Ukrainian blogger gets 3-year sentence over posts calling for a ‘referendum’ on joining Russia
The Chernihiv Court of Appeal has imposed a real three-year prison sentence on Andriy Novokreshchenov over social media posts. In these, the 49-year-old who was born in Russia, but is now a Ukrainian citizen, claimed that Ukraine had never existed and called for a ‘people’s referendum’ on merging part of Ukraine with Russia and Belarus. Both the first and the appellate court had agreed that this fell under Article 110 § 1 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code (deliberate actions aimed at changing Ukraine’s territorial borders), however the first court had imposed a suspended sentence, with a year’s parole. All of Novokreshchenov’s posts were undoubtedly anti-Ukrainian, however they did not call for any violent challenge to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, something that the European Court of Human Rights would take into account should this case ever end up before it.
Novokreshchenov was charged over Odnoklassniki social network posts from 18, 30 October and 13 November 2019. In these, he claims that the Kyiv authorities “have bared their teeth at Donbas “ because the latter purportedly used their democratic rights and expressed their will to “live as free people” in a referendum. The event in question, on 11 May 2014, bore no resemblance to a real referendum, and was ultimately not even recognized by Russia (details here). He later goes on to claim that Ukraine comes from the Russian word for ‘outskirts’ and, using the Russian word with a capital letter, asserts that Donbas was never part of this, nor Crimea. “There never was a Ukraine, and there isn’t now!”
Although pro-Russian blogger Anatoliy Shariy has claimed, as, doubtless, will the Russian propaganda media, that Novokreshchenov was sentenced to three years for denying Ukraine’s existence, the charges under Article 110 clearly referred to the following utterances.
“Rus! Rus as made up by Belarus, the European part of Russia, the northern regions of uKraina [as he insists on writing Ukraine] and its South-East! We will hold a people’s referendum for the uniting of Russian lands and creation of a single state – Rus in its historical borders!”
Such a ‘people’s referendum’ would certainly be in violation of Ukraine’s Constitution and illegal. The ‘referendum stunts’ in occupied Crimea and Donbas were held by heavily armed fighters in conditions where expressing pro-Ukrainian views could get you beaten up, abducted and tortured or even killed, with this alone invalidating their alleged result.
Article 110 of the Criminal Code falls within the jurisdiction of Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] which considered that Novokreshchenov was guilty of seeking to change Ukraine’s territorial borders through his posts. The charges were presented by the Chernihiv Regional Prosecutor and accepted by the Desniansky District Court in Chernihiv on 1 April 2021, and then by the Chernihiv Court of Appeal on 29 July 2021.
It is probably less clear whether the European Court of Human Rights will share this view, if Novokreshchenov lodges an application, claiming that his posts fell under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Freedom of Speech). This remains to be seen, but his lawyers could point to the lack of any calls to violently implement such a ‘referendum’.
Ironically, Novokreshchenov’s earlier conviction seems less controversial. The journalist initiative Court Reporter has tracked down details of this earlier conviction in 2018. The charges were the same, however the social media posts in question were framed in much stronger language, particularly with respect to former President Petro Poroshenko. The post read: “Make him a real revolution, deprive that bloody dictator of his power.” He later went on to say that Ukraine’s MPs “should be hanged at the entrance to the parliament building.”
On that occasion, Novokreshchenov received a two-year suspended sentence. Although the point of a suspended sentence is that it becomes real if the person commits a new offence, by the elapse of this 2-year period in October 2020, no court sentence had been passed over the new charges laid over the posts in October and November 2019. Therefore on 12 October 2020, the same Desniansky District Court freed him of his punishment with this effectively wiping the slate clean. That is probably sign.
He was thus treated as a person without a criminal record when Judge Andriy Sapon from the Desniansky District Court came to pass sentence on 1 April 2021. The judge found him guilty of the charge, but took into account his age, family status and state of health and passed a three-year suspended sentence, with a one-year period of parole.
The prosecution objected, with the court on 29 July accepting the appeal, and making the sentence a real three-year term of imprisonment.