war crimes in Ukraine

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Ukraine betrays 61-year-old Ukrainian jailed in Russia on “fantasy novel” charges

Halya Coynash
It is highly likely that Oleksiy Sizonovych, a Ukrainian pensioner, was taken to Russia by force after being captured by Russian-backed militants in the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [LPR], with the methods used, and subsequent ‘trial’ as cynical as those against former Ukrainian military pilot and MP, Nadiya Savchenko. 

It is highly likely that Oleksiy Sizonovych, a Ukrainian pensioner, was taken to Russia by force after being captured by Russian-backed militants in the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [LPR], with the methods used, and subsequent ‘trial’ as cynical as those against former Ukrainian military pilot and MP, Nadiya Savchenko.  The main difference is that Russia maintained full secrecy until Sizonovych had been sentenced to 12 years, and appears now to have put pressure on him to ensure that the sentence was not appealed. Most gallingly, this was achieved in large part by Ukraine’s inaction.

Ukrainian human rights activist Maria Tomak reported on September 4 that Sizonovych had withdrawn his appeal against the sentence passed by the North Caucuses Military Court.  This is disastrous both because Sizonovych has thus accepted the 12-year sentence, and because this enables Russia to hide a case which almost certainly involves collaboration with Donbas militants in kidnapping the pensioner.  The ‘trial’ and indictment, which, according to a lawyer, seem like a fantasy novel, cannot even be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.

Sizonovych was almost certainly assured that he would get home quicker by not appealing, but by simply applying to be transferred to Ukraine to serve his sentence.  This is not the first time that Ukrainians have been deceived in such situations.

While it is Russia that bears the main responsibility for what is almost certainly a grave miscarriage of justice, Ukraine is also culpable.  In the month that passed between the sentence and Sizonovych’s decision to withdraw his appeal, the Ukrainian authorities could not manage to arrange for a lawyer to represent him.

This is a shocking betrayal, since everything known about this case and those of other Ukrainians taken prisoner in Russia make it clear that Sizonovych’s supposed ‘confession’ was likely to be the result of total isolation and heavy pressure from the ‘investigators’.  The so-called state-appointed lawyers deployed in such cases are almost invariably there to persuade the person that their only chance of being freed or getting a suspended sentence is to ‘confess’. 

Tomak explains that a Rostov lawyer who is also a member of the local public monitoring committee had visited Sizonovych in the SIZO [remand prison] around a month ago, and had subsequently helped him to write a model appeal.  There needed, however, to be a formal agreement for the lawyer to represent him.  Sizonovych’s sister was found and she agreed to sign a contract with the lawyer.  All that the Ukrainian foreign ministry needed to do was to guarantee that the lawyer’s fees would be paid.  Despite constant reminders of the importance of this, they did nothing.  In the meantime, Sizonovych was placed under enormous psychological pressure to withdraw the appeal, and had clearly lost any belief in the point of challenging the verdict.

“Fantasy novel”

Nothing was known of Sizonovych until the beginning of the ‘trial’ on July 26 which, despite the seriousness of the charges and likely sentence, lasted just two days.

It was claimed that Sizonovych had, together with an unidentified man known only as Vladyslavovych, way back in April 2014, formed a group which supposedly “decided to carry out explosions and terrorist acts on Ukrainian and Russian territory”. 

According to Vladyslav Kuznetsov, the same prosecutor as in the trial of Savchenko, “Sizonovych gathered information about forms of transport infrastructure, and, having special knowledge in the explosives field, prepared various types of explosive devices”.

The prosecution claimed that Sizonovych had received instructions in May 2016 to go to Kamensk-Shaktinsky in the Rostov oblast to look over and photograph the railway station and identify a place to put a bomb.  There had been no bomb, with this supposedly being because the secret stockpile of weapons and explosives had been found in advance. 

The person who allegedly found the stockpile told the police in September that he had been walking past it on July 8 and had seen two men digging something into the ground.  For all that he remembered the date so well, he claimed to have only seen the need to inform the police two months later, and then ‘recognized’ Sizonovych as one of the two men.

Sizonovych was found guilty of preparing a terrorist act (Article 30 § 1 and Article 205 § 2 of the Russian criminal code) and unlawful possession, purchase, etc. of explosive devices or substances (Article 322 § 1). 

The prosecution, which demanded 12 years, did not explain how Sizonovych was supposed to get the explosives to Russia, although a trail was asserted as leading from Kyiv to the Luhansk oblast in Ukraine.  The mysterious ‘Vladyslavovych’ had allegedly  looked for explosives in Kyiv and delivered them to two places in the Luhansk oblast, while Sizonovych was supposed to have gone to Russia’s Kamensk-Shaktinsky twice on ‘Vladyslavovych’’s instructions – in May 2016, then two months later, in July – in order to be seen burying the explosives by the prosecution witness.  

On August 26, however, he was seized by LPR militants, whom the Russian indictment refers to as ‘law enforcement bodies’ in militant-controlled Rovenky.  This was purportedly while he was endeavouring to blow up railway lines, having received the explosives, via ‘Vladyslavovych’.

The story turns surreal after his capture by the militants.  The frail-looking 61-year-old, a former miner, claims to have run away from the militants while they were checking his testimony and “jumped from the river into the Kamenka river”. 

One of the judges asked Sizonovych if he had really jumped into the river.  He quietly answered that he can’t swim.

This was ignored, as was the sheer absurdity of the claim that he had escaped armed captors, many 30 years or more younger than him.  The court also chose to accept his written testimony stating that “on September 27, realizing that in self-proclaimed LPR, I faced criminal liability, I decided to illegally, without confirming documents, cross Russia’s state border near Vlasovka and was arrested”.

The court was also happy to overlook the lack of any detail about the month between Sizonovych’s capture and James Bond-like release from the militants and the supposed date on which he emerged in Russia.

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