Russia 'sentences' POW and prominent human rights defender Maksym Butkevych to 13 years on fictitious charges
Russia has once again used its proxy ‘Donbas republics’ to violate international law by staging the ‘trial’ and ‘sentencing’ of three Ukrainian prisoners of war seized while carrying out their military duties. Russia’s ‘Investigative Committee’ has even accused Maksym Butkevych, who is also a well-known journalist and human rights defender, of ‘attempted murder’ and claims he shelled a residential building. Butkevych has been denied access to an independent lawyer and other fundamental rights since his capture in June 2022, and the Russians or their proxies almost certainly used torture to obtain videoed ‘confessions’ from him and the other two men. The journalist initiative Graty that the charges pertain to a time when Butkevych was not in Donbas, and could not therefore have possibly committed the ‘crimes’ for which an unrecognized and totally Russian-controlled ‘court’ in the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [LPR] sentenced him to 13 years’ imprisonment in a harsh-regime prison colony.
Russia’s Investigative Committee began fabricating ‘war crimes’ cases against Ukrainians in captivity back in 2014. In one of the first such cases, a Ukrainian civilian Serhiy Lytvynov was tortured into ‘confessing’ to apparently horrific war crimes committing against fictitious people at non-existent addresses. Although the fabrication was proven, Lytvynov was still sentenced, on equally surreal charges, to 8.5 years’ imprisonment. Long before Russia’s full-scale invasion, several Ukrainian prisoners of war were ‘sentenced’ by the proxy ‘Luhansk or Donetsk people’s republics’ to 18-year sentences, with these illegal entities not even trying then to simulate compliance with international law.
In June 2022, a horrific stunt was staged in the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ with two British nationals and a Moroccan ‘sentenced to death’. The Russian proxies claimed them to be mercenaries, although all were provably soldiers serving within Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
On 10 March, Russia’s Investigative Committee that three ‘sentences’ had been passed in the two proxy ‘republics against three Ukrainian military servicemen “implicated in crimes against the civilian population” The ‘evidence’ against Maksym Butkevych; Viktor Pokhoziy and Vladislav Shelya, it claimed, had been gathered by the Investigative Committee’s military investigative bodies. Three Ukrainian soldiers defending their homeland were accused of ‘war crimes’ by a proxy formation fully controlled by the country that has been openly bombing and shelling civilian targets, torturing, raping and often murdering civilians for over a year. Russia has effectively imitated the trials that its own military should certainly be facing for provable crimes committed in Bucha, Izium, Kharkiv, Vinnytsia, Kramatorsk and many other parts of Ukraine. Both Pokhoziy and Shel’ are claimed to have been in Mariupol and to have beaten a local resident and shelled civilians. respectively.
It had been clear since June 2022 that the Russians and their proxies had singled Butkevych out and were attempting to get propaganda value out of his capture. There were probably deliberate attempts to confuse the renowned activist, known for his work defending refugees, fighting hate speech, racism, etc. with another Butkevych who had made a highly inflammatory comment about people in Donbas. There were overt attempts to present a person whose whole career has been spent defending human rights and fighting fascism and intolerance as some kind of ‘Nazi’ or ‘rabid nationalist’.
The Investigative Committee report says that Butkevych was, like the other men, convicted of violating the rules of war under Article 356 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code; while also being accused of (and ‘found guilty of’) ‘attempted murder’ (30 § 3) and deliberate damage to property under Article 105 § 2.a, 2e. It is claimed that on 4 June 2022, Butkevych shelled the entrance to an apartment block in Sievierodonetsk, with a mother and daughter giving ‘testimony’ as the supposed victms.
In fact, Graty writes that it has found confirmation that Butkevych’s unit was only sent to Donbas on 14 June at the earliest. Butkevych could not, therefore, have been in Sievierodonetsk on 4 June, as Russia is claiming. They have learned that Butkevych was in Kyiv oblast from the beginning to 14 June. There is a considerable amount of correspondence, making arrangements to meet colleagues in Kyiv, for example.
There is little point in analysing the ‘charges’ against Maksym, when he was deprived of proper defence, and when none of the alleged ‘evidence’ can be verified. There is, on the contrary, considerable evidence that Russia is using Ukrainians forcibly deported to Russia from Mariupol and other cities under occupation for propaganda videos and for alleged ‘testimony’ claiming that its most shocking war crimes (such as the bombing of the Drama Theatre in Mariupol in which around 1,000 civilians were seeking shelter from Russian bombs, were committed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Moscow cannot seriously believe that the international community will believe this nonsense, but they clearly hope to thus blur the situation, and convince at least some that this is a “Kyiv says, Moscow says” situation, where it’s a matter of choice whom you believe.
The Investigative Committee also claims that all three men “admitted guilt and repented”. There is no evidence of this and we know from the experiences of numerous other Ukrainians taken prisoner and tortured that ‘confessions’ can be extracted if a person is subjected to electric shocks, asphyxiation and other horrific forms of torture.
Maksym Butkevych is 45 and very well-known in Ukraine and abroad, especially in the UK where he studied, and also worked for the BBC for a while. He was very active in the human rights project ‘Without Borders’ which sought to highlight the cases of asylum seekers facing deportation from Ukraine to Russia, Belarus or other countries where they faced danger. He is one of the co-founders of Hromadske Radio and of the ZMINA Human Rights Centre.
Like very many Ukrainians, Maksym saw no option but to enlist on the day that Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Under a photo of himself in military gear he wrote: “Unfortunately, I must put my work helping refugees, and my humanitarian and human rights activities on hold. I imagine from the photo, you can understand why…. There are times when you need to be read to defend what is important, I firmly believe that. And the rest – after our victory.”