble stone hit a particular Berkut officer.  Not to mention the fact that Stanislav Krasnov, Kostenko’s former colleague whom he was with in Kyiv, rejects the charge and says that Kostenko was not on Hrushevsky St, but inside a building helping the injured. 

Kostenko’s initial allegations of torture were backed by numerous bruises over his entire body, a broken arm and fingers, yet have never been adequately investigated.  Later allegations have also been ignored. Kostenko says that he was tortured to extract testimony against his friends and other people whom he was on Maidan with. 

Poklonskaya has claimed that there are 49 ‘victims’, with all of these presumably from the Crimean Berkut unit sent by the Viktor Yanukovych regime to try to crush the EuroMaidan protests.  She recently warned that room in Crimean SIZO or remand prisons can be found for all Ukrainian “nationalists and radicals”.

This trial is one of unprecedented cynicism and of critical importance.  It sends a message to any Crimean, or Ukrainian national who appears in Crimea that they can face trumped-up charges over which courts in Crimea can have no jurisdiction, yet still find themselves behind bars. 

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