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Prosecutor refuses to investigate key suspect in murder of Roma leader in Kharkiv oblast

09.02.2021
Halya Coynash

Vilshany - protest demanding justice, Photo Mykola Burlutsky

Three and a half years after Mykola Kaspitsky, the leader of the Vilshany Roma community was shot and killed in an unprovoked attack, a Ukrainian prosecutor has , for the fourth time, refused to bring any criminal charges against one of the main suspects, Yevhen Kryvoruchko. This is despite eyewitness testimony that the local businessman played a key role in the escalation of violence that day and a forensic analysis of his clothing that found powder from a gunshot. It is also unclear what, if any, progress has been made in the trial of the two Kharkiv regional politicians who are facing charges over the attack that day.

There were calls from human rights activists immediately after the attack on 16 May 2017 for the criminal investigation to be moved outside the Kharkiv oblast in the hope that this would minimize pressure on the enforcement bodies and courts. It would seem that this was insufficient since the latest termination of the investigation into Kryvoruchko’s role came from the Poltava Regional Prosecutor’s Office on 29 January 2021.  Like the previous decisions, this one will almost certainly be challenged by the victims’ lawyer, Stanislav Myronenko, who says that of the three main suspects, .there is the most evidence against Kryvoruchko.  Myronenko explained to a Graty correspondent that he had sent complaints to parliamentary committees over what he sees as clear abuse in the constant termination of the investigation.  MPs clearly agreed and sent an appeal to the Prosecutor General’s Office which sent it on to Poltava.  The lawyer had recently received a letter stating that the pre-trial investigation was continuing, only to then learn, after a matter of days, of this latest decision to terminate the case.

There are strong grounds for believing that the events on 16 May 2017 were a  deliberate and unprovoked attack on Roma residents of Vilshany (Olshany in Russian), a small town / urban settlement around 30 kilometres from Kharkiv. 

49-year-old Mykola Kaspitsky was the informal leader of the Roma community, but he had arrived at the Vilshany council building in the morning of 16 May to speak with Vilshany Mayor, Andriy Lytvynov over the latter’s harassment of his 17-year-old son Ruslan, three days earlier.  Lytvynov, who, according to Ruslan Kaspitsky, had been “drunk and looking for entertainment”, had driven up to them, opened the car window and shouted “Gypsies” at them and at least one further insulting comment.  Ruslan turned around and asked him why he was saying that, at which point Lytvynov got out of the car, grabbed the lad and threatened to strangle him, butting him in the head.  According to Ruslan, he responded by slapping Lytvynov.  The latter warned that if he hit him again “there’ll be war”.

This was a serious threat since Lytvynov, who was then just 30, clearly enjoyed considerable power, having almost certainly become mayor thanks to his father, Oleksiy Lytvynov, who had relinquished the post, going on to be elected to the Kharkiv Regional Council.  

After hearing of this treatment of his son, Mykola Kaspitsky phoned the local police officer. Unfortunately the officer dissuaded Kaspitsky from filing a formal complaint against Lytvynov and convinced him to simply ring Andriy Lytvynov directly. During that phone conversation, Lytvynov claimed to have not known that Ruslan was Kaspitsky’s son, but also threatened to shoot the lad in the legs if he caught him.  Kaspitsky appears to have been quite conciliatory, simply stressing that his son was a young kid and that if there were any complaints about Ruslan, they should address them to him, as his father. 

It was seemingly at this point that Lytvynov proposed a meeting on 16 May, at the council building.  Kaspitsky arrived that morning, to find both Andriy and Oleksiy Lytvynov standing by the building, together with Kryvoruchko, a family friend, and some other men, reportedly in masks. 

It was Oleksiy Lytvynov who took an aggressive tone and demanded, using insulting language, that he call “other Gypsies”, or he would come himself and get them evicted from their homes.  

Kaspitsky called his brother, who now lives in a neighbouring town but is from Vilshany, and other members of the community. They grabbed spanners and similar items from the cars to potentially use in self-defence, but were otherwise unarmed.

Ruslan Kaspitsky was present and says that there were around 25 men counting the Lytvynovs.  He did not see the latter holding any weapons, but is convinced that Kryvoruchko and several other men were armed.

Although Ruslan speaks of his father and uncle having held “negotiations”, these appear to have lasted a minute or so, and involved Oleksiy Lytvynov abusing them, and then nodding in the direction of a jeep from which men in masks and camouflage leapt out and began both beating the Roma, and shooting at them.   Kaspitsky and the others began running, but there was one loud shot and a little later, Ruslan heard his mother shouting that they had killed his father. 

Mykola Kaspitsky was not killed outright, but lost consciousness.  His wife shouted to Oleksiy Lytvynov to save her husband and Lytvynov did drive him to the hospital – in the boot of his car.  After the car took Kaspitsky away, the assailants continued shooting at the Roma, injuring ten others, although not fatally.  Three people needed to be hospitalized.  Typically, it was the medical staff who reported the attack to the police, with the latter trying to claim that this was conflict that had occurred “on the basis of longstanding domestic misunderstanding”.

There are very serious grounds for concern about this case, both because of the charges that have been laid, and those that have not.  It appears that the head of the local prosecutor’s office turned up after Oleksiy Lytvynov and some other men were taken into custody and helped Lytvynov go home and get rid of the clothes that he had been wearing, thus destroying crucial evidence.

In 2018, charges against both Lytvynovs of causing a mass riot with grave consequences were passed first to the (neighbouring) Derhachy District Court, and then to the Kharkiv District Court.  Oleksiy Lytvynov is in addition charged with murder to conceal another crime.

This rather bizarre formulation seems aimed at concealing the hate crime nature of the crime.  The prosecution is claiming that Mykola Kaspitsky was murdered because he had information which he could divulge about who the hired thugs were and who was paying them. 

In fact, it is abundantly clear that there would have been no real criminal proceedings had Kaspitsky not been killed, which makes this alleged ‘motive’ totally unconvincing. This is so obvious that the suspicion arises that such an absurd charge is aimed at making Lytvynov’s conviction unlikely.

There has also been no effort to prosecute the Vilshany Council staff who removed bullets from the scene of the crime before the police arrived.  The employees were questioned but no charges were laid.

Kryvoruchko and Lytvynov were soon placed only under night-time house arrest, although there was every reason to assume, as the prosecutor suggested, that Lytvynov would put pressure on witnesses.   Kryvoruchko was quietly removed from the case altogether, despite the obvious evidence against him.

Myronenko has been attempting to get that investigation reinstated ever since.  He has needed to be as persistent in trying to get an investigation into the events as a racially-motivated hate crime (under Article 161 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code) with this also stubbornly resisted.

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