Ukrainian ex-police chief appears at his trial for Maidan crimes after 7 years in hiding
Volodymyr Serba, former Head of the Zaporizhya Regional Police, turned up on 1 July 2021 at his trial, in absentia, over the savage dispersal of Maidan protesters in January 2014 and claimed that he had never been in hiding. Despite compelling grounds that this was untrue and that he could again disappear, judge Yulia Pivovarova rejected the application for him to be taken into custody.
Serba is accused of having organized the dispersal of the local Maidan on 26 January 2014. According to Olena Yarkina, the lawyer representing Maidan victims, Serba was originally charged, together with the former head of the Zaporizhya Regional Administration, Oleksandr Peklushenko and the ex-head of the Regional Council, Viktor Mezheiko. The criminal proceedings were initiated in 2014, with Serba still around while all the procedural parts were underway. After it became clear that Serba was not appearing at the prosecutor’s office, as summoned, for questioning, special procedure was ordered to ascertain whether he was still in Ukraine. At that stage, the prosecutor obtained information that he had crossed the border and gone to Rostov, in Russia.
In 2015, therefore, Serba’s case was separated into a separate trial, to be heard in absentia, although the charges remained the same as in the original case against the three men. Peklushenko was found dead in his home on 12 March 2015. Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov stated at the time that he had Peklushenko had shot himself with his own gun.
On 17 July 2015, the Kirovsky District Court in Kirovohrad (now Kropyvnytsky) found Mezheika guilty of the charges over the dispersal of the Zaporizhya Maidan and passed a five-year suspended sentence, with a three-year probation period, and a three-year ban on holding certain posts.
Hearings in Serba’s absence have been taking place for five years at the Zhovtnevy District Court in Zaporizhya. It seems that the police stated before the hearing on 1 July began that Serba was not on any wanted list, and that they, therefore, had no grounds to detain him. It is a complicated procedure to get a trial changed into one carried out in absentia, and the prosecutor had needed to provide evidence that Serba had been placed on both the Ukrainian and international wanted lists by 19 February 2015. Both the police excuse and the court’s refusal to remand Serba in custody are all the more baffling as the Interior Ministry database of ‘People who are in hiding from the authorities’ includes Volodymyr Serba. The entry says that he disappeared on 7 July 2014, and that there is an arrest warrant against him.
Yarkina says that she will be lodging formal demands for information regarding this with the prosecutor’s office and Security Service [SBU]. There is no information, she adds, that Serba was removed from the wanted list, nor that any other actions with respect to him had been undertaken. The question must arise as to whether corruption was involved in getting him removed, and who was behind this. She is also preparing an appeal against the court’s refusal to remand Serba in custody, and mere use of a signed undertaking from him to remain at his sister’s address.
In a report entitled “Treason of the Week”, the Advocacy Advisory Panel has provided more detail about the dramatic turnaround on 1 July. Serba appeared together with a lawyer from Dnipro. They claimed that Serba had not been in hiding outside Ukraine for the last seven years, and at simply “not known” about the criminal proceedings against him. Serba alleged that he had suddenly learned of this in March 2020 but did not appear in court as he was afraid of catching Covid. His lawyer, in turn, claimed that he could not turn up in court due to an illness.
On 1 July, however, Serba had somehow managed to overcome his concerns about the pandemic and had flown to Ukraine from Turkey. He assured the court that he would now turn up at the hearings after failing to do so for almost seven years. The Advocacy Advice Centre points out that Serba used his passport for foreign travel to confirm his identity. He claimed that he “had lost” his Ukrainian internal ‘passport’ in Russia, although such a loss of a Ukrainian passport very often means that the person has obtained Russian citizenship. This, in turn, would make it much easier for Serba, should he decide to, to flee again from his sister’s home in the Donetsk oblast to the Russian proxy Donbas ‘republics’ or to Russia. ‘Ttushki’ or hired thugs from Russia’s Rostov oblast are known to have crossed into Ukraine and taken part, together with the officers under Serba’s control, in the violent dispersal of Maidan activists on 26 January 2014.
Serba is charged under Article 294 § 1 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code with organizing mass disturbances involving the use of violence; with committing a crime as part of a group by prior conspiracy (Article 28; and with exceeding his official powers (Article 365). The mass riots charge alone could, in theory, carry a sentence of from five to eight years. It is worrying, however, that Serba appears to have been sure that he would not be remanded in custody. He may, for the same reason, feel confident of the outcome of the trial.