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.

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Life sentence in absentia upheld of Russia-protected ‘separatist’ torturer and killer of Ukrainian schoolboy

Halya Coynash

The Donetsk Regional Court of Appeal has rejected former Donbas militant Vadim Pogodin’s appeal against his life sentence for the brutal torture and killing in 2014 of 16-year-old Stepan Chubenko.  The ruling is important, although justice remains very far off.  The original sentence was passed in absentia, after Russia demonstrated that it would protect even a child-killer and refused to hand Pogodin over for trial.

It is, nonetheless, significant that Pogodin himself has not ignored the sentence since it was he who filed the appeal which was presented, via Skype, in court by his lawyer.  Although a cassation appeal with the Supreme Court is possible, Stepan’s mother, Stalina Chubenko made it clear that she is now awaiting proactive measures from Ukraine’s Prosecutor General so that Pogodin can be caught and extradited.

Pogodin, the leader of the so-called Kerch Battalion and two of his subordinates, Mikhail Sukhomlinov and Yury Moskalev, were sentenced on 10 November 2017 to life imprisonment for the abduction, torture and killing.  The three former Donbas fighters for the self-proclaimed and Kremlin-controlled ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [‘DPR’] had seemingly targeted Stepan because of the ribbons in the colours of the Ukrainian flag on his rucksack and a scarf from the Karpaty football club which he supported. 

Stepan was an avid football player who also wrote poetry and seems to have taken part in school theatre performances.  He was passionately pro-Ukrainian. He and his friends had taken part in pro-unity rallies from the beginning of the Russian-backed conflict in Donbas, and also took water and food to Ukrainian soldiers initially stationed in his native Kramatorsk.

When militants, led by former Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin (Strelkov) seized control of Kramatorsk and neighbouring Slovyansk, his parents sent him away, rightly fearing for his safety.

They tried twice, in fact.  He had first been sent to his maternal grandfather in Russia but returned, saying that he wouldn’t “hide like a rat” when Ukraine was in danger.  Then at the beginning of June he went to stay with a friend in Kyiv.  The militants retreated from Kramatorsk and Slovyansk on July 8, leaving at least one mass grave and considerable evidence of war crimes. 

On July 23, Stepan set off home.  His parents had asked him to travel via Kharkiv or Krasnoarmeisk and don’t know why he made the fateful decision to go via Donetsk which was, by then, occupied by the militants. 

His parents later learned that Stepan had been seized and beaten in Donetsk, and then taken, on Pogodin’s orders, to a village outside the city. Sukhomlinov was ordered to kill Stepan, who was on his knees, with his hands bound behind his back.  When Pogodin saw that he was still alive, he grabbed the gun and shot him.

His parents had become desperate with worry and personally went to Donetsk and managed to meet with ‘DPR’ official leader Alexander Zakharchenko – probably because Stalina Chubenko is from Magadan, and is, at least officially, a Russian citizen.  Zakharchenko promised to find out and told them the next day that their son had been murdered.  The militants told her that her son had not cried, and not asked for mercy.

Zakharchenko even initiated a criminal investigation, and Moskalev was taken into custody.

Novaya Gazeta recently published a copy of Moskalev’s interrogation, in which he states clear that Pogodin gave the order to kill Stepan and that it was Maxim Sukhomlinov who had carried out the order. 

Moskalev served a short sentence then fled to Russia. Stepan’s mother Stalina Chubenko has learned that Moskalev was detained in 2016 on an INTERPOL red notice, however Russia did not hand him over to Ukraine.

As reported, Pogodin was arrested in Russian-occupied Crimea on June 20, 2017 on the basis of an Interpol Red Notice, issued at Ukraine’s request.  The move was unprecedented, and initially sent many other militants into panic, wondering if they would be next.

Whatever message Russia or its puppets in Crimea were trying to give 46-year-old Pogodin and other militants, the message eventually presented to Ukraine and the world was that Moscow has no problem with protecting men who torture, bind and ‘execute’ a young boy. The extradition request was quietly ignored, and Pogodin released.

It remains to be seen whether he will obtain Russian citizenship and Russia will use this in future as the excuse for not handing him over.  Such citizenship would have been granted to a person who had been identified as Stepan’s killer even by the militants themselves and convicted by a Ukrainian court.   

The message sent is undoubtedly bad, however Moscow may well have another reason for not wishing to see Pogodin returned to Ukraine.  The man knows too much, with this likely including about the downing by Russian / pro-Russian fighters of the Malaysian airliner MH17 over militant-controlled Donbas on July 17, 2014.  Although there is nothing to directly link Pogodin with this clear war crime, he does have links with Sergei Dubinsky, the Russian military man known as ‘Khmury’ whose voice was intercepted by the Ukrainian Security Service and who is believed to have been directly involved in transporting the Russian Buk surface-to-air missile system which killed 298 passengers.  

That may protect Pogodin from extradition to Ukraine, where he could provide incriminating testimony to both the Ukrainian authorities and the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice at the Hague.  It should not make him feel safe.  Quite a number of militants with knowledge that was inconvenient to Moscow have died violent and / or unexplained deaths over the last years.

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