war crimes in Ukraine

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Frustrating sentence over savage torture and killing of Maidan activist Yury Verbytsky

Halya Coynash
Oleksandr Volkov was sentenced to 9 years for organizing the abduction and savage torture of Yury Verbytsky, but was not convicted of organizing his murder

A court in the Kyiv oblast has sentenced Oleksandr Volkov to 9 years’ imprisonment over the abduction, savage torture and effective killing of 50-year-old Maidan activist, Yury Verbytsky*.  If is unclear whether Volkov will appeal a sentence which could see him free in less than two years, however the prosecutor has already announced that she will be challenging the verdict.

The charges pertained to the abduction by ‘titushki’, or government-paid thugs, of Yury Verbytsky and Ihor Lutsenko, a well-known journalist and civic activist, from a Kyiv hospital in the early hours of 21 January 2014.  Verbytsky was a 51-year-old seismologist from Lviv who had come to Kyiv to join the Maidan protests.  He had sustained an eye injury during the conflict on Maidan with Lutsenko taking him to the hospital.  Lutsenko survived and was able to recount that the two men had originally been taken to a garage where they were questioned by unidentified individuals, speaking Russian, about their involvement in the Maidan protests. While Lutsenko answered in Russian, Verbytsky spoke Ukrainian.  At the time, Lutsenko said that Verbytsky had received particularly savage treatment from the abductors due to his being from western Ukraine. 

Yury Verbytskyy’s body was found in a forest outside Kyiv.  He had sustained horrific injuries, being hit by ‘blunt objects’ at least 30 times, and then left to die in freezing conditions.

Volkov was charged with organizing the abduction, torture and deliberate murder of Verbytsky, and of Lutsenko’s abduction and torture.  The prosecutor, Yulia Malashych, had asked for a full conviction and 13-year sentence.

Instead the panel of three judges (Yury Kabaniachy (presiding); Yevhen Borets and Ilona Muranova-Lesiv) found Volkov guilty of organizing, via prior conspiracy, the abduction and torture with grave consequences of the two men. The court, however, changed the charge of organizing the deliberate killing of Verbytsky to one of having left Verbytsky without help, with this having caused his death (Article 135 § 3 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code). It further acquitted Volkov of the charge of having created a criminal gang.  He was found guilty of having obstructed peaceful assembly, but freed from liability as this crime was time-barred.

It was not just liability for that last charge which was impacted by the fact that the trial, seven years after Maidan, dragged on for three years.  The court ruled that the nine-year sentence would be in accordance with the so-called ‘Savchenko law’, which equates one year in a SIZO, or remand prison where the conditions are considerably worse, to two days in a prison colony.  This means that, even if the sentence is upheld at appeal stage, Volkov will be counted as having already served seven and a half years.

Yulia Malashych has called the acquittal on the charge or organizing a criminal gang and the change from Article 115 (murder) to 135 unwarranted and in conflict with the evidence presented.  She says she will definitely be lodging an appeal.

On 21 January 2021, exactly seven years after Verbytsky’s abduction,  the European Court of Human Rights issued five damning judgements, finding Ukraine in violation of multiple rights, including the right to life, to liberty and security and the prohibition of torture. 

In the Case of Lutsenko and Verbytskyy v. Ukraine, brought by Lutsenko and Yury Verbytsky’s brother, Serhiy, the Court examined the circumstances around both the abduction / killing and the authorities’ ‘investigation.  It found that there had been violations of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, both with respect to the murder itself, and to the authorities’ failure to carry out an effective official investigation.  The Ukrainian Government had tried to argue that it was ‘premature’ to speak of a violation of the procedural branch of Article 2 (over the lack of effective investigation).  Seven years on, the Court was unconvinced.  It also found that there had been violations of Articles 3 (the prohibition of torture); 5 § 1 (the right to liberty and security) and 11 of the Convention “on account, in particular, of the ill-treatment and persecution of the first applicant and the torture and death of the second applicant’s brother as a result of their implication in the Maidan protests. The Court has also found that much of the abuse was committed by non-State agents who acted with the acquiescence if not the approval of the authorities and that to date no independent and effective official investigation has been conducted into these matters.”


*  Since there is a great deal about Yury Verbytsky’s murder on this site, we are staying with the spelling used up till now, however ECHR writes Verbytskyy.


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