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Ukraine to answer before ECHR over arrest that sparked anti-Roma riots

19.10.2021
Halya Coynash

Mykhailo Chebotar, screenshot from the TV Ukraina film

The European Court of Human Rights is to examine several alleged violations, including torture and discrimination, in the case of a young man arrested in August 2016 over the murder of a 8-year-old girl in Loshchynivka (Odesa oblast).  Mykhailo Chebotar was 21 and lived locally yet his Roma ethnicity was used as a pretext for shocking anti-Roma disturbances, abetted by the local authorities.  The defence has also succeeded in adding documents to the case regarding the alleged torture, with the State Bureau of Investigations having initiated an investigation.

Chebotar’s lawyer, Andriy Leshchenko reported at the end of September that the Court in Strasbourg (ECHR) had registered their application.  Chebotar has now been in detention for over five years, and the alleged violations also concern the appalling conditions that he has been held in.  These include a cell where there is only 2 or 2.5 m² per person, as opposed to the minimum standard of 4 m² set by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture.  The application also alleges violation of Article 3 of the European Convention (the prohibition of torture) with respect to Chebotar’s consistent allegation that he was tortured (beaten) following his arrest to try to get him to admit to the crime.  The ongoing detention is challenged as well, with the prosecutor providing no evidence that Chebotar would try to influence witnesses or go into hiding.  The defence will further argue that Chebotar was the victim of discrimination at the very outset, being targeted because of his Roma ethnicity.

Some of the material which will doubtless be examined by ECHR was added to the case at the defence’s request during a hearing at the Prymorsky Court on 10 August 2021.  These are copies of the lawyers’ formal demands for criminal proceedings to be initiated over bodily injuries allegedly caused Chebotar when police tried to beat the latter into ‘’confessing’ to the murder following his arrest on the morning of 27 July 2016.  There are also copies of the formal refusals by the Odesa Regional Prosecutor’s Office to initiate such proceedings and of the Prymorsky Court rulings ordering the same Prosecutor’s Office to do so.  Over the five years, the lawyers have demanded three times that information be added to the Single Register of Pre-Trial Investigations regarding the torture their client endured, with three refusals from the Prosecutor’s Office.  In the Spring of 2021, the defence did finally succeed in getting such an investigation initiated, and this is now being carried out by the State Bureau of Investigations.  Although the court on 10 August did agree to include the above material, this was only after arguments from the prosecutor Svitlana Kolohreva who claimed, very cynically, that you could not talk about torture if no officer had been charged.  No officer could be charged while the prosecutor’s office kept refusing to initiate proceedings.

26-27 August 2016

Mykhailo Chebotar was arrested very soon after the discovery of 8-year-old Angelina’s body in the morning of 27 August.  Since the young man was a local resident, and not especially part of the Roma community, it seems likely that his arrest was deliberately used as a pretext for violent anti-Roma riots, which those involved claimed were against Roma who had arrived in Loshchynivka in the past three years.  Although 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.  The most shocking aspect of all of this was that the local authorities effectively sided with the rioters and ‘persuaded’ some of the Roma families to leave the area. 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 and the actions of the Loshchynivka Village Mayor, Viktor Paskalov  had been unlawful, and awarded compensation to the families driven from their homes. 

The events that unfolded are important since there appears to have never been any particular attempt to examine other possible versions, despite very real concerns that the case against Chebotar does not add up.  This was, in fact, highlighted in an important film showing the investigation that journalists from TV Ukraina carried out into the case, which found, among other things, that the DNA traces that have never been identified seemed to match the DNA of Angelina’s stepfather, Oleksandr Matiash. 

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 were rejected. 

There are several reasons why this is baffling, particularly 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. Leshchenko has confirmed that there was no trace of Chebotar’s semen 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. After providing a series of excuses for not appearing in court, the head of a second forensic team, Olena Sliusarenko was finally questioned in court on 4 October 2021.  Although questioned for two hours, and despite a timeframe coinciding with the first examination, Sliusarenko still refused “to confirm or deny” that the crime could have been committed over an hour after the end of this timeframe, from 02.30 to 03.00.  Tetyana Gerasimova from the Centre for Legal Monitoring has been following this case from the beginning and has expressed suspicion that the first expert, and probably this second, were under pressure from the prosecutor.

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 Churar - gave 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 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 2016.

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.

None of the above is written with the aim of usurping the role of the court, but it does explain why the case continues to arouse strong concern.

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