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.

Death of Ukraine’s most famous torture victim to be reinvestigated

Halya Coynash

A Kyiv court has ordered that the investigation into the sudden death in a Kyiv cell of Oleksandr Rafalsky be resumed.  It is important that questions raised at the time of his death about bodily injuries and the actual cause of the 46-year-old’s death are finally answered.  They are only some of the questions, however, since Rafalsky had spent 15 years in prison despite the lack of any evidence or motive to justify his life sentence and compelling grounds for assuming that any confessions in the case had been extracted through torture.  He himself never signed any ‘confession’ and continued to assert his innocence.

Rafalsky died in the night of October 20, 2016 in the Lukyanivsk remand prison in Kyiv.  He had been held there for over a year and a half in connection with two criminal prosecutions over torture and fabricating criminal cases in which he had victim status.  Shortly after his death, the justice ministry informed Radio Svoboda that an autopsy had concluded that Rafalsky died of “a fulminant complication of an existing chronic illness of the cardiovascular system”.

Tamara Rafalska was not convinced that a proper investigation was carried out.  She told the Shevchenkivsk District Court in Kyiv on March 29 that there were huge discrepancies in the reports and that the investigators had not questioned all witnesses.  She believes that the real cause of death may not have been identified, and notes that the autopsy found medication in his body that can, in larger doses, prove fatal. 

According to Andriy Didenko from the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, there were also bodily injuries with the lawyers’ questions as to how these had arisen, remaining unanswered.

The judge revoked the decision to terminate the investigation, and the case is to be returned for new review, with this making it possible to get a new forensic assessment.  

It is to be hoped that this time the investigation is carried out properly since all material in the case is being sent to the European Court of Human Rights to be added to the case already awaiting consideration.

Rafalsky’s case is widely known among international bodies monitoring the use of torture in Ukraine, as well as by rights NGOs.  His conviction was among the 10 most dubious cited in calls on parliamentarians to at long last adopt draft bill №2033а.  This bill would provide life prisoners whose sentences were based on testimony extracted through torture or similar the chance for a judicial review.  No guarantees of release, no easy ‘pardon’, simply the chance of justice, of a proper assessment of the case.

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 arrested had dismembered them in the construction site where the shopping centre was to be built.  There were no traces at all to back this, and the other problems with this version 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, yet 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 story regardless.  Rights activists who were following the case believe that the plan was to put Rafalsky behind bars and keep him there. 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.

In his own account of the torture methods applied, Rafalsky described being beaten, having electric shocks applied, being shot at with blank bullets and forced to dig 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.

Four men were convicted of murder:  Rafalsky, Viacheslav Baranovsky, Stepan Chernak and Volodymyr Kharchenko. 

Only Baranovsky is alive.  Ukraine’s legislators still have a chance to end the injustice in his case, and that of many other life prisoners whose convictions arouse concern. 

It is profoundly frustrating that three years after Maidan, Ukraine’s government is still protecting those who committed terrible wrongs instead of finally trying to ensure that justice prevails. 


The law #2033a legislators are dragging their heels over could still give the following men and many others a chance of justice

Maxim Orlov - zero evidence but sentenced to life for good statistics

Ukrainian (in)justice:  Panasenko serving a life sentence as they needed to convict somebody



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