war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Prominent rights activist and journalist Maksym Butkevych vanishes after Russia ‘sentences’ him to 13 years for defending Ukraine

Halya Coynash
Russia is flouting international law and even its own norms, by holding 46-year-old Maksym Butkevych incommunicado and refusing to even pass on letters

Maksym Butkevych before Russia’s full-scale invasion Photo Stas Yurchenko, Graty

Maksym Butkevych before Russia’s full-scale invasion Photo Stas Yurchenko, Graty

There has been no information about Maksym Butkevych’s whereabouts since a court of appeal upheld Russia’s illegal13-year ‘sentence’ against the Ukrainian prisoner of war on 22 August 2023.  Formal requests for information from Maksym’s lawyer have been ignored, and letters addressed to Maksym, who is a well-known journalist and human rights defender, are returned with the stamp “correspondence not allowed”.  All of this is in grave violation of international law, and of immense concern to his family and friends.

According to Maksym’s father, Oleksandr Butkevych, lawyer Leonid Solovyov’s attempts to find his client have gone unanswered, with Russia thus also flouting its own legal norms on contact between a person and their lawyer.  The same norms, however, clearly state that Maksym has the right to receive correspondence, but this too is being denied him.  Even before Maksym’s disappearance, his lawyer reported that he had only received one letter, a birthday card, although the number of letters he was sent is undoubtedly much higher.

Immediately after the appeal hearing, Solovyov suggested that Maksym was likely to be transferred from the SIZO [remand prison] in occupied Luhansk to the Rostov or Belgorod oblasts of Russia.  Any such journey is always long and gruelling, with political prisoners particularly vulnerable, as they usually have no contact with their lawyers.  Three months have elapsed since then, which is worryingly long and suggests that Maksym is deliberately being held incommunicado. .

Solovyov also confirmed that in the so-called ‘LPR’, Maksym had been tortured, and threatened that if he didn’t sign the ‘confessions’ they put in front of him, he would never get out alive.  He was counting on being released in an exchange of prisoners and, therefore, signed.  Instead, however, he became one of many prisoners of war whom Russia is subjecting to fake ‘trials’ in its proxy ‘republics’ in occupied Donbas and sentencing to huge terms of imprisonment.   

The video shown on Russian media with Butkevych reciting words about having fired a grenade launcher at civilians was undoubtedly also obtained through torture, with Maksym’s face showing signs of beating.

It was after the original ‘sentence’, typically reported post factum by Russia’s Investigative Committee on 10 March 2023, that Solovyov became involved.  The lawyer notes that Butkevych was again subjected to pressure and told that he would never be released if he continued to insist that he was innocent.  Solovyov points out, that there is not only no evidence to back the charges, aside from the ‘confession’ extracted through torture, but there is in fact proof of his innocence.

Like very many other Ukrainians, Maksym Butkevych reacted to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine by joining the Armed Forces. He was soon put in charge of a platoon which was sent to the Luhansk oblast in the second half of June 2022.  He and his men were seized by the Russian invaders on, or around, 24 June near the village of Myrna Dolyna.  

It became clear within days of his capture that Russia was aware of Butkevych’s identity, was deliberately waging a smear campaign against him and planned to put him ‘on trial’ in the unrecognized ‘Luhansk republic’ with no access to international observers, the media or an independent lawyer.  Russia’s Investigative Committee announced three ‘sentences’ on 10 March 2023, against Maksym Butkevych and two other POWs, Viktor Pokhoziy and Vladislav Shelya.  All three had clearly provided the supposed ‘confessions’ under duress, and had been sentenced by the illegitimate ‘Luhansk people’s republic supreme court’ four days earlier, on 6 March. 

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. As well as the 13-year harsh-regime term of imprisonment, 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).

There is evidence that Butkevych’s platoon 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. 

Russia’s has been using fake ‘courts’ on occupied territory for most of these fabricated trials against Ukrainian prisoners of war.  Lack of witnesses to its travesty of a ‘trial’ could not stop such treatment of Maksym Butkevych, who is well-known in Ukraine and abroad, receiving international condemnation, with Human Rights Watch slamming it as a “cynical farce”. 

The farce continued on 22 August 2023, this time, however, at Russia’s first court of appeal in Moscow.  ‘Judges’ Pavel Vladimirovich Melekhin* (presiding); Larissa Sergeyevna Izotyeva and Yury Viktorovich Troyan) ignored Butkevych’s status as a prisoner of war and evidence that he had been elsewhere at the time he was alleged to have committed the ‘crimes’ of which he was accused.  The only concession was that the court agreed to count the sentence from 19 August 2022, rather than 6 March 2022.  This certainly reduces the illegal sentence but is as fabricated as everything else, since Maksym had been in captivity since around 24 June 2022.  The later date was merely when the defence ministry admitted to his imprisonment.

Maksym remains Coordinator of the Without Borders Human Rights Project which worked in defence of asylum seekers facing deportation from Ukraine to Russia, Belarus or other countries where they faced persecution.  On 10 November, Within Borders circulated a statement in which they condemn Russia’s enforced disappearance of their colleague and friend and stress that this is a war crime, as is Russia’s denial of a prisoner of war’s right to a just and legitimate trial.

They call on the international community to help put pressure on Russia to release Maksym Butkevych and all of the other Ukrainian prisoners of war and civilian hostages illegally held, and to extend sanctions to cover those implicated in fabricating charges against Maksym.

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