February 12, 2016

Kremlin-backed militants threaten death sentences for prisoners


A spokesperson for the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) has claimed that the militants are not holding any civilians or anybody else illegally. All those in custody, Darya Morozova asserts, are “under investigation” and could be sentenced to death.

The remarks came on the eve of the first anniversary of the Minsk II agreement, and less than two weeks after 60-year-old religious specialist Ihor Kozlovsky and volunteer Marina Cherenkova were both seized by the militants. Prominent DPR militant Alexander Khodokovsky is reported to have asserted that Mr. Kozlovsky, who is a much-respected academic, could have been involved in “destabilizing the situation” and had “multiple contacts with various organizations in Ukraine engaged in destructive activities here.”

According to the Minsk agreement of February 12, 2015, all persons illegally held must be exchanged, on an “all for all” basis. A recent planned exchange fell through, according to the Ukrainian side, because the militants suddenly put forward new and impossible demands. The militants, in turn, blame Ukraine. Yurii Tandit from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) center trying to organize exchanges speaks of 130 people on its list of Ukrainians held hostage. The figure for people registered as missing is much higher – over 600.

Ms. Morozova, who calls herself the “DPR human rights ombudsperson,” spoke to Yuliya Polukhina for an article published in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta on February 8. Her words have been widely discussed and commented on in Ukraine, so the lack of any retraction from Ms. Morozova or other militants suggests they do reflect the position currently taken.

Ms. Morozova was asked to comment on the 30-year “sentence” handed down to Yevhen Chudnetsov, a Ukrainian soldier from the Azov regiment who was captured in February 2015. The militants claim he surrendered. Novaya Gazeta writes that relatives of Mr. Chudnetsov, who is from the Donbas area, missed the “trial” because it began half an hour earlier than scheduled. The “prosecutor” had demanded the death penalty, so an appeal can in theory be lodged by either the defendant or the prosecution. This seems highly theoretical in the Chudnetsov case, since from the outset he has not had a lawyer.

There is disturbingly little information about this so-called trial or what indeed Mr. Chudnetsov was charged with. There is, however, a video that was widely shown on all Russian propaganda channels. In it, Mr. Chudnetsov looks as if he has been beaten and has had about half his teeth knocked out. The torture he was almost certainly subjected to is not mentioned. Instead, it is claimed that he surrendered and then at a press conference he oluntarily provides what is purported to be information about the foreigners supposedly instructing Azov – from Georgia, Sweden and the U.S. – or fighting as mercenaries, and the foreign weapons purportedly used.

Ms. Morozova is asked by Novaya Gazeta if people like Mr. Chudnetsov could be part of the list of people to be exchanged. She replies that, for the moment, that is not possible, and that the DPR is working on the same principle as the Ukrainian authorities. She claims that Ukrainian authorities have 30 people sentenced to terms ranging from 15 years to life and are in no hurry to pardon them. They are not being handed over, she claims, so the militants “try them [their prisoners] within the framework of our legislation. We do not in principle have prisoners of war, and the people who are in our custody are all facing charges. Procedural matters are under way, trials, and they will soon be convicted.”

The interviewer then asks Mr. Morozova: “You mean all of those captured as prisoners of war can be tried?” She answers: “Quite right.”

Ms. Morozova chillingly goes on to claim the DPR is holding no more than 30 people (not the 133 cited by the SBU), and that there are no civilian hostages. “We have only prisoners of war who were detained in battle,” she claims, and says that they have proof these detainees killed people and were responsible for the deaths of civilians. She asserts that most of those still being held were seized near Ilovaisk, and claims that some are accused of rape, murder and torture.

Many Ukrainian soldiers died near Ilovaisk, after the militants’ promise of safe passage proved to be a treacherous lie. Neither then, nor on other occasions, was it only soldiers who were taken prisoner and tortured, as the experience of journalist Yevhen Vorobyov demonstrated.

Her list of prisoners for exchange from the militants’ side, she says, comprises 1,490 names. She asserts that the DPR knows definitely that these people are in detention in government-controlled territory, facing criminal charges. The SBU, meanwhile, says that it is aware of only 465 people.

Ms. Morozova, in fact, calls 500 from the almost 1,500-strong list “political prisoners” and claims they are in detention either for involvement in the so-called referendum of May 11, 2014, or because they spoke out in support of the self-proclaimed republics.

Asked about the prosecution’s demand for the death penalty in Mr. Chudnetsov’s case, Mr. Morozova confirms that yes, according to the “DPR Criminal Code,” the death penalty can be used, and may well be. The DPR introduced its own “criminal code” back in August 2014, with the death penalty for particularly grave crimes. In a second resolution passed by the DPR “Council of Ministers” on August 17, 2014, military courts and a system of military justice were introduced. More about these so-called military courts was revealed in November of that year with the list of capital offenses including insubordination, state treason, spying and desertion, as well as looting, robbery, etc.

Former Russian military intelligence officer and militant leader Igor Girkin in January confirmed extrajudicial executions, although in fact, his senior aide Igor Druz had confirmed this to the BBC back in August 2014. The main difference was that Mr. Girkin admitted only to killing “looters,” while Mr. Druz was entirely open, saying that the militants had killed a number of people “to prevent chaos.”

Now the militants are claiming that they are not holding any hostages or others illegally, and say that any people in their custody are under criminal investigation.

Like Ihor Kozlovsky, one presumes. Or people like Yevhen Chudnetsov, “sentenced” to 30 years without a lawyer in a “trial” his family missed because it happened half an hour ahead of schedule.

Halya Coynash, a journalist, is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group in Ukraine.