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Torture, ignored alibi and likely evidence-rigging in murder that triggered Loshchynivka anti-Roma riots

19.08.2021
Halya Coynash

Loshchynivka Police escorting Roma away Photo Sevodnya.ua, Mykhailo Chebotar in court, Photo Tetyana Gerasimova

Five years after the international media showed shocking images of Ukrainian anti-Roma disturbances, the only person in prison is very likely innocent

It is five years since the murder of 8-year-old Angelina in Loshchynivka (Odesa oblast) and the shocking anti-Roma riots that made international headlines.  There remains near total impunity for officials who abetted the rioters, and very serious doubts as to whether the young man immediately charged with the little girl’s death is guilty. Mykhailo Chebotar, who was 21 at the time, has spent the last five years in detention despite an alibi for the time of the crime, serious doubts about some of the evidence and complaints of torture. 

During the hearing on 10 August, the defence asked for a number of documents to be included in the case file, with most of these pertaining to Chebotar’s allegation that he was beaten by the police in order to force a confession out of him, and the defence’s consistent attempts to ensure a criminal investigation over the alleged torture.  The prosecutor’s office first refused to initiate such an investigation, and then, when courts upheld the defence’s applications and ordered it to do so, terminated the proceedings.  All of these was repeated three times.  The case is at least now being run by the State Bureau of Investigations, but there is no evidence as yet of real progress.   

The prosecutor Svitlana Kolohreva objected, claiming that you can’t talk about torture if no officer has been charged.  The argument seems somewhat cynical given the role played by the prosecutor’s office in blocking an investigation.  

The court agreed to include the material regarding torture, but rejected two other applications from the defence – to include a shocking pronouncement by Mikhail Saakashvili, who was then Governor of Odesa Oblast, totally ignoring the presumption of innocence and an important film showing the investigation that journalists from TV Ukraina carried out into the case.  They found that DNA traces that have never been identified seemed to match the DNA of Angelina’s stepfather.  Although it is possible to understand why the court might refuse to include a journalist investigation for TV as evidence, the film does highlight many disturbing details about this case. 

DNA / biological traces

Two expert assessments found biological traces of a ‘third, unidentified individual’, yet the defence’s two applications (in November 2019 and in April 2020) for Angelina’s stepfather to undergo a DNA test have been rejected. 

This is particularly worrying since there are grounds for thinking that evidence that would appear to incriminate Chebotar was faked.  It is hard to find another explanation for why the hand swab taken from Chebotar contained only Angelina’s DNA, and not his own.  A different forensic institute did not find Chebotar’s DNA in the samples taken from under the victim’s fingernails (of her right hand)

There is no other DNA incriminating Chebotar despite this allegedly having been a sexual crime carried out in haste and in the dark. According to defence lawyer, Andriy Leshchenko, there was no trace of Chebotar’s sperm on the little girl herself, or on her clothes. 

Alibi

Even after summoning the first forensic scientist, Oleh Halev and placing him under enormous pressure to stretch out the possible time of the crime, he still only increased the latest time by 35 minutes.  He had initially said 22.00 to 01.25, but extended the latest time to 02.00.  This, in fact, is still earlier than when Chebotar ceased to have an alibi, however a second forensic examination then reiterated the original timeframe.  Tetyana Gerasimova from the Centre for Legal Monitoring noted after the hearing on 10 August that the trial is simply not moving, with the main delay now being the prosecutor’s application back on 30 October 2020 to question the head of the forensic commission that carried out the second assessment.  Gerasimova asks whether the reason for ‘waiting’ nine months for this expert is because the prosecutor wants to exert the same pressure as that brought to bear on Halev.

How this can help the prosecution’s case is not quite clear, but then the timing is one of the reasons why it is difficult to understand how Chebotar could be reaching the end of a fifth year in detention.

Both forensic assessments initially gave the time of the murder as between 22.00 and 1.25 a.m.  Chebotar has an alibi for that period, since he was either with Angelina’s stepfather, Oleksandr Matiush, or in a bar with a number of people who confirm this. The prosecutor therefore asserts that Chebotar committed the crime over an hour after the latest time given, namely between 2.30 and 3.00. 

Witnesses

Chebotar was arrested soon after the body was found in the morning of 27 August 2016.  His cap was found in Angelina’s house, and the police found the alleged murder weapon – a screwdriver in his house.  During the previous evening, Chebotar and Matiash had spent a lot of time together, drinking, first at Matiash’s brother’s home and then at the local bar.

While walking to the bar with Matiash, they dropped into the house to check on the children (whose mother was at work until 03.00). Chebotar told the television journalists that both men had walked into the house.  Angelina’s little brother was fast asleep, but the little girl was not in her bed and, according to Chebotar, Matiash (who had been drinking from early evening) began shouting.  Chebotar asserts that, when Angelina came out of the toilet, Matiash hit her and she fell, hitting her head.  He says that he tried to stop Matiash and hit him, with Matiash hitting him back, after which he walked out.  He assumes that it was during the scuffle with Matiash that he lost his cap.  Chebotar asserts that he went off to the bar alone and that Matiash arrived 20-25 minutes later, having changed his clothes.  He claimed to have fallen and to have needed to go back to change.  According to Chebotar, Matiash had earlier borrowed some screwdrivers from him, and he suddenly pulled them out of his pocket and gave them to Chebotar.  

