February 26, 2021

Will anyone answer for the killings on Maidan?


It has been seven years since the worst day of bloodshed on Maidan (known as Independence Square) left 49 activists dead and over 150 injured. Of the only five men who face trial over the killings on February 20, 2014, three are now in hiding, with the trial of the remaining two men only just beginning again. On February 17, 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 which took place during the Revolution of Dignity.

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. Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 September 19, 2014. Ms. Volkova was later charged under the criminal code for issuing a knowingly wrongful verdict. The court was, however, in no hurry to examine the case and reviewed it in May 2015. By the end of the trial in August 2020, Ms. Volkova was acquitted, since several months earlier Ukraine’s Constitution Court declared unconstitutional the article under which she was charged.

The other five men remained in custody, charged with the killing of 48 activists on Institutska Street. All five men admitted to having been in that part of the street, but they denied any part in the gunning down of protesters. Although three of the men were later released under house arrest, the trial continued 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, though it was ignored by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and then Prosecutor General Ruslan Riabo­shap­ka. The men were all freed from detention or house arrest on December 28, 2019, after a cruel mockery of an appeals court hearing where the outcome proved to have been known in advance. They were handed over to the militants the following day.
Messrs. 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 Messrs. 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.

Mr. Zelenskyy 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, the Svyatoshynsky District Court in Kyiv declared Messrs. Abroskin, Yanishevsky and Zinchenko to be in hiding. The move was aimed at getting them placed on the international wanted list, which is a prerequisite to them being tried in absentia.

On November 25, 2020, the court separated the case against Messrs. Abroskin, Yanishevsky and Zinchenko, and suspended it until the accused men had been caught, with the trial of Messrs. Marin­chen­ko and Tamtur continuing in December under presiding judge Serhiy Dyachuk at the Svyatoshynsky District Court in Kyiv. Mr. 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, which was voted on in its first reading on February 17, 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. This is why Ms. 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 Messrs. Abroskin, Yanishevsky and Zinchenko.

The ruling stated that the men would be placed on the wanted list when an international body with such jurisdiction took the necessary action.

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 suspects in the Maidan killings include not only Berkut personnel. According to the public prosecutor, there are currently 11 criminal prosecutions underway over the killings on February 20, 2014, with 33 suspects.
One of these suspects is Volodymyr Kosenko from the Omega special unit, who was arrested on February 18, 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 Institutska Street on the morning of February 20, 2014. The prosecution asserts that the Omega officer worked closely with Berkut officers and that they were shooting at protesters 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 in that case were reportedly suspended in August 2019, pending the response to a request for assistance from Switzerland. Mr. Khmil was, at the request of the prosecutor, released from house arrest in late December 2019. He was required only to give up his passport. The case appears to have gone cold since then.