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“Exceptional lawlessness requires extraordinary methods”. Ukraine’s leaders urged to free Volodymyr Panasenko

Halya Coynash
Prominent Ukrainian human rights groups have issued an urgent appeal to Ukraine’s new leaders urging them to release Volodymyr Panasenko who has spent almost 13 years in prison although nobody has ever doubted that he is innocent

Prominent Ukrainian human rights groups have issued an urgent appeal to Ukraine’s new leaders urging them to free a man who has spent almost 13 years in prison although nobody has ever doubted that he is innocent.  The case of Volodymyr Panasenko is not the only miscarriage of justice in Ukraine, but it is the most flagrant, and each day that he spends in captivity is an indictment on a country claiming commitment to rule of law.

On 26 October 2006, a car bomb, planted under a car belonging to Lviv City Councillor and owner of the Shuvar market, Roman Fedyshyn left him unharmed but killed 14-year-old Marika Kutsinda who was walking past when the bomb exploded.. 

A month after the blast, the police had caught one person suspected of carrying out the attack, and declared another person wanted (he was arrested in 2013), as well as Oleksandr Rudy, who was suspected of being the go-between between the perpetrators and the person who had commissioned the crime. 

Rudy was arrested while under treatment for alcoholism in a psychiatric clinic and signed four different ‘confessions’. He first asserted that the blast had been ordered by Fedyshyn himself to improve his political rating.  When the investigator Roman Sharko told him that such a confession would not do, he named Myroslav Bokalo, the administrator of the market.  This was also deemed wrong, so Rudy then asserted that the crime had been ordered by two men - Bokalo and Panasenko.  The latter had created the company behind the Shuvar market together with Fedyshyn.  A fourth ‘confession’ mentioned only Panasenko. 

Rudy retracted his words in court, stating at both first trial, and then appeal level. that Panasenko had nothing to do with the crime and that it had been commissioned by somebody else.  He later also wrote a statement saying that he had given false testimony against Panasenko under pressure from the investigator. The pressure, he specified, consisted of threats that he would get life himself if he didn’t provide the testimony and beatings.

This was ignored by the court, under presiding judge Stanislav Holubytsky, as were other falsifications in the case. Panasenko’s lawyer Natalya Krisman is convinced that everything was done to put Panasenko away for life.  She says that neither the investigators nor the court really tried to conceal their certainty that Panasenko was innocent.  It was simply that the other candidates had power and could not be touched. 

All of this was recognized by the then Human Rights Ombudsperson, Nina Karpachova who, back in 2009, called for a review of Panasenko’s life sentence. In March 2016 Independent Ukraine’s first President Leonid Kravchuk called the Panasenko case a court travesty. 

In 2018, Holubytsky was appointed Supreme Court judge despite a negative assessment from the Public Integrity Council which cited his role in the trial of Panasenko. 

In August 2019, as a new, ninth session of Ukraine’s parliament began its work.   Volodymyr Panasenko is still serving a life sentence for a crime he evidently did not commit.

In their appeal to President Volodymyr Zelensky and parliamentarians, UHHRU and KHPG point to Ukraine’s achievements over the 28 years since Independence, but also to “one bitter exception”. The situation with certain fundamental human rights has deteriorated since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

They pay particular attention to the deterioration in the quality of criminal justice, citing as an example, the fact that so many Ukrainians were convicted, and even served long sentences for the serial murders committed by Sergei Tkach.

The Tkach case highlighted another serious failing of Ukraine’s system, namely its inability to recognize and swiftly rectify judicial errors. The youngest person convicted of one of Tkach’s crimes was 14 when arrested, yet it took five years after Tkach confessed to the crime for him to be released.

UHHRU and KHPG have considerable experience and expert knowledge of the systemic problems within the criminal justice system.  This, they believe, gives them grounds to assert that there are dozens of life prisoners in Ukrainian jails whose cases lack any objective proof of guilty. In many cases, the convictions were based solely on ‘confessions’ beaten out of the person, in the absence of a lawyer, during the first hours after their arrest.  In other cases, there was a bias towards conviction from the outset; inadequate court examination; signs of evidence having been falsified; clearly false testimony; falsified expert assessments, etc.  All of this resulted in a situation where there were virtually no acquittals at all.

As reported here, the situation improved significantly with the adoption of a new Criminal Procedure Code in 2012, which prevents courts basing their conclusions on testimony given to an investigator or prosecutor. The vast majority of life prisoners had their cases examined before 2010, however, and the authors of the appeal point out that this also means that there were only two court stages – first level and then appeal.

This means that there are a large number of people sentenced to life imprisonment under the Soviet Code from 1960, without adequate proof.  These must therefore be considered wrongful sentences.  

The human rights NGOs point to problems with lack of mechanisms and the draft bill, No. 2033a drawn up to rectify the situation.  Details of the bill and of the reasons why it has been blocked up till now can be found here.

Zelensky must decide: shield corrupt prosecutors & judges further, or give justice a chance

UHHRU and KHPG consider the Panasenko case to be the most shocking of all such miscarriages, and point out that you don’t need to be a specialist or lawyer to understand the lack of any justification for the sentence passed. All details of the case are so well-documented that there can be no question of Panasenko having been involved.

The human rights groups welcome the stated commitment by Ukraine’s new leaders to carrying through judicial reforms.  Even if all goes to plan, however, this must take time, and they therefore stress that Volodymyr Panasenko’s case cannot brook further delay.

“Ukraine must return 60-year-old Volodymyr Panasenko the freedom taken from him by any means and reinstate justice against this prisoner of the justice system No. 1 as swiftly as possible. Exceptional lawlessness requires extraordinary measures!”

They point out that President Zelensky has the power to pardon Panasenko, while parliament could issued an individual amnesty, as indeed was used on 22 February 2014, with respect to former President Viktor Yanukovych’s most famous political prisoner, Yulia Tymoshenko.

The Volodymyr Panasenko case can and must, they say, become a powerful catalyst for the healing of Ukraine’s ailing court system.

PLEASE TWEET PRESIDENT ZELENSKY at @ZelenskyyUa asking him to #FreePanasenko

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