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.

Crimean occupation ‘court’ orders retrial of four Ukrainian Jehovah’s Witnesses sentenced for studying the Bible

Halya Coynash
It is cheering that Taras Kuzio, Serhiy Liulin and Petro Zhiltsov have been released, however there should have been an acquittal, with any proper ‘court’ throwing out the preposterous charges

Taras and Daria Kuzio with their children after Taras was released on 21 March 2024 Photo

Taras and Daria Kuzio with their children after Taras was released on 21 March 2024 Photo

The Russian occupation ‘Crimean high court’ has overturned earlier sentences against four Ukrainian Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered the release of the three men sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment. Given Russia’s persecution of believers on occupied territory, such an outcome of the appeal hearing was certainly unexpected.  It does not, however, necessarily indicate any let-up in repression, as the ‘case’ has been sent back for ‘retrial’ by another Russian-controlled ‘judge’ from the same original ‘Yalta municipal court’.

The appeal hearing on 21 March 2024 was against the convictions and sentences passed on four Jehovah’s Witnesses from occupied Yalta: Taras Kuzio (b. 1978); his wife Daria Kuzio (b. 1982); Petro Zhiltsov (b. 1987) and Serhiy Liulin (b. 1984).  On 27 February 2023, after a ‘trial’ lasting almost a year, ‘judge’ Vladimir Viktorovych Romanenko from the occupation ‘Yalta municipal court’ found all four believers guilty of absurd changes under Russian legislation. For the first time in occupied Crimea, two of the men -  Taras Kuzio and Petro Zhiltsov were convicted of ‘financing an extremist organization’ under Article 282.3 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code, as well as of ‘organizing’ such an ‘organization’ (Article 282.2 § 1). As reported, these charges pertain solely to the Russian supreme court ruling of 20 April 2017 which outlawed the Jehovah’s Witnesses, claiming them to be an ‘extremist organization’.  By ‘financing’ the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is likely that the prosecution meant something as trivial as paying for photocopied material, etc

It was indicative of the surreal nature of these charges that Petro Zhiltsov and Serhiy Liulin received an identical sentence of 6.1 years’ imprisonment, although Zhiltsov was charged with both ‘organizing’ and ‘financing’, while Liulin was accused only of ‘organizing’.  Romanenko sentenced Taras Kuzio to 6.5 years, and imposed a 3.5 year suspended sentence against Daria Kuzio. 

The prosecutor had asked for a real three-year sentence against Daria Kuzio, with this to be deferred until the couple’s younger child turned 14.  Slightly longer sentences had also been sought against the three men.  The differences, however, would not seem to warrant the prosecutor appealing, and, in any case, this would have resulted in the sentences being changed, not to the whole ruling being revoked.

What was even less likely is that ‘judge’ Natalia Aleksandrovna Grebennikova paid any heed to Daria Kuzio’s powerful words about the family’s suffering and her children’s trauma after three armed searches of the family’s home.

The case consists of only vague formulations about extremism which is absolutely alien to us. We have never demonstrated any hatred or animosity to people. Jehovah’s Witnesses are known throughout the entire world as peaceful people. We are on trial purely because we live and believe as we were taught by the Greatest Teacher – Jesus Christ.  I have been a Jehovah’s Witness for 23 years already, and I live by the highest moral laws of God as set out in the Bible.  I can see that following those principles has for 15 years made our family strong and happy…. Almost a year has passed since we were separated, which is a source of the most intense pain for me and the children.  I would so much like our children to grow up in a full family, into psychologically and emotionally steadfast people.”

Daria asked the judge to deliver a just ruling, with that ignored. The only just ruling, the only one demanded not only by Ukrainian and international law, but even by Russia’s constitution, would have been for the four Ukrainians to be acquitted.  Instead, they are to face another ‘trial’ because of the profoundly flawed and repressive supreme court ‘ruling which claimed that a world faith is ‘an extremist

Taras Kuzio was first mentioned as facing charges after a wave of armed searches in Yalta on 20 March 2019, however at that stage it was only Artem Gerasimov who ended up ‘on trial’ (and sentenced to 6 years’ imprisonment).  

On 11 March 2021, the FSB burst into at least nine homes of believers in Yalta, including that of the Kuzio family.  The FSB removed electronic devices and Bibles and took Taras away.  He was, however, only in custody for two days, with an occupation ‘judge’ at least rejecting the application for him to be placed in detention, because of his small children, and placing him under house arrest.  He was initially charged only with ‘financing a supposedly extremist organization’ (Article 282.3 § 1), however later the prosecution also added the ‘organizing’ charge, under Article 282.2 § 1. 

Petro Zhiltsov was detained on 29 July 2021.  He had earlier been interrogated as a ‘witness’ in the case against Kuzio, however the same ‘investigator’ – V.A. Novikov initiated identical charges (under Article 282.2 § 1), accusing Zhiltsov of both financing and of organizing the so-called ‘activities of an extremist organization’.  On that same date, Novikov also initiated charges of ‘organizing an extremist organization’, under Article 282.2 § 1 against Daria Kuzio; Serhiy Liulin and Tadevos Manukian (the charge against the latter appears to be in absentia).

As reported, Liulin was seized by FSB officers in Russia on 11 August 2021.  They forced him into the boot of a minivan and drove him, in handcuffs and bound with scotch tape, for 16 hours to occupied Simferopol.  He was shortly afterwards remanded in custody, and spent 203 days in the notorious Simferopol SIZO [remand prison],  He was released under house arrest on 1 March 2022, only to be taken into custody after the Yalta ‘court’ ruling.

There were three ‘secret witnesses’ in this case, despite the lack of any grounds for not revealing their identity.  During the hearings, Taras Kuzio noted that these individuals, identified as ‘Ivanov’; ‘Petrov’ and ‘Volodin’ – all gave identical ‘testimony’.  Although they were supposed to have attended services for more than a year, they claimed to not remember anybody except the defendants. The three all also said that they had shared the ideology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, however were unable to explain the faith’s teachings, and, according to the report, could not even pronounce God’s name correctly.  It is assumed that they were in fact FSB agents. Russia standardly uses such anonymous ‘witnesses’ in persecuting Crimeans on political or religious grounds, with the ‘judges’ generally helping the prosecution by blocking questions aimed at demonstrating that these ‘witnesses’ are lying.  This has been condemned by the UN Secretary General (in 2021) and the European Court of Human Rights found in September 2020 that Russia had violated the right to a fair trial of three men because of the unwarranted use of ‘secret witnesses’ to convict them.

According to the Jehovah’s Witness website, 30 believers have been subjected to persecution for their faith in occupied Crimea.  Details about the ‘trials’ and sentences can be found here and here. Such persecution, and the knowledge of how the Russian enforcement bodies both fabricated charges and treat victims of persecution are clearly aimed at terrorizing others.  It is, therefore, cheering to see just how many believers found the courage to come to outside the courtroom to demonstrate their solidarity with the four Ukrainians.

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