war crimes in Ukraine

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Ukrainian police officer to go on trial accused of savage torture to extract a ‘confession’

Halya Coynash
Photo from Ukrainska Pravda

Andriy Tarakhteyev , the deputy heard of a police department in the Kharkiv oblast, has been charged with using torture back in November 2019 to force out a ‘confession’ to murder.  He was placed under 24-hour house arrest on 1 October after judge Anzhelika Hrymailo from the Leninsky District Court in Kharkiv rejected the prosecutor’s application for Tarakhteyev, who denies the charges, to be remanded in custody.  The prosecutor is also seeking his suspension from his post, with that court hearing scheduled for 4 October.

The Kharkiv Region Prosecutor’s Office reported on 30 September that a man, identified only by his post and rank as a police lieutenant colonel had been formally charged with torture carried out through prior conspiracy by a group of people (Article 127 § 2 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code).  The charges relate to the police actions following a murder committed in November 2019.  The report states that, “in order to solve the crime more quickly, the police officer decided to use prohibited methods of investigation”.   

Hanna Sokolova, writing for Graty, has learned more about the case and spoken with the victim of the alleged torture. After news of a murder in the township of Omelchenki, Tarakhteyev and other “unidentified” colleagues, went to the scene of the crime.  They spoke with residents and established that the dead man, Vasyl Dovbenko had been friendly with 61-year-old Mykola Malakhov.  

The investigators assert that the police officers “without convincing evidence” decided to force Malakhov to ‘confess’ to the killing.  They turned up at his home and walked in through an unlocked door while Malakhov was asleep. Tarakhteyev is alleged to have carried out the torture, however since this is supposed to have been in conspiracy with the other men, it is strange that their identity is said to have not been established. Tarakhteyev is accused of having hit Malakhov on the back with a wooden stick, after which he used this same stick to press Malakhov’s head on the pillow “so that he wasn’t able to scream, call for help or breathe”.  He is then alleged to have pulled Malakhov from the bed and dealt several fist blows to his body.  The men put handcuffs on him and took him to the district police station, where, in an office, they took turns in beating Malakhov around the head with a bottle of water.

“Having failed to achieve their aim, the police officers continued the torture – while his colleagues held Malakhov’s arms and legs, Tarakhteyev put on rubber gloves and began squeezing and pulling the man’s genitals, demanding that he confess to murder”. 

The torture is believed to have lasted around five hours.  Graty has learned that Malakhov later told the investigators that the officers had claimed that he knew who killed ‘Vasya’, and that he had drunk with the victim and that they therefore believed that he had killed him and that he must confess.  He insisted that he hadn’t killed anybody and that he knew nothing about the crime.

Malakhov also recounted that the person who had beaten him with the stick had, in the office, demanded that he take a knife in his hand.  When he refused, they began beating him even harder and he finally picked up the knife.  The torture only ended when Malakhov finally wrote the ‘confession to murder’ that one of the ‘investigators’ who was a witness to the torture dictated.  Malakhov was remanded in custody the following day.  He told the state-appointed lawyer and SIZO [remand prison] staff that he had not been beaten, that the injuries were from his falling over when drunk.

It was later that Malakhov reported the torture. Although the restraint measure was reduced from detention, he is still facing the murder charge with his trial now underway at a district court in Kharkiv.  If convicted, he faces a sentence of up to 15 years, five years more than the maximum sentence that Tarakhteyev faces if convicted of having tortured Malakhov into ‘confessing’ (and into providing ‘material evidence’, namely the knife, under torture).

Tarakhteyev was only charged with torture on 30 September 2021, almost two years after the murder.   The situation is certainly strange in that the prosecutor’s office is claiming to have established sufficient grounds for charging Tarakhteyev with torture, as part of a group, while allegedly having failed to identity the other men involved.  Tarakhteyev confirms that he worked at the scene of the murder in November 2019, but says that he never used torture.  He also denies having ordered the investigator to detain Malakhov.  He asserts that such methods (i.e. torture) were used in the 1990s, but that “we now live in a law-based society where there are loads of various forms of state services”.  He claims also that it’s easy for “a bandit” to protect himself from serious charges by saying that he was beaten, and that either he’s a scapegoat, for the State Bureau of Investigations to produce a stunt, or he got in somebody’s way “in connection with fighting crime”.

Prosecutor Dmytro Hladun does not agree.  He points to the minutes of Malakhov’s interrogation and the testimony of two witnesses to back the charges against Tarakhteyev, as well as an investigative experiment involving Malakhov (seemingly, where he described the torture).  There are also telephone traffic records which show that Tarakhteyvev was both in Malakhov’s home and in the office where the alleged torture took place.  In addition, the injuries Malakhov suffered were recorded by medical assessments. The prosecutor had asked for Tarakhteyev to be remanded in custody on the grounds that he could influence the course of the investigation or could go into hiding.  This was vehemently disputed by Tarakhteyev and his lawyer.   Judge Hrymaiko asked the prosecutor whether the investigator into the murder, and the main witness to the alleged torture had been interrogated. Rather worryingly, Hladun was unable to answer this. Hrymaiko ordered Tarakhteyev, who may or may not be suspended from the police force on 4 October, to be placed under house arrest for the next two months.

While it is for the courts to determine whether the charges against Tarakhteyev are warranted, the latter’s claim that torture is no longer used by Ukrainian law enforcement officers can, unfortunately, be disputed. The new Criminal Procedure Code of 2012 introduced many important safeguards, but there is no evidence that the practice has stopped.  If Malakhov’s ‘confession’ was indeed tortured out of him, it would be fairly standard for those responsible to have also ensured that he blamed himself for the injuries that could not be concealed.  KHPG monitoring of violence in the police force in 2020 found that, while a majority of police officers do consider the use of torture to solve a case to be unacceptable under any circumstances, around one in five police officers believed unlawful violence to be admissible “in extreme cases”.  A simple Google check will confirm that the understanding of “extreme cases” seems to be very loose, and that is simply judging by reports of officers being charged, usually with abuse of power.  There are likely to be very many more that simply did not come to light.  The fact that so very few cases are properly investigated is doubtless one of the main reasons why the practice continues.   The KHPG monitoring found that a largely majority of those who said that they had suffered abuse at the hands of the police (almost 73%) did not lodge a formal complaint.  This in turn is not surprising when the complaints are likely to be examined by the same police bodies which are accused of the violations.

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