By Halya Coynash
Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (22.02.2021) – https://bit.ly/2NWLzQ7 – It is seven years since the worst day of bloodshed on Maidan left 49 activists dead and over 150 injured. Three of the only five men whose trial over the killings on 20 February 2014 are now in hiding, with the trial of the remaining two men only just beginning again. On 17 February 2021, Ukraine’s parliament finally voted in its first reading on a bill which could make it possible to try the three fugitives in absentia. According to lawyer Yevhenia Zakrevska, important amendments must still be made and soon to this bill if there is to be any chance of receiving a verdict regarding the only Berkut officers to have been put on trial over the killings that day.
Although 25 Berkut officers from a special unit under the command of Dmytro Sadovnyk are believed to have been involved in the shooting of activists, only six officers were ever taken into custody. Sadovnyk was arrested in April 2014, together with two of his subordinates Serhiy Zinchenko and Pavlo Abroskin. There other subordinates – Serhiy Tamtur; Oleh Yanishevsky and Oleksandr Marinchenko – were later arrested and taken into custody.
Sadovnyk vanished almost immediately after judge Svitlana Volkova from the Pechersky District Court in Kyiv suddenly decided to release him under supposed house arrest on 19 September 2014. Volkova was later charged under Article 375 §§ 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code (the issuing by a judge of a knowingly wrongful ruling). The court was, however, in no hurry to examine the case, passed to it in May 2015. By the end of the trial in August 2020, Volkova was per force acquitted since several months earlier Ukraine’s Constitutional Court had declared the article she was charged under to be unconstitutional.
The other five men remained in custody, charged with the killing of 48 activists on Instytutska St. All admitted to having been in that part of the street, but denied any part in the gunning down of protesters. Although three of the men were later released under house arrest, the trial was continuing and a verdict had been expected in early 2020.
Then in December 2019, it became clear that the men were to be released as part of an exchange of prisoners between the Ukrainian authorities and the Russian-controlled Donbas militants. Their inclusion in the exchange was bitterly opposed by the families of the victims and their lawyers and, seemingly, by the prosecutors in the case, with this ignored by President Volodymyr Zelensky and the then Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka. The men were all freed from detention or house arrest on 28 December 2019, after a cruel mockery of an appeal court hearing where the outcome proved to have been known in advance. They were handed over to the militants the following day.
Marinchenko and Tamtur returned to Kyiv in February 2020, asserting that they were victims of persecution and that they were determined to prove their innocence. The whereabouts of Abroskin; Yanishevsky and Zinchenko are not known, but it is likely that they, like many other ex-Berkut fugitives are in Russia and have probably received Russian citizenship.
Zelensky later admitted that this had been a political decision, but asserted that the trials would go ahead. For a very long time this seemed a very empty assurance, however on Svyatoshynsky District Court in Kyiv declared Abroskin; Yanishevsky and Zinchenko to be in hiding with this aimed at getting them placed on the international wanted list, as a prerequisite to them being tried in absentia.
On 25 November 2020, the court separated the case against Abroskin; Yanishevsky and Zinchenko and suspended it until the accused men had been caught, with the trial of Marinchenko and Tamtur continuing in December under presiding judge Serhiy Dyachuk at the Svyatoshynsky District Court in Kyiv. Dyachuk called the suspension a decision forced upon the court since any further delay could be viewed as the court taking a certain position to help one side in the proceedings.
Essentially the trial of the three can only be resumed if either INTERPOL or some other international body places the men on their wanted list, or if Ukraine’s legislators pass the necessary amendments to the legislation on trial in absentia.
The above-mentioned bill voted on in its first reading on 17 February will not, in its present form, solve the problem. While the bill excludes being on the international wanted list as a condition for trial in absentia, it does not envisage any other mechanism for defending the rights of such individuals to access to justice. This is why Zakrevska believes that amendments must be made within the next two weeks if there is to be any hope of a verdict with respect to all five men in 2021.
In the October 2020 ruling, the court stressed that the three men are accused of the gravest of crimes and that their prosecution is in no way political. There were therefore no grounds for INTERPOL to reject the request to issue Red Notices (that they are wanted) with respect to Abroskin, Yanishevsky and Zinchenko.
The ruling stated that the men would be considered on the wanted list from when an international body with such jurisdiction took the relevant decision.
The problem here is that the former search mechanism for CIS countries is not functioning (and Russia has, after all, given most fleeing Maidan suspects asylum and, often, citizenship). INTERPOL, on the other hand, has not once agreed to issue Red Notices with respect to any former Ukrainian high-ranking official or Berkut officer. There is thus a dead end with no trials in absentia able to take place.
In her report for LB.ua, Sonya Roy notes that not only Berkut officers are suspected of involvement in the Maidan killings. According to the public prosecutor, there are currently 11 criminal prosecutions underway over the killings on 20 February 2014, with 33 suspects.
One of these suspects is Volodymyr Kosenko, from the Omega special unit, who was arrested on 18 February 2020 and charged with the murder of Maidan activist Oleh Ushnevych and the attempted murder of Vitaly Hukov, as well as with exceeding official powers. He is accused of having deliberately aimed and shot at protesters on Instytutska St. on the morning of 20 February 2014. The prosecution asserts that the Omega officer worked closely with Berkut officers and that they were shooting, without attempting to ascertain whether those they were targeting were unarmed.
Another former Omega officer and sniper, Dmytro Khmil was arrested in 2018 and charged with killing Maidan activist, Oleksandr Khrapachenko. The proceedings were reportedly suspended in August 2019, pending the response to a request for assistance from Switzerland. Khmil was, at the request of the prosecutor, released from house arrest in late December 2019, with the only demand being that he gives up his passport. The case appears to have gone dead since then.
Photo Credits: EPA/UPG