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Odesa activist and target of three savage attacks charged with murdering his armed assailant

Halya Coynash
Ukraine’s Security Service has charged Serhiy Sternenko, with murder and illegal possession of a weapon two years after a third murderous attack on the Odesa activist resulted in the death of one of the two commissioned assailants

Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] has charged Serhiy Sternenko, with murder and illegal possession of a weapon two years after a third murderous attack on the Odesa activist and former head of the Odesa Right Sector resulted in the death of one of the two commissioned assailants. This is a highly contentious move which Viktor Trepak, the former Deputy Prosecutor General overseeing the investigation, earlier stated was unjustified.

Sternenko is the former leader of Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist and right-wing movement, although at the time of the last, fatal, attack, he headed an NGO called «Небайдужі» (“Not Indifferent”).  He had repeatedly come into conflict with the Odesa authorities through his opposition to illegal construction, dodgy land deals in the city and local corruption.  He had faced several criminal investigations which the authors of the above-mentioned statement considered to be linked with his civic activism.

Most importantly, he had also faced three attempts on his life in the first half of 2018.

Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, which has followed this case closely, reported that the attacks came after Sternenko took part in protests against the destruction by the local authorities of the Summer Theatre and after he organized a series of protests against Russian cultural expansion in Odesa.

On 7 February 2018, two assailants pulled open the door of the car he was driving in and began beating him with a baseball bat with inserted blades.  He received concussion and a thigh wound.  Neither the assailants, nor those who commissioned the attack have ever been identified.

On 1 May 2018, he was shot in the neck twice with rubber bullets.  Sternenko managed to catch the assailant and hand him over to the police.  The attacker proved to be a former police officer from Kazakhstan, who refused to cooperate with the investigators, and to say who had paid him.

Although he had faced two potentially fatal attacks in a short space of time, Sternenko’s application for protection was rejected.  Due to the above-mentioned criminal investigations, he was not allowed to carry a weapon. 

On 24 May 2018, he and his girlfriend were close to his home when two men attacked him

The third attack was just weeks later, in the evening of 24 May 2018.  He was near his home, with his girlfriend, when two men attacked him and delivered several knife injuries.

He received concussion, a deep cut to the hand and other lacerations.  Ivan Kuznetsov, one of the two assailants, however, later died of a knife wound.  

Self-defence or murder?

There are varying accounts of the attack and of Kuznetsov’s death.  Although Venediktova, in extremely irregular fashion, made her position clear back in March by speaking of Kuznetsov’s “murder”, and this position has now been adopted by the SBU, it was clearly not that held by Trepak.

Sternenko’s account

In an interview four days after the attack, Sternenko said that the first man had punched him in the face, and that he had then seen the second man’s hand with a knife in it coming at him.  He had raised his hand forward instinctively, he asserted, and had thus seized the open blade.  This would explain the very serious bleeding to his hand seen on the video and also confirm that Kuznetsov had attacked him with a life-threatening weapon.  Sternenko asserted that he had waved the knife around in the air, and that he had initially stated that the knife was his in a state of affect. According to him, the two men began running in different directions, with his girlfriend following one, he -  Kuznetsov.  He said that the assailant had run for 30-40 metres and then collapsed, and that it was then that he saw that the man had a serious stomach wound. He asserted that Kuznetsov must have been hit when he waved the knife about, but said he did not remember the particular moment, and denied having later used the knife that he had grabbed.    

The other man, Oleksandr Isaikul, also received a minor knife wound.  He was initially detained, but later given witness status.  On 30 March 2020, a witness, who is reportedly already cooperating with the investigators, gave an  interview to Dzherkalo Tyzhnya, during which he said that the two assailants had been offered thousand dollars for the attack on Sternenko. 

The SBU position on 11 June 2020

The official report on the SBU website is of questionable respect for the presumption of innocence.  We learn that, in coordination with the Prosecutor General’s Office, Sternenko has been informed he is suspected of murder under Article 115 § 1 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code, and Article 263 § 2 (carrying a blade weapon without the legally required permit).

The SBU then write that the ‘Sternenko case’ has long moved from the purely legal to a political-information realm, but that they have been unbiased in their approach and have been guided solely by legislation.

They then go on to – contentiously – assert that the two men – Kuznetsov and Isaikul – had “intended to intimidate and inflict bodily injuries on Sternenko. This they have qualified under Article 296 § 4 of the Criminal Code (‘Hooliganism’, albeit with the use of weapons designed to cause injury).  This would carry a sentence of between 3 to 7 years, as opposed to the murder charge against Sternenko. 

Sternenko waving a knife about and inflicting wounds on the assailants would, they say, constitute necessary self-defence. 

Sternenko’s actions later, however, cast doubt over this version, the SBU writes, explaining that, since Kuznetsov had fled the scene of the crime, the attack on Sternenko was considered over and his life no longer in danger.  They assert that, instead, Sternenko ran after Kuznetsov and, having caught up, inflicted several injuries, including a knife wound to the heart which caused his death.  Kuznetsov’s body, it is asserted, was found almost 100 metres from the “place of the first brawl”. “Therefore assertions that Sternenko injured Kuznetsov during his self-defence, but later did not inflict any injuries, does not concur with the facts. The expert assessment during the pre-trial investigation confirmed the version that this was deliberate murder”.