In October 2019, two brothers – Armen Muntyan and Rustam Churargave testimony that contradicted the prosecution’s version and raised serious doubts about the ‘investigators’’ wish to find the real killer.  The brothers’ testimony about that evening and about the behaviour or both Chebotar and Matiash differed radically from that given by other witnesses, who are all either Matiash’s relatives or friends. According to Gerasimova, details of the brothers’ testimony can only be made public after all witnesses have testified, but the testimony “places the prosecution’s version in serious doubt”.  In court, the brothers testified that they had been shouted at by the police who demanded that they say that Chebotar had killed the little girl and that the cap was his.  They defended Chebotar then and in court, saying that they did not believe he was guilty and presenting a far from idyllic picture of Angelina’s family life

There was also critical, and much belated, evidence during the last hearing, on 18 May 2021.  Two sisters - Valentina Kazanzhi and Veronika Dobreva – gave testimony immediately after the murder was discovered, but this would appear to have been ignored.

The defence tried for a long time to track down the women who were not living where registered and did not answer phone calls.  The prosecutor would almost certainly have had no such difficulty, but she chose not to summon them for questioning.  Late in 2020, the Prymorsky Court, where Chebotar is on trial allowed the defence’s application for the women to be forcibly brought to the court, although even this took six months.

Kazanzhi was finally questioned, by video link, on 18 May 2021.  She explained that at 21.00 on 26 August 2016, she, her sister and two female friends had gone to the Fortuna Bar in Loshchynivka.  At around 0.30 – 1.00 they had gone out to smoke close to the bar and stood near two electricity posts which are not far from the home where Angelina lived with her mother, stepfather and younger brother, nor from the garden behind their home, where the little girl’s body was found.  As soon as they came out, they heard screams from the direction of the garden. Kazanzhi demonstrated to the court several times the sound that she had heard and said that at the time they thought that people were having a row.   She says that she was already home at 2.00, with this crucial since the prosecution is claiming that Chebotar committed the murder after that time.

Kazanzhi went on to explain that a schoolfriend had rung her in the morning and told her about Angelina’s murder.  It was then, she says, that she understood that the screams they had heard could be linked to this.  She went to the police and was questioned by the investigators.  Presiding Judge Viktor Ivanov asked the witness to specify when exactly she had heard the screams and she reiterated that it had been between 0.30 and 1.00 on 27 August. 

The indictment clearly states that from 22.00 on 26 August 2016, until 02.00 on 27 August  Chebotar was with a large group of people, first at the home of Matiash’ brother, and then in the Fortuna Bar.  The screams were thus at a time when Chebotar has an alibi, and when, in all likelihood, Oleksandr Matiash does not.

Riots

Mykhailo Chebotar is from Loshchynivka and, until his imprisonment, had lived there all his life.  This and the fact that he was not particularly a member of the Roma community makes it clear that his arrest was merely a pretext for violent anti-Roma riots, which those involved claimed were against Roma who had arrived in Loshchynivka in the past three years.  

A crowd of 150-170 locals set fire to one Roma building and devastated several others. The fact that nobody was injured is probably only because the people in the houses fled in time.  While the police were heavily outnumbered, the video footage showed them making no effort at all to intervene, just standing and watching.  There were also no attempts to call in reinforcements from other areas. It was only after the local authorities promised to hold negotiations the following day, that the crowd stopped the destruction.  By that stage, around ten homes had been smashed up.  Three were owned by the people in them, the others were rented.   Dumskaya noted that the three homes of more affluent Roma had not been targeted. 

It is unclear what methods were used to persuade the local Roma community to leave Loshchynivka, but the very fact that the local authorities obtained such agreement essentially meant that they were siding with the rioters.

Here too, lawyers representing the families of victims ran up against huge obstruction from the prosecutor’s office with the latter terminating investigations, only for the courts to again order them to be reinstated.

On 25 April 2019, the Fifth Odesa Administrative Court of Appeal in Odesa found that the police failure to react adequately during anti-Roma riots in August 2016 had been unlawful, and awarded compensation to the families driven from their homes.  The amounts were much less than those demanded, but this was an important first for a Ukrainian court was far less than that demanded, this is, nonetheless, vital first for a Ukrainian court and a huge victory for lawyers Yulia Lisova and Volodymyr Kondur. The ruling  found both the inaction by the police during the riots and the actions of the Loshchynivka Village Mayor, Viktor Paskalov who was responsible for the decision to evict the Roma families to have been unlawful.  The court ordered that compensation of 10 thousand UAH should be paid to each of the plaintiffs, with the money to be paid by the Loshchynivka Village Council and the Odesa Regional National Police.  The lower court had, in fact, found Paskalov’s actions unlawful, but had dismissed all the other parts of the claim, including compensation.

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