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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.

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Russia sentences soldier for admitting to war crimes in Ukraine and now prosecutes journalist who reported them

10.01.2024   
Halya Coynash
Although at least 20 Russians are serving long sentences for telling the truth about Russia’s war against Ukraine, sentences in this case would be for admitting to war crimes or reporting such an admission

Daniil Frolkin in one of the selfies he left on a stolen phone in occupied Avdiivka Photo posted by Slidstvo

Daniil Frolkin in one of the selfies he left on a stolen phone in occupied Avdiivka Photo posted by Slidstvo
Yekaterina Fomina, a former correspondent for the independent publication Vazhniye Istorii [Important Stories]  has reportedly been charged with ‘circulating knowingly false information about Russia’s armed forces’.  The journalist is safely in one of the Baltic Republics and need not fear being imprisoned for five years or more, unlike Daniil Frolkin, the Russian soldier whose detailed admission of war crimes committed in Ukraine she reported.  Although there is independent evidence to back his confession, he was arrested and received a 5.5-year suspended sentence not for war crimes, but for supposedly ‘circulating false information’.  The prosecution had demanded a six-year term of imprisonment with the aim clearly to deter other former soldiers from making similar revelations.

Information about the charges first came from the pro-Kremlin propaganda channel REN-on 9 January 2024, however Vazhniye Istorii confirms that their sources had also warned of plans to prosecute 31-year-old Fomina.  The publication itself has been declared a so-called ‘foreign agent’, one of the current Russian regime’s weapons to crush independent media or NGOs.  Fomina herself told them that she has not received any official information, and that a month ago, she sent a request for information about any criminal prosecution against her in the Russian Federation and was told that there was no information about any such prosecutions.

Frolkin and his comrades were from the notorious 64th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, which is believed to have been involved in war crimes in Bucha and other parts of Kyiv oblast while under Russian occupation in early 2022.  As more and more reports of atrocities were emerging, Russian president Vladimir Putin issued a decree on 18 April ‘honouring’ the brigade.  He used words like “mass heroism and daring, tenacity and courage” about men who are suspected of having been guilty of torture; indiscriminate killings; rape and looting.

Fomina’s report in Important Stories was posted on 15 August 2022 on YouTube, with a text version published in both Russian and English on their website.  Fomina wrote that she had travelled to Kyiv oblast, and had spoken with residents of the village of Avdiivka.  On the basis of 25 photos that the Russians left behind, taken on a stolen mobile phone and the villagers’ testimony, she had identified four of the Russian soldiers: Daniil Frolkin, Dmitry Danilov, Ruslan Glotov, and Ivan Shepelenko. 

There is a certain irony about the manner in which the likely perpetrators of crimes against civilians in Avdiivka were first recognized.  Russia’s defence ministry began cracking down on soldiers using smartphones and social media soon after it began its military aggression against Ukraine in Donbas in 2014.  Such images were, after all, highly incriminating considering that Russia was claiming that its soldiers were not there, and that this was, quote unquote ‘a Ukrainian civil war’  In  2022, important evidence was obtained from a telephone that was among the very many items that the above-mentioned Russians stole from residents of Avdiivka.  The Russians used the phone to take photos of each other and, fortunately, left it behind when they retreated.  The phone was found at the end of May by another Avdiivka resident who handed it in to a humanitarian aid centre, together with the 25 incriminating photos it contained.  In June 2022, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office announced that criminal proceedings had been initiated against Daniil Frolkin on suspicion of killing an Avdiivka resident; of stealing a car and WWII and other medals from a veteran.  On 17 July, the Ukrainian investigative journalist initiative Slidstvo first reported the evidence against Frolkin. 

This is important to stress since the information that Fomina reported was, to a large degree known, as were the reasons for suspecting Frolkin of war crimes. The Russians did not just leave the telephone they had taken from 76-year-old Leonid Udod when they hurriedly retreated.  They also left their uniforms, with a pair of trousers having a name tag identifying them as belonging to Frolkin.

Fomina spoke with villagers who spoke of how the invaders had looted people’s homes, stealing whatever they could find.  Thirteen men from the village had also been found murdered, all with gunshot wounds, while some other men were still missing.

Two of the soldiers from the 64th motorized brigade agreed to speak with Fomina – Frolkin and Dmitry Danilov, whom local residents said had been referred to by the Russians as ‘sniper’.  Danilov essentially denied any wrongdoing, while Frolkin, at first, accused the brigade commander Azatbek Omurbekov of looting on a major scale, while largely denying that he and his fellow contract soldiers were involved.  He also denied any involvement in the killing of civilians.

Then, shortly afterwards, Frolkin phoned the journalist again, admitted in detail to the killing and to looting.  He named members of the military command whom he believed should face liability for their crimes (Azatbek Omurbekov; lieutenant colonel Dmitrenko; the brigade’s chief logistics officer colonel Klobukov, and chief reconnaissance officer lieutenant colonel Romanenko.  He further accused lieutenant colonel Andrei Prokurat of having issued the order to kill civilians (literally, “to dispose of them”).  He asserted that he was one of several soldiers who had gone with Prokurat to three homes in Avdiivka in March.  He said that Prokurat had taken money from one of the houses, had handed over papers and phones to the soldiers and told them to “dispose of” the civilians.  Fomina believes the three victims to have been Vadym Haniuk; Vitaliy Kubukevych and Ruslan Yaremchuk, and that the man whom Frolkin admitted to having killed was probably Yaremchuk.

It is telling that Frolkin did appear to understand that any punishment back in Russia would not be for killing, looting and other war crimes, but for telling the truth about them.

This is precisely what happened.  It was learned in December 2022 that Frolkin was about to go on trial at the Khabarovsk Garrison Military Court, charged under parts b and g of Article 207.3 of Russia’s criminal code, with ‘circulating knowingly false information’ about Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, purportedly as part of a group and for mercenary motives.

The trial was to be before judge Anton Brykin, with no indication as to whether or not Frolkin was in custody.  He was convicted on 13 March 2023, and initially reported to have received a 5.5 year sentence.  It was later discovered, however, that this was a suspended sentence.  Although the prosecutor had asked for a real (6-year) sentence, the ruling does not appear to have been challenged.  It seems possible that the suspended sentence was viewed as a strong enough deterrent to silence other former soldiers from making equally incriminating confessions.  Although the same article of Russia’s criminal code has already been used to imprison Russians for telling only the truth about the crimes Russia is committing, this would have been the first time that a person was sent to prison in Russia, not for committing war crimes, but for admitting to them.

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