war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Sentsov-Kolchenko trial, Crimea and what Russia has to hide

Halya Coynash
As the trial begins of Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko on absurd ‘terrorism’ charges, journalist Maria Tomak probes one of the ‘offices’ in Crimea which figure in the charges and finds not only a place of torture and imprisonment, but also a military base with people who later played a prominent role in the war in Donbas.

As the trial begins of Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko on absurd ‘terrorism’ charges, journalist Maria Tomak probes one of the ‘offices’ in Crimea which figure in the charges and finds not only a place of torture and imprisonment, but also a military base with people who later played a prominent role in the war in Donbas. 

The first hearing on the actual charges against renowned film director Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko is due to take place on July 21.  At the preliminary hearing on July 9, Judge Sergei Mikhayuk extended the two Crimeans’ detention until Dec 16 and rejected two applications from the defence, including permission to video the trial.  Russia certainly has a lot to hide in this case, and even with the hearings from July 21 open, the undertaking forced upon the lawyers to not divulge any details will still extend to any information deemed a ‘state secret’.  Since this would always be the case, it remains to be seen how broadly the term ‘state secret’ is applied in this case.  Certainly charges of ‘terrorism’ have been used extremely loosely in the prosecution of four Ukrainian opponents of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 

Both Sentsov and Kolchenko reject all charges of terrorism.  Kolchenko fully admits to hurling a Molotov cocktail at a building housing pro-Russian organizations, but denies, quite correctly, that this was terrorism.  Importantly, Kolchenko also rejects the claims made by the other two men arrested which constitute the sole ‘evidence’ that the ‘case’ against Sentsov is based on.  Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksy Chirniy were also arrested in May 2014 and held without access to lawyers or contact with their families for some time.  While Sentsov and Kolchenko have both insisted that they were tortured during that period and threatened if they didn’t ‘confess’, the other two men did provide ‘confessions’ and later chose to cooperate with the prosecution, for which they received 7 year sentences against the 17-20 years which Sentsov and Kolchenko face.  See also: Trial begins of Sentsov and Kolchenko as OSCE demands their release

Despite the grandiose claims made by Russia’s FSB in announcing the charges against the 4 men on May 30, 2014, the only incidents in the case are two arson attacks on pro-Russian offices on April 14, and 18.  Kolchenko’s lawyer Svetlana Sidorchkina is as adamant as her client that the attack he admits to can, at most, be classified as hooliganism. 

In legal terms this is doubtless correct, but there are some important things to understand about the specific targets chosen, with direct relevance both to the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. 

In her article “The Story of one ‘Russian Unity’ Office”, Maria Tomak writes that the building at 11 Karl Libknekht St in Simferopol contained one of the footholds for Russia’s military aggression in Crimea.

Tomak spoke with Mykhailo Vdovchenko, one of the many pro-Ukrainian activists who in the spring of 2014 tried, through peaceful means, to prevent Russia’s annexation of Crimea and also helped Ukrainian military servicemen who were basically under siege on the peninsula.  Like others he suffered at the hands of the so-called ‘self-defence’ armed paramilitaries who helped Russian soldiers establish control in Crimea, and others helping them.  He was abducted on March 9 by a group who called themselves the ‘Rostov guys’ and who, from the way they spoke, were clearly not locals.  They took him to the office of ‘Russian Unity’ – the building which Kolchenko is supposed to have taken part in the attack on.

From the account given by Vdovchenko, the author writes, it is clear that this office was used as a transit point for abducted pro-Ukrainian activists. “Here the first beatings took place and interrogations on the way to the basements. That, at least, was what it was like with Mykhailo, " Tomak writes.

Judging by the treatment he received, hostages taken there were subjected to both physical and mental torture.  Indirect confirmation of this is seen in the fact that there was a doctor on the premises who saw to Vdovchenko’s injuries after he was beaten. Tomak notes that even in the basements of the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’, where people are also tortured, it is common to have a medically trained person present.

The so-called ‘office’, Vdovchenko reports, was teeming with armed men, including people who gave off the impression of being solders and who had serious weapons on them.  He was held there for a few days and saw lots of people coming and going, most of whom, he says, were military men with weapons – machine guns and pistols.  Two military guys in blue camouflage gear without insignia appeared, obviously with authority, and gave specific instructions.

Most importantly, Vdovchenko saw at least three figures who later became known for their active role in the Donbas conflict:  Igor Girkin [Strelkov] believed to be or to have recently been a Russian military intelligence officer; ‘Bes’ or Igor Bezler, accused of involvement in the horrific murder of Horlivka Deputy Volodymyr Rybak, and of particular brutality to hostages, and another militant commander Samvel

The ‘office’ was thus essentially a military base, a command point for ‘Crimean coordinators’; an illegal prison and place of torture.  And the first phase in externally organized aggression directly linking Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

None of these details have any direct bearing on the spurious charges of terrorism against Kolchenko and Sentsov.  They do, however, indicate just how much Russia has to hide.   

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