News Column

Conflict Between Ukraine And Russia Comes To Russian Courts

July 10, 2014



By Robert Coalson

July 10, 2014

From the beginning, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has been a hybrid, waged simultaneously on many fronts from the cities of eastern Ukraine to the airwaves of the world, from social media to the banking system.

Now the struggle has moved into the courtrooms of Russia, where cases are being filed against Ukrainians despite shaky evidence and even shakier jurisdiction.

On July 9, a Moscow court formally charged, in absentia, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov with organizing murder, obstructing journalists, and other crimes connected to the conflict. The same court indicted, also in absentia, Dnipropetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoyskyy on similar charges earlier this month.

Russian human rights activist and Moscow Helsinki Committee member Valery Borshchev sees such far-fetched indictments as part of the broader informational campaign. "All of these little dramas are befuddling," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "It is clear they are being done for purely propagandistic purposes."

But the case of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko is different.

Savchenko, 33, was captured near Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in June and since made her way under unclear circumstances to a jail in the Russian city of Voronezh. Russian investigators say she crossed the border into Russia on her own without documentation posing as a refugee. Ukraine'sForeign Ministry and Savchenko's family say she was abducted and rendered to Russia.

"As concerns Savchenko, that isn't propaganda anymore but reality and a rather threatening one," Borshchev says. "Of course, there are no grounds for abducting her and taking her to another country. It is basically just kidnapping -- it can be seen that way. A lot of people are talking about that, and that's how it is. They took a foreign citizen and took her to a jail in another country. In my opinion, it is absolutely illegal."

Jurisdiction Disputed

Savchenko faces charges in Russia of involvement in the deaths of two Russian journalists during fighting in the Luhansk region in mid-June. On July 9, Russian Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin hinted clearly at the possibility of more, similar prosecutions. "We have said many times that all those who commit war crimes on the territory of Ukraine will be called to account," he said.

For now, Savchenko has been remanded into custody for two months, according to her Russian court-appointed lawyer, Nikolai Shulzhenko. "What will happen next, how the situation will develop is unclear," he said on July 9. "The investigative term is two months and that could be extended depending on how circumstances evolve."

Savchenko's family continues to push for her release through diplomatic channels. Ukraine'sForeign Ministry and President Petro Poroshenko have condemned Savchenko's treatment, asked for an explanation of how she ended up in Russia, and demanded her immediate release.

"[Shulzhenko] was appointed by Mother Russia," Vira Savchenko, Nadiya's younger sister, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "It is absurd. A Ukrainian officer was abducted illegally and they give her a Russian lawyer. What do you expect of that? I hope to be able to travel to Voronezh with the Ukrainian consul and diplomats."

Savchenko's case is not the only one. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov is in pretrial detention in Moscow after he was arrested in Crimea in May and charged with organizing terrorist plots. He denied the accusations in a dramatic court statement on July 7.

"I want to register my protest against the attempts to deprive me of my Ukrainian citizenship, since I was and continue to be a citizen of Ukraine," Sentsov said. "I do not recognize the annexation of Crimea and the military takeover of Crimea by the Russian Federation and I consider any agreements made by the illegitimate Crimean authorities with the Russian Federation to be null and void. I am not a serf. I cannot be transferred with the land."

'Some Sort Of Bargaining Chip'

Russian opposition activist Leonid Razvozzhayev was allegedly abducted by Russian security forces in Kyiv in October 2012. He is currently on trial with opposition Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov on charges of organizing mass riots aimed at overthrowing Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prosecutors have asked the court to sentence them each to eight years in prison.

On July 8, the European Court of Human Rights agreed to consider Razvozzhayev's complaint that he had been illegally abducted in Ukraine and brought to Russia against his will.

Russian rights activist Borshchev does not believe Savchenko will be brought to trial. "I think she will be used as a hostage in some sort of games, for some sort of negotiations," he says. "She'll be some sort of bargaining chip or something like that."

Ukrainian human rights activist Andriy Didenko has expressed concern Savchenko's illegal rendition to Russia might be followed by other illegal means, including torture in order to extract a confession.

"I hope fate will be kind to our hero and that she will return alive to the Fatherland," he concludes.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian and Russian services contributed to this report

Robert Coalson

Follow @CoalsonR

Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W.Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org


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