war crimes in Ukraine

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Ukrainian court acquits judge who released Berkut suspected Maidan killer to escape to Russia

Halya Coynash

The judge who, in September 2014, released under house arrest a former Berkut commander charged with the gunning down of peaceful Maidan protesters has been acquitted of issuing knowingly wrongful court rulings.  Although the Kyiv Prosecutor’s Office report does not name the judge, it was clearly Svitlana Volkova from the Pechersky District Court.  It was her decision on 19 September 2014 to allow the application for Dmytro Sadovnyk to be freed under house arrest that resulted in Sadovnyk fleeing justice before the appeal hearing on 1 October that year, initiated by the Prosecutor General’s Office, which might well have returned him to detention.

The Kyiv Prosecutor’s Office reported on 26 August that the acquittal had come from the Shevchenkivsky District Court in Kyiv.  The prosecution had asserted that Volkova had ordered the change in preventive measure without any grounds.  The charge also pertained to another ruling by Volkova which had revoked the prosecutor’s decision to reject the defence lawyer’s application for criminal proceedings to be terminated and had ordered the prosecutor “to take such a decision” (presumably to terminate the proceedings).  It is unclear what case this refers to as the charges against Sadovnyk and five other former Berkut officers were much too serious to be terminated.

Volkova had been charged under Article 375 §§ 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code (the issuing by a judge or judges of a knowingly wrongful ruling, sentence, etc., with paragraph two referring to the same actions but which had grave consequences or were carried out for gain.  It would appear that the Shevchenkivsky Court was in no hurry to consider the case since the indictment, according to the Kyiv Prosecutor, had been passed to the court back on 18 May 2015.

The prosecution had demanded a seven-year prison sentence, and say that the ruling will be appealed.  The success of this is, however, in doubt as Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, back on 11 June 2020, ruled that Article 375 is unconstitutional.  Since the prosecutor had continued with the trial and plans to appeal, they presumably consider that the CCU judgement does not have retrospective force, but this is also likely to be in dispute. . 

Sadovnyk, as commander of the Berkut unit suspected of the killing of 39 Maidan activists on Instytutska St in Kyiv, and two of his subordinates, Serhiy Zinchenko and Pavlo Abroskin, were among the first people to be arrested over crimes committed on Maidan.  Zinchenko and Abroskin remained in custody, however Volkova released Sadovnyk under house arrest on 19 September 2014, stating that this was because he was married with three children, a flat in Kyiv and “a good reputation”.  It was claimed that these were a guarantee that he would not try to escape justice.

They were not, as became rapidly clear, when Sadovnyk failed to turn up on 1 October.  It seemed that delaying tactics were being used, with the ex-Berkut commander’s lawyer claiming that his client was seeing a neurosurgeon because his limbs had gone numb.  It was not only Volkova’s ruling that helped Sadovnyk to make his escape.  He had been ordered to wear an electronic bracelet on him all the time, yet this was found in his home after he fled.  It was also clear that the police and prosecutor’s office had been aware of Sadovnyk’s disappearance long before it was publicly announced. 

There were threats of prosecution against Volkova as soon as Sadovnyk’s flight became known, and then in September 2016, she was among a small number of judges whose dismissal the Verkhovna Rada supported.  That dismissal was, however, overturned after Volkova challenged it and in 2019 she was reinstated as a judge.

It had seemed back in 2014 that some lessons had been learned, and for most of the following five years Zinchenko, Abroskin and three other former Berkut officers from Sadovnyk’s unit – Serhiy Tamtur; Oleh Yanishevsky and Oleksandr Marynchenko – remained in custody.  They were charged with the killing of 48 activists on Instytutska St.  They all admitted to having been in that part of the street on 20 February 2014, but denied shooting people. This was a critical trial and effectively the only one over the gunning down of unarmed protesters.

Their trial had been proceeding fairly slowly, however this was largely because the Special Investigations Department had wanted to make sure that any convictions would not later be overturned on technicalities and because of the number of witnesses and people with victim status in the case. 

All changed in December 2019, however, when Ukraine’s leaders agreed to hand over the five defendants as part of an exchange in which a number of Ukrainian POWs and civilian hostages held prisoner in the Russian proxy Donbas ‘republics’ were released. Their handover came after a cruel mockery of an appeal court hearing where the outcome proved to have been known in advance and where the Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka replaced the prosecutors from the former Special Investigations Department with three people who would support the suspects’ release. 

The decision to release them at all was highly contentious, but most particularly before a court verdict, expected in 2020, had been handed down.  Although two of the men (Marynchenko and Tamtur) have returned to Kyiv and claim they want to prove their innocence, it seems likely that the trial will collapse altogether since new proceedings are needed if the other men are to be tried in absentia.

It seems likely that the three men who did not return will head to Russia or at least obtain Russian citizenship under the illegal system that Moscow has introduced in occupied Donbas.   They will join other ex-Berkut officers now in Russia, including Sadovnyk.  Earlier the Special Investigations Department reported that ten of the 23 ex-Berkut officers suspected of involvement in the killings were known to have received Russian citizenship, while a further two men had been given ’refugee status.  That figure did not include suspected Maidan killer Vitaly Honcharenko and three other Maidan crime suspect who were left free to flee across the border into Russia in 2017.  Some former Berkut officers or other high-ranking Ukrainian officials have been spotted helping to crush peaceful protest in Russia.  Virtually no trials of enforcement officers or judges charged over Maidan crimes have ended in convictions, with this very seldom seeming to be for want of hard evidence.


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