war crimes in Ukraine

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Russia confirms that being Ukrainian is all that’s needed for a prison sentence

Halya Coynash
From Oleh Chaban’s arrest in May 2018, it has seemed clear that there is really only one reason for his detention and sentence, namely his Ukrainian citizenship

A Russian court has rejected the appeal against an almost four-year prison sentence passed on Ukrainian coach driver Oleh Chaban despite the lack of any proof to back the charges against him.  Everything about this case and the virtually identical circumstances behind the arrest and imprisonment in Moscow of Ukrainian train conductor, Serhiy Buhaichuk, suggest that was really only one reason for the two arrests and for Chaban’s sentence, namely their Ukrainian citizenship.  The clear signs of discrimination on the grounds of nationality in Chaban’s case are just one of the reasons why the defence will now be taking this case to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Chaban was arrested in the Bryansk oblast (Russia) on 18 May 2018, supposedly for transporting explosives and pistols.  Neither Chaban’s fingerprints nor his DNA were on the items supposedly ‘found’ during an FSB search during the night after the coach that Chaban was driving broke down.  This alone raises questions given that the same vehicle had undergone checks by both Ukrainian border control, and then Russian, without anything being noticed.

Chaban was simply the driver for a coach from Vinnytsa to Moscow, and did not himself receive or issue luggage. The fateful journey to Russia was not even a scheduled run for him.  He had been phoned just three hours before and asked to replace a colleague. 

The items in question were found in the bag of a Russian man, Roman Serebrob, who promptly ‘confessed’. 

That was when the story became truly strange.  While Chaban, who had had no contact with luggage, was immediately taken into custody, the Russian owner of the bag was released on a signed undertaking not to abscond. 

The Russian’s status was soon changed from suspect to ‘witness for the prosecution’, with the only charges being laid against the Ukrainian driver who did not, and could not, know what was in individual passengers’ luggage. 

The Russian ‘investigators’ used all their standard methods of pressure, including isolating Chaban from his wife and from the Ukrainian consul.  Nothing worked, with Chaban adamantly refusing to admit to the absurd charges.

Since there was nothing to link Chaban with the items allegedly found, the prosecution added a second ‘secret’ witness, whom they called ‘Viktor Alvarez’, the hero of a Russian ‘Comedy Club’ show.  This individual’s identity was totally concealed, making it impossible for the defence to even confirm whether Chaban had ever set eyes on him.  The individual claimed to have been in a cell together with Chaban who had “told him everything.”   Even without the added secrecy, such ‘testimony’ from an individual under the control of the prison administration is highly questionable and impossible to verify.

Yuri Bilous, Chaban’s lawyer, stresses that the prosecution never provided evidence to back the charges against his client.  The prosecution witnesses’ had contradicted each other, and Serebrov, whose luggage had contained the items in question, mistook another man for Chaban during an investigative exercise.  Phone records demonstrated that Chaban had not made any calls in Russia and no calls to his alleged accomplice, turned prosecution witness, from Ukraine.  All of this, and the results of a lie detector test which confirmed Chaban’s innocence, were simply ignored by the court which on 19 April 2019 sentenced Chaban to three years’ and eight months’ imprisonment, together with a 100 thousand rouble fine. 

That conviction was duly appealed, with the defence providing a whacking 168 pages of evidence to demonstrate the lack of any substance to the charges against Chaban.  These were ignored by the Bryansk Regional Court which on 4 July 2019 upheld the sentence. 

Chaban and his wife Natalya have two children, a son who is 19, and a four-year-old daughter.   

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