war crimes in Ukraine

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Ukrainian abducted for FSB attempt to discredit Crimean Tatar Mejlis jailed for two years

Halya Coynash
Oleksandr Steshenko was sentenced on charges that are once again unrelated to his televised ‘confession which was an overt attempt to discredit the leaders of the Mejlis, or self-governing body, of the Crimean Tatar people and given after Steshenko had been abducted and held incommunicado for a month. 

The Russian-controlled Central District Court in Simferopol has sentenced Oleksandr Steshenko to two years’ imprisonment on charges that are once again unrelated to his televised ‘confession to extremist activities’.  That ‘confession’ was an overt attempt to discredit the leaders of the Mejlis, or self-governing body, of the Crimean Tatar people and given after Steshenko had been abducted and held incommunicado for a month. 

27-year-old Steshenko, who is from Kharkiv, disappeared on 11 April 2018, after telling his mother by phone that he had been stopped by Russian border guards who doubted that he was the person on the photo in his passport. This was a dubious pretext since Steshenko had travelled to Crimea several times using that same passport.

On 14 April, the FSB border administration in Simferopol confirmed that Steshenko was in their custody, but would not allow a lawyer to see him, with this repeated on 16 April. At that stage, the lawyer was given the same reason for his detention that Steshenko mentioned when he last spoke with his mother on 11 April.  

By 24 April, a new excuse had emerged.  On that day lawyer Edem Semedlyaev reported that the new claim was that Steshenko had been detained for smoking at the bus station, with the term of administrative arrest due to end at 22.00 that evening.  Semedlyaev was even able to see the young man on that occasion, with Steshenko refusing to give any details, but saying that, according to the official version, he had been detained for smoking at the station. He had not been shown the court order.

Steshenko then vanished outside the remand prison, being taken away by unidentified individuals. Semedlyaev’s colleague Aider Azamatov spent all day on 26 April trying, in vain, to find him.  He was also given a different version of the administrative arrest, being told that at the bus terminal Steshenko had been approached by police officers who said he was smoking in a place where this is not allowed, and told him to come with them to the police station. He had supposedly refused and, according to the police, tried to push them away when they tried to force him into their car. The 12-day administrative sentence had been for refusing to obey a police officer. He did not receive a copy of the court ruling. It was claimed that he had rejected the services of a lawyer.

His whereabouts remained unknown until 21 May when an FSB video was shown on Russian television in which Steshenko ‘confessed’ to involvement in an ‘extremist group’ supposedly created by the Head of the Mejlis.  This alleged ‘plot’ has been made public just days after Ukraine approached the International Court of Justice asking why Russia is continuing to flout the Court’s direct order to end its internationally condemned ban of the Mejlis.  There was essentially no proof of any of this except the ‘confession’ of a young man detained on a totally different pretext, then abducted before his lawyer was able to speak to him and held incommunicado for almost a month.

The FSB story was that an ‘extremist group’ had been started up by Erol Veliev, an adviser to veteran Crimean Tatar leader and Ukrainian MP, Mustafa Dzhemilev.  Veliev was supposed to have been taking orders from the current Head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov.  The ‘extremist group’ had allegedly been formed in Kharkiv together with two ‘boxers’ – Oleksandr Steshenko and Oleksandr Tretyakov. 

The FSB claimed that the “the extremists were planning to carry out crimes motivated by political animosity aimed at frightening pro-Russian Crimean Tatars and heightening inter-ethnic tension in Crimea”.  In January 2018, they were supposed to have carried out an arson attack , with the use of Molotov cocktails, to the home of the Mufti of Crimea Emirali Ablaev who has, according to the FSB, “made a considerable contribution to strengthening national unity”. Ablaev is one of the few prominent Crimean Tatars who chose in 2014 to collaborate with the Russian occupation regime. 

The FSB asserted that the supposed members of this ‘extremist group’ were promised 500 dollars for each ‘action’ in Crimea. 

In this new version of events, Steshenko was purportedly ‘uncovered’ as he tried to enter Crimea in April on Veliev’s orders to carry out ‘provocation’ on the eve of the signing of a presidential decree on ‘rehabilitation’. The text then jumps to saying that criminal proceedings were brought over an arson attack on a police building in Crimea, with no details of what this allegedly entailed.

The video circulated by the FSB showed Steshenko looking stressed and speaking as though saying what is required of him. 

Steshenko then disappeared from sight again, though there was a reminder of his fate and the alleged ‘confession’ in July after the Dzhemiliev family’s driver Akhtem Mustafaev managed to flee to mainland Ukraine a week after his ‘interrogation’ by the FSB and alleged torture in Crimea.  Mustafaev spoke of his experiences at a press conference with Mustafa Dzhemilev on 10 July.  He had been interrogated about his trips to mainland Ukraine, about his relations with Dzhemilev and Veliev, and about the alleged arson attack of the home of the Mufti of Crimea (Ablaev).  All of this was accompanied by beating as well as forms of torture and threats that “nobody would find him” (more details here).

The attempt to discredit Mejlis leaders appears to have come to nothing, at least with respect to Steshenko.  He was found guilty on 28 July of the charge under Article 167 § 2 of Russia’s criminal code (deliberate destruction or damage to somebody else’s property as an act of hooliganism, via arson, explosion or other publicly dangerous means, or causing a person’s death through carelessness or other grave consequences.)  More detail is not available.

The sentence was passed by Yuri Hryhorovych Hulevych [or, in Russian Gulevich], a former Ukrainian judge who betrayed his oath to Ukraine.  The ‘case’ had only reached the court on 13 July.

The Crimean Human Rights Group notes that the ‘lawyer’ reportedly representing Steshenko was Oksana Akulenko who has already taken part in at least two other politically motivated cases.  Appointed to represent Andriy Zakhtei in August 2016, she ignored the evidence of torture, did not challenge the actions of the ‘investigators’, nor did she make any effort to obtain evidence of Zakhtei’s innocence (details here).

She was also present when former military captain Volodymyr Dudka was forced into giving testimony against himself (details here).

In both cases, the men were later to tell real lawyers that they had given ‘confessions’ under torture or duress. Here it is not at all clear whether Steshenko will have any opportunity to see an independent lawyer and to lodge an appeal.

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