The SBU also suggest that Sternenko was lying about having used the knife that he took from Kuznetsov, with the reason for this being the original statement that it was his knife which Sternenko says he made in a state of affect.  It is not clear how, in that case, the SBU explains the very deep cut to Sternenko’s hand.

Problems with the official version

Lawyer Masi Nayyem immediately pointed out certain objections.  Article 36 § 5 of the Criminal Code states that it does not exceed the limits of necessary self-defence to use a weapon to defend yourself from attack by an armed individual or by a group of individuals.  The SBU has qualified the attack against Sternenko has having been hooliganism with the use of a weapon..

Even if the SBU would argue that they have explained their position of self-defence, the charge against Sternenko of carrying a weapon seems very cynical, especially given the refusal to provide him with protection after the second savage attack.

Nayyem also explains that paragraph three of the same Article 36 states that it exceeds the limits of necessary self-defence to deliberately cause serious injury incommensurate with the danger posed.  Articles 118 and 124 of the Criminal Code set out when there can be criminal liability for exceeding the limits of self-defence.

This, however, Nayyem stresses, is deliberate killing through exceeding the limits of self-defence, or the deliberate inflicting of serious injuries when exceeding these limits.  “But in no way deliberate murder”.

Nayyem also adds that, according to numerous expert assessments, the knife which Sternenko had was not a blade (‘cold’) weapon.

There are also issues here with timing.  The SBU now asserts that the initial investigation confirmed that the death of Kuznetsov was murder.  This would beg the issue of why it has taken them over two years to bring charges, however there are other concerns, mainly the position taken by Viktor Trepak, formerly Deputy Prosecutor General.  Trepak had made very tangible progress, especially on investigating the murder of Kherson activist Katya Handziuk and crimes linked with Euromaidan and his sudden removal after Iryna Venediktova was appointed Prosecutor General in March 2020 was met with dismay by lawyers, civic activists and all those following the investigations.  Although it is formally the SBU who have now brought murder charges against Sternenko, it became fairly clear back in March that Venediktova was pushing in this direction, with a number of prominent civic and human rights organizations on 28 March issuing a statement in protest

The statement was in response to Venediktova’s report on a meeting between the Prosecutor General’s Office management and that of the Interior Ministry.   She wrote that they had agreed “investigative and procedural activities” in various high-profile cases including what she called “the killing of Kuznetsov”.   On 7 April, in an interview to Ukrainska Pravda, Venediktova confirmed that Sternenko would face charges, with the only question being what these were.

That is what has now happened however at the time of her original meeting, Trepak was still in his post.  In an interview about how Venediktova had removed him from the Handziuk, Maidan and Sternenko investigations, Trepak clearly stated that he had come into “serious conflict” with Venediktova over the Sternenko case. The by-then former Deputy Prosecutor General explained that the conflict had arisen because “Venediktova expressed huge interest in this case and in her first conversation with me said that Sternenko needed to be immediately informed that he is under suspicion”.  He was stunned, Trepak said, asking how anybody could speak of suspicion without having studied the case.

He went on to say that based on the material of the case, there were no grounds for talking of any charges. There were important aspects of the attack and defence, he added, that remained unexplained, and said that a comprehensive expert assessment had been ordered because the two previous assessments had given contradictory opinions.  Trepak told Venediktova that, without such an assessment having been made, it was legal nonsense to tell anybody that they are under suspicion.  “The Prosecutor General was extremely unhappy with my position”.

After this meeting, Trepak summoned the management of the relevant department, and they again thoroughly examined the case material.  “The conclusion was unanimous and unequivocal – according to the material of the case there are no grounds for informing Sternenko that he is suspected of any crime.”  Venediktova was sent a report, signed by all those involved in the investigation, demonstrating the lack of any grounds for charges against Sternenko.

The NGOs, in their statement, demanded an objective investigation and end to what they considered to be political interference. They pointed out that since the Interior Ministry has nothing to do with cases under the control of the SBU, any such meetings and public statements suggested that the enforcement body was not interested in a proper investigation into the attacks on Sternenko.  They believed that what was planned was to find Sternenko guilty of having prevented his own murder.

The NGOs spoke of disturbing aspects regarding Sternenko’s treatment after the attacks and of the claim by the Odesa police in May 2019 that they had “lost” certain material evidence pertaining to the attacks on Sternenko.  “There are serious grounds for believing that the Odesa police are implicated in the sabotage of the investigation into the attacks on the activist,” they wrote.  They noted also that it had been because of the lack of police action and their constant refusal to provide Sternenko with protection, that the case had been passed to the SBU. 

The latter has now, over two years after the events of 24 May 2018, called the commissioned attack on Sternenko ‘hooliganism’ and, as predicted back in March 2020, charged Sternenko with murdering his assailant.

It is possible that the comprehensive expert assessment was obtained and that it confirmed the position which the newly appointed Prosecutor General had presented without any probe, and in conflict with her subordinate who was overseeing the investigation.  Ukraine’s enforcement bodies have a very poor record on investigating attacks on civic activists, and the removal of Trepak and position taken so emphatically by Venediktova have stirred up considerable distrust. 

The situation is also not improved by the report that a preventive measures (full house arrest) against Sternenko is to be decided by judge Volodymyr Buhil, who was involved in persecuting Maidan activists.

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