war crimes in Ukraine

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Russia confirms huge reprisal sentences against two Ukrainians from Crimea who refused to ‘confess’

Halya Coynash
Russia’s Supreme Court ignored the lack of any convincing proof that Volodymyr Dudka and Oleksiy Bessarabov had been planning ‘sabotage’ charges and the clear evidence of falsification and of torture used to extract initial ‘confessions’

Russia’s Supreme Court has upheld the 14-year sentences against two Ukrainians from Sevastopol,  Volodymyr Dudka and Oleksiy Bessarabov despite the lack of any convincing proof of a purported ‘sabotage’ charges and the clear evidence of falsification and of torture used to extract initial ‘confessions’.  There is every reason to believe that the sentences were so high only because, as soon as the men were allowed to see independent lawyers, they denied all charges and described the electric shocks used to force them to give false testimony.   The grandiose claims made by the Russian FSB about its ‘capture’ of two academics – Bessarabov and Dmytro Shtyblikov, and retired naval captain Volodymyr Dudka had been full of absurd elements from the beginning.  There is, however, absolutely nothing humorous in these politically motivated trials, which, since Dudka is in very ill health, could turn into at least one death sentence.

The arrests on 9 November 2016 were the FSB’s second ‘Crimean saboteur’ case that year.  The first arrests in August had failed to convince the international community that  Ukraine had been planning ‘incursions’ on its own illegally occupied territory, with one of the multiple problems being the lack of any evidence that the alleged ‘saboteurs’ had ever set eyes on each other. 

In November, therefore, they went for three men who were good friends: Shtyblikov and Bessarabov, who are internationally known experts on the Black Sea Fleet and Dudka.  Two much younger Crimeans  - Oleksiy Stohniy and Hlib Shabliy were arrested 10 days later.  Both Stohniy and Shabliy were later convicted of charges virtually unrelated to the sabotage that they had ‘confessed to’. 

An FSB operational video was circulated to the Russian media, with this showing Shtyblikov being roughly pinned down and handcuffed by FSB officers, and then in his home.  The video still available now appears to have been cut, however the original  focused in Shtyblikov’s flat on the Ukrainian trident, a Ukrainian flag on the wall, and Dmytro Yarosh’s ‘Right Sector’ business card.  Russian channels told their viewers that this was from the nationalist movement banned in Russia, but remained silent about the ‘Yarosh business card’s’ extremely specific history.  The card had been first produced by Russia as ‘incriminating evidence’ in April 2014, after supposedly being pulled quite intact from a totally gutted out car.  The ‘incriminating’ weapons shown on the video appear to have been airguns, from Shtyblikov’s sporting hobby. 

The FSB claimed that the men arrested were  “members of a sabotage – terrorist group of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Central Intelligence Department” who were planning acts of sabotage on military and other infrastructure”. There had never been any such acts of sabotage, nor, judging by the initial videos demonstrated, was there any evidence of plans to commit a crime. 

The FSB placed all men under enormous pressure and prevented Shtyblikov, whom they designated the ‘ringleader’,  from seeing an independent lawyer at all.  Under conditions that remain unclear, he agreed to plead guilty and was sentenced on 16 November, 2017 to five years’ imprisonment after a ‘trial’ lasting just minutes (details here). 

Such methods are ominously reminiscent to those applied by the NKVD / KGB in the worst Soviet times.  They work while men are held incommunicado with only state-appointed ‘lawyers’ who are there to sign papers and to try to convince the ‘defendant’ that he or she should ‘confess’. 

Dudka and Bessarabov did eventually get lawyers and remained firm in rejecting the charges.  This was a problem since the men’s lawyers had already pointed to the obviously falsified ‘evidence’, and measures continued, including deprivation of urgently needed medical care for Dudka, to try to force the men to ‘confess’ to the FSB’s wildly implausible plot. 

Both men complained early on of dodgy methods used to obtain biological traces.  Dudka, for example, was seized on the way to the doctor where he was being treated for an ulcer.  Saliva and other samples were taken without any protocol being drawn up and without his lawyer present.  The reason for this became clear during the trial with the prosecution claiming that biological traces had been ‘found’ on a map of the city which allegedly showed the places where acts of sabotage were planned.  The problem is that an expert analysis showed that the traces were all on the edge of the map and not over the entire surface, which makes no sense if this was a map that the men were using.

The prosecution also claimed that some person involved in Ukrainian military intelligence in Kharkiv had asked a stranger in Crimea to buy telephones and pass them over to the defendants.  This idiotic claim was used to explain a telephone which was almost certainly planted during the supposed search of Dudka’s home.  Dudka’s son, Ilya, reports that the men who came to ‘search’ his father’s home ‘found’ the telephone very quickly, then left, without bothering to pretend to search the kitchen or bathroom. The defence  demonstrated that there are discrepancies in the testimony given by one of the ‘witnesses’ whom the FSB brought with them for the search of Bessarabov’s home and by two who were present when a secret hiding place with explosive devices was allegedly found.

The lack of any real evidence of plans for widescale ‘sabotage’, the men’s allegations of torture and such flagrant falsification were ignored by the first-instance court.  On 4 April 2019, ‘judges’ Igor Vladimirovich Kozhevnikov; Vasily Aleksandrovich Avkhimov; and Vladimir Ilych Reshetnyak from the de facto Sevastopol City Court declared both  Dudka and Bessarabov guilty and passed huge sentences, only slightly lower than those demanded by the de facto prosecutor.  Both men were sentenced to 14 years in a maximum security prison colony with Dudka also fined 350 thousand roubles (almost 5 thousand euros, a steep amount) and Bessarabov – 300 thousand.   

The renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre has analysed these cases, and considers Bessarabov, Dudka, Shtyblikov; Shabliy and Stohniy to be political prisoners. Their grounds are compelling, yet on 15 October 2019, judges from Russia’s Supreme Court took just hours to go through the pretence of considering the men’s appeals, before upholding the sentences. 

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