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.

Forced to hunger strike in search of justice for their sons

Halya Coynash

    Photo: Centre for Human Rights Information (an earlier demonstration)

Oleksandr Rafalsky has spent 15 years in Ukrainian prisons and faces dying there unless Ukraine finally acknowledges that a grave miscarriage of justice has been committed. In desperation, his mother Tamara Rafalska, together with the relatives of other life prisoners, are planning a hunger strike vigil outside parliament.  They are asking only that MPs finally consider draft bill №2033а which would give Rafalsky and other life prisoners whose sentences were based on testimony extracted through torture or similar the chance of judicial review.  Reluctance to pass the bill may well be due to pressure from the Prosecutor General’s Office which knows that acknowledgement of miscarriages of justice must inevitably raise questions about the liability of prosecutors and investigators who falsified material or used illegal methods to obtain ’confessions’.

Oleksandr Rafalsky was convicted of killing 4 people although there was no motive and no evidence.  He himself never signed any confessions and has repeatedly and consistently described the torture methods used to extract such confessions.  His life conviction was based solely on the evidence of three men who almost certainly received the same treatment as him.

Rafalsky’s case is widely known among international bodies monitoring the likely use of torture, as well as by rights NGOs. 

While it must be for the court to weigh up all the evidence, the fact that there is plenty to back his allegations of torture and none to corroborate the prosecution’s case against him makes judicial review imperative, and long-overdue.

Rafalsky in June 2001 had just turned 30.  He was involved in business with his parents, who were building a shopping centre in Tetiyiv [Kyiv oblast].  Rafalsky had started receiving phone calls, threatening him and telling him to leave Tetiyiv.  He had his car tyres slashed and then the car itself was stolen.

Two months before Rafalsky’s arrest, four bodies and severed hands were discovered in a field, then a little later bodies were found. 

The prosecution claimed to have established the identity of the four people.  They asserted that the four men accused had dismembered them in the construction site where the shopping centre was to be built.  There were no traces at all to back this, however other problems with the story were even greater.  The people they named did not correspond to the gruesome find.  For example, two of the women allegedly murdered had had their appendix out, however none of the bodies did.  The forensic scientists had said that one of the victims was a young boy, however the prosecution identified him as a 38-year-old man.  There are witnesses who have confirmed seeing one of the victims two years after her alleged murder. 

The prosecutors stuck to their version, with rights activists who have followed the case suspecting that the aim was to put Rafalsky away for life.  After his arrest, his mother came under serious pressure to sell the location, with the argument presented being that nobody would want it because of the murders whose link with the place had never been proven. 

On June 13, 2001 the police appeared at Rafalsky’s home.  No arrest warrant was provided, nor any explanation.  He was held without any registration of the detention for 12 days, until June 25.  Not only were no charges laid, but for part of that period he was held in a temporary holding centre for vagrants.  The police, who had detained him in his own home, claimed him to be an ‘unidentified person’.

After his first encounter with these officers, he needed to be taken to hospital where two doctors found an injury to the head and multiples injuries to the back

He was constantly moved about, and given no access to his lawyer or family.  Rafalsky was only informed on June 25 that he had been detained on suspicion of murder.  He was brought before a court only the next day, and convicted of the murders on June 30, 2004. 

No real investigation was ever carried out although there is a forensic report from July 19, 2001 which said it could not exclude the use of torture and detailed considerable number of injuries.

In September 2001 the Prosecutor General’s Office refused to initiate proceedings, claiming that the only time Rafalsky had been manhandled was to restrain him when he allegedly tried to flee on June 13.  He was supposed to have tried to get away through a ventilation hole which a human being could not have got through, suggesting that the PGO had not even checked the police story.

Rafalsky’s own account of the torture methods applied is harrowing to listen to.  He was beaten, had electric shocks applied, was shot off with blank bullets and forced to did his own grave in mock executions. 

The judge ignored the compelling evidence of torture, the retractions of testimony by those defendants who had signed what was demanded, and even the evidence that at least one of the alleged victims was still alive.

Two of the four men have died in captivity, one under suspicious circumstances.  The prosecutors who took part in their case were all promoted.

The grounds for grave concern over this case and the need for a review are self-evident.  

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