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Movement at last on Odesa 2 May investigation

Halya Coynash
A year after the tragic riots and fire in Odesa on May 2, 2014, a top police official is facing charges and civic investigators have upheld their right to information which is of clear public importance. A draft bill has also been tabled which could waive charges for people accused only of participation in riots, increasing the chances of finding the organizers and initiators

A year after the tragic riots and deadly fire in Odesa on May 2, 2014, a top police official is facing charges and civic investigators have upheld their right to information which is of clear public importance.  A draft bill has also been tabled which could waive charges for people accused only of participation in riots, increasing the chances of finding the real organizers.

The initial disturbances in which 6 people died were provoked by one side of the conflict but involved use of firearms by both pro-federalism (pro-Russian) and pro-Ukrainian unity activists. Those disturbances got out of control and then led to the events on Kulikovo Pole including the fire in the Trade Union building which killed 42 pro-Russian activists.  Despite clear evidence that incendiary devices were thrown by both sides, and that the cause of so many deaths was the fatal delay by the emergency services, Russian propaganda continues to push the claim that this was a deliberate ‘massacre’. 

The need for a full and transparent investigation into all events was self-evident and it is frustrating that up till recently the Ukrainian authorities did so little, with it being largely thanks to the civic initiative May 2 Group that so much is known about the events of May 2.

Arrest of the ex-head of Odesa regional police

Petro Lutsyuk was head of the regional police on the fateful day.  He was placed under house arrest on May 13, 2015, and is facing charges of professional negligence under Article 367 of the Criminal Code. 

Following Russia’s invasion of Crimea and obvious role in eastern Ukraine, Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] and Interior Ministry anticipated disturbances and provocation in eastern and southern oblasts, with Odesa seen as a very likely target.  There were particular warnings in advance of a football match scheduled on May 2 between the Odesa Chernomorets team and Kharkiv’s Metalist, and the pro-Ukrainian unity march and meeting planned immediately prior to the game.

There was plenty of information in the social media about plans by pro-Russian / pro-federalism activists to obstruct the march.

There was thus no shortage of warnings of what was to be expected, and an Action Plan codenamed Khvylya [Wave] had been prepared.  This document, stamped ‘secret’, envisaged the deployment of police reserves and internal forces conscripts, emergency service units, and medical establishments should mass riots occur.

At around 4 p.m. on May 2 Lutsyuk gave a verbal order for the Plan to be implemented and signed the document confirming this order.  That document needed to be registered, however, and was not, with the Action Plan consequently never carried out.  Lutsyuk is now charged with negligence over the failure to ensure implementation of the Plan and protect public order and safety.

It was clear back in August last year that this Action Plan would have averted most, if not all, deaths.  Members of the May 2 Group suggested then that somebody might have intervened at this point and prevented the order from being registered and enforced. 

It should be stressed that despite concerns regarding the behaviour of certain police officers, the Group says that they have found no evidence of a total police conspiracy.  In the one prosecution up till now, on Dec 13, 2014, two police officers were found guilty of having sold pro-federalism activists 200 bullets for a Makarov pistol and three bulletproof vests.  Such police behaviour was doubtless reprehensible, however not necessarily related to the events of May 2 at all.  Not one person died or was injured that day from a weapon of that calibre.

Even on the eve of the first anniversary of the events in Odesa, the focus appeared to be solely on the role of Dmytro Fuchedzhy who in May 2014 was deputy head of the Odesa Regional Police (directly under Lutsyuk).  He has been on the international wanted list since May 2014 and is believed to be in hiding in Transnistria, the Moscow-backed breakaway region between Ukraine and Moldova.  The version presented to the public in April 2015 was that there had been a deliberate plan to get pro-federalism and pro-unity activists killing each other and thus provoke an explosive situation in the region, with the direct organizers now outside the country and unable to be questioned or prosecuted.

That version was slammed by Vladislav Serdyuk from the May 2 Group who called it “attractive and convenient, but improbable”.  He suggested then that Fuchedzhy’s role had been exaggerated.

For over a year questions publicly asked by the May 2 Group on this subject were ignored.  The arrest of Petro Lutsyuk has hopefully shifted the focus enabling the questions to finally be answered. 

There is certainly now incentive.  Some of the relatives of people who died, as well as people injured on May 2, 2014, have just received victim status in the new criminal case against Lutsyuk.  According to May 2 Group member Svitlana Podpala, the relatives of all those killed, and all injured may gain this status if they formally apply for it.  She points out that this status gives the right to read any material in the case, and demand not only expert assessments, but also compensation for material loss. 

The May 2 Group has long demanded that the top police leaders answer the public’s questions regarding the events on May 2, with a key question clearly being why the Action Plan which would almost certainly have prevented the deaths was never enforced. 

It remains to be seen whether the arrest of Petro Lutsyuk proves a real move forward, however as the person who signed the relevant order and watched it not being implemented, his testimony must be of crucial importance.

Draft bill to remove ‘chance defendants’

A draft law (No. 2885) just tabled in parliament proposes waiving any criminal charges merely over participation in mass riots on May 2.  The bill, if passed, will terminate the ongoing detention and prosecution of pro-federalism activists on charges which could be equally brought against hundreds of other people that day.  It will also enable real progress in the investigation since at present people are loath to come forward with evidence, knowing that they themselves could end up tried for ‘participation’  (more details here).   

Public’s right to know

The Odesa District Administrative Court has finally allowed a law suit from members of the May 2 Group and ordered that forensic assessments regarding the cause of death of victims during the riots be made available.

According to one of the 2 journalists who lodged the suit, Serhiy Dibrov, this is a vital precedent.  He explains that there had never, prior to May 2, 2014, been such high-profile and major events where the public need to know so obviously outweighed the interests of the investigators who have tried to keep the information secret.  As reported here, there had been a tortuous argument as to which court had jurisdiction over the decision with this delaying even further access to the material.  It is likely that the court’s ruling will be appealed, however the claimants are convinced that it will be upheld.

More than a year after the terrible events of May 2, 2014, the hope must be that the investigation will begin making real progress.  It’s certainly about time.


A film outlining the vital work carried out by the May 2 Group can be viewed here in English

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