Russia approves fake 'court' sentence against renowned Ukrainian rights defender, journalist and prisoner of war
Russia’s first court of appeal in Moscow took almost no time on 22 August to uphold an evidently flawed and illegal 13-year sentence against a Ukrainian prisoner of war [POW]. The panel of ‘judges’ (Pavel Vladimirovich Melekhin* (presiding); Larissa Sergeyevna Izotyeva and Yury Viktorovich Troyan) ignored evidence that Maksym Butkevych had been somewhere else altogether and could not have committed the crimes he was convicted of by an unrecognized ‘court’ in the Russian proxy ‘Luhansk people’s republic’. The court slightly reduced the amount of the sentence still remaining by deciding to count his detention as being from 19 August 2022. Up till now, , only a few days prior to the ‘sentence’ passed on 6 March 2023 had been counted. This new date, however, merely highlights the sheer lawlessness around Maksym’s persecution as 19 August 2022 was when Russia’s defence ministry acknowledged that he was in detention. He has, however, been held in Russian captivity since on or around 24 June 2022.
The fact that Russia is in grave violation of international law through such so-called ‘trials’ is also clear from the fact that representatives of the German, British and French embassies were all present at the appeal hearing. Maksym himself took part from the Luhansk SIZO [remand prison] where he has been held up till now.
Maksym Butkevych is a well-known human rights defender and journalist who played an active role, in particular, in helping refugees and highlighting Ukraine’s appalling record in failing to ensure safe haven for refugees. He was one of the co-founders of Hromadske Radio and of the ZMINA Human Rights Centre. From the beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014, he coordinated a resource centre for those forced to flee their homes (internally displaced persons). At the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Maksym, like very many compatriots, saw no choice but to take up arms in defence of his country. He joined Ukraine’s Armed Forces and was soon put in charge of a platoon. They were deployed on the frontline in the Luhansk oblast in the second half of June 2022 when he and the platoon were seized by Russian forces near the village of Myrna Dolyna.
Butkevych and all of the other are, without any question, prisoners of war. It was, however, clear from the smear campaign within days of his capture that the Russians did know about Butkevych’s civic position and human rights defence work. There were, almost certainly deliberate, attempts to confuse Maksym Butkevych, who has campaigned tirelessly against all forces of hate speech and discrimination, with another Butkevych who had made a highly inflammatory comment about people in Donbas.
Maksym Butkevych’s ‘sentence’ is one of many where Russia is hiding behind its proxy ‘republics’ in occupied Donbas. By staging their so-called ‘trials’ in unrecognized and illegitimate ‘courts’, they can ensure that horrific sentences are passed without any pretence at all of rule of law. It was indicative of the nature of Butkevych’s ‘trial’ that this was reported, post factum by on 10 March 2023, together with sentences against Viktor Pokhoziy and Vladislav Shelya. All three men were shown giving so-called ‘testimony’ that had, almost certainly, been obtained through torture or other forms of duress. In fact, the 13-year sentence in a harsh-regime prison colony against Maksym Butkevych had been handed down by the illegitimate ‘Luhansk people’s republic supreme court’ four days earlier, on 6 March. Butkevych was also ordered to pay three alleged ‘victims’ substantial amounts in ‘compensation’ (a million roubles each to the two supposed victims of ‘attempted murder’ and 600 thousand to a third individual).
Butkevych was, like the other men, convicted of violating the rules of war under Article 356 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code. He was also charged with ‘attempted murder’ (30 § 3) and deliberate damage to property under Article 105 § 2.a, 2e. It was 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 victims. These two individuals did not appear in ‘court’ on 22 August, and another supposed ‘victim’ sent a statement claiming that he had incurred ‘significant damage’, but also failed to appear.
All of this is of particular concern given the apparent evidence, , that Butkevych’s unit was only sent to Donbas on 14 June at the earliest. Not only was Butkevych not in Sievierodonetsk on 4 June, as Russia is claiming, but there is correspondence confirming that he was in Kyiv oblast over the first two weeks of June.
During this kangaroo ‘trial’ in Luhansk on 6 March, Butkevych had the services of a ‘lawyer’ imposed by the prosecution. The Russian court was, reportedly, unable to contact this individual, identified only as Tiutionnyk , before the appeal hearing.
This judicial show was immediately condemned by as “a cynical farce”. The human rights defenders, who described Maksym (Max) as both a friend and a colleague, pointed to the signs of physical violence and to Butkevych repeating what he had been forced to say in the video posted by Russia’s Investigative Committee. There are simply no grounds at all for believing, as the Investigative Committee claimed, that Butkevych and the other two men had “admitted guilt and repented”. Any such words can be extracted if a person is subjected to electric shocks and other forms of torture, Russia has held Maksym and other Ukrainian POWs in isolation, without any contact with their families, with independent lawyers and is continuing, in violation of international law, to prevent international organizations, like the Red Cross and UN monitors, from visiting them. Under such conditions, any supposed ‘confessions’ point only to Russia’s egregious infringement of the men’s rights under the Geneva Convention.
There is simply no possibility that ‘judges’ Melekhin; Izotyeva and Troyan were unaware that Butkevych had been the victim of a travesty of justice. He himself stated clearly in court that he had been prevented from consulting with the lawyer of his choice before today.
Russia’s persecution of Maksym Butkevych has received international condemnation with demands for his release issued by, among others, , , , as well, of course, as .
International publicity is vital to ensure that Maksym is released, as well as the huge number of other Ukrainian POWs whom Russia is holding in inhuman conditions and sentencing to insane terms of imprisonment on entirely fabricated charges.
* Mediazona names the presiding 'judge' by last name as 'Melekhov'. It seems likely that this was a typo, as there does not seem to be such an individual.