Aleksandr Kostenko during his trial.The Memorial Human Rights Center estimates that there are at least 102 political prisoners in Russia today. They’re convicted on various charges; all of them threadbare. But two cases are particularly odious, even in comparison with other fabricated cases. The prisoners in question, Aleksandr Kostenko and Andriy Kolomiyets, were convicted by Russian courts for taking part in opposition protests in their own country, Ukraine.
Getting creative with the law
Before protests erupted on Kyiv’s Maidan, Aleksandr Kostenko was a police officer in the Kyivsky District of Simferopol, Crimea's administrative capital — then a Ukrainian-controlled territory. He resigned in 2013 over disagreements with his superiors, and from December 2013 to February 2014, participated in protests in Ukraine’s capital.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Kostenko, fearing prosecution, remained in the area of Ukraine still controlled by the Ukrainian authorities. His fears were fully justified: the names of Crimeans who had been involved in the Maidan protests were circulated to all police stations. He was among them. Russian security services even visited his parents’ home.
It’s still unclear how Kostenko ended up back in Crimea. No one knows whether he was abducted, or just decided to return home. What’s clear is that on 5 February, 2015 he was arrested by some former colleagues, now serving the Russian authorities.
Kostenko claimed that the police broke his left arm during arrest, and that he was then tortured until he made a statement incriminating himself (which he later retracted in court). The injuries inflicted on Kostenko during this interrogation were confirmed by a medical examination and a response from the office of the Russian Ombudsman in Crimea (of which Memorial has a copy).
It’s still unclear how Kostenko ended up back in Crimea. No one knows whether he was abducted, or just decided to return home
Kostenko was then formally charged with throwing a chunk of paving stone at a police officer by the name of Poliyenko during a confrontation between protesters and Berkut special police forces in Kyiv’s Mariinsky Park on 18 February 2014. Poliyenko, like Kostenko, was a Ukrainian citizen serving in the Ukrainian police. Poliyenko only “remembered” the blow, and wrote a statement about the incident incriminating Kostenko, on 22 December of that year, after, he admitted, seeing the “wanted” notice in a police station.
The secret services in Russian-controlled Crimea needed to find a formal pretext for pressing criminal charges against Kostenko and others involved in the EuroMaidan protests, given that their alleged crimes took place on the territory of another state. Therefore Kostenko’s prosecutors resorted to a rarely used article of Russia’s Criminal Code (Article 12, Paragraph 3, link in Russian) which foresees criminal prosecution of an individual who commits a crime against a Russian citizen outside Russia’s borders.
Neither the police nor the courts were concerned that Kostenko’s “crime” was committed on 18 February 2014, when both the alleged criminal and his victim were citizens of Ukraine, were in that country’s capital and that they became Russian citizens only post factum. At Kostenko’s trial, his defence lawyer failed to convince the court that the assault on Poliyenko, a Ukrainian police officer in a Ukrainian police uniform, could not, by definition, have been directed at a citizen of another state. At the moment the assault took place there could have been no question of conflict between different legal frameworks. The prosecution’s argument was accepted, despite the fact that in this situation the use of Russian legislation was entirely inappropriate.
A revolution on trial
Thanks to the efforts of prosecution counsel Natalya Poklonskaya, who later became de-facto prosecutor general of Crimea and a deputy in the Russian Duma, Kostenko’s trial turned into an indictment of the Maidan in general.
The political nature of the trial was obvious to everyone in the court. Judge Viktor Mozhlyansky, judging from his social media accounts, was a supporter of the “Antimaidan” movement. Indeed, according to Kostenko’s defence lawyers, Mozhlyansky made no attempt to hide his hostility.
Most of the spectators in the courtroom were former Crimean Berkut officers belonging to the “Committee in Defence of the Human Rights of Maidan Victims”. Kostenko was declared to be a member of the Ukrainian nationalist party Svoboda, although this was denied by the party’s leadership. He was also accused of torturing and killing people in the basement of Kyiv’s city hall building as part of the so-called "Gestapo".
De-facto prosecutor general of Crimea, Natalya Poklonskaya.One young man, who gave evidence under the name “Styopa”, told the court that Maidan protesters tortured and murdered both police officers and peaceful citizens, on whom they also tested their firearms. Kostenko had supposedly told “Styopa” all about this, and described how he had thrown stones at police officers on 18 February 2014. His sentence “originally” included the supposed motivation for his crime: this former police officer was accused of throwing a chunk of paving at a cop because of his ideological hatred of and hostility towards members of law enforcement.
The charge, clearly in contravention of both the letter and the spirit of criminal law, looked shaky and unconvincing. But the investigating detectives had a trump card: a homemade rifle barrel for a Makarov gun discovered in Kostenko’s weapons safe. In the course of the trial, however, two witnesses gave evidence that they hadn’t been able to attend the search of Kostenko’s flat and had signed the official record of the search before it had been completed, in breach of Russia’s criminal procedure code. They hadn’t seen the rifle barrel being discovered, just a photograph of it in a plastic bag produced by the police, and their signatures were missing in the attached list of witnesses.
Aleksandr believes his father may have been abducted by the Russian security services
Kostenko categorically denied keeping an unregistered firearm at home, insisting that the barrel was planted during the search. You won’t be surprised to learn that the court refused to declare the search record inadmissible evidence and found no fault with it.
On 15 May 2015, Simferopol’s Kyivsky District court sentenced Kostenko to four years and two months in a standard penal colony, though his sentence was later reduced to three years and six months. Kostenko still has two years to serve in Penal Colony No.5, a facility for former police personnel, in a suburb of Kirov, some 2,000 km from home. His younger brother Yevgeny was fined 60,000 roubles (£790) for allegedly making an obscene gesture at the judge who pronounced sentence on Aleksandr.
Worse still is the disappearance of Aleksandr and Yevgeny’s father. On 3 March, 2015, Fyodor Kostenko, judging by the fact that he exchanged his phone’s Ukrainian SIM card for a Russian one, entered Crimea from mainland Ukraine. After this he stopped answering his phone and disappeared without trace. To this day, Fyodor’s family have no idea of his whereabouts. Aleksandr believes his father may have been abducted by the Russian security services (ten Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian activists also disappeared in the peninsula between March 2014 and August 2015).
A “little chat” in Nalchik
On the day of Aleksandr Kostenko’s conviction, another veteran of the Ukrainian protests of 2013-2014 was arrested in the north Caucasus. Andriy Kolomiyets, a native of Kyiv, left his homeland for Russia and started seeing Galina Zalikhanova, a resident of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. He lived legally in the village of Yantarnoye, received a temporary residence permit and was planning to marry Galina when their house was suddenly subjected to a search in the middle of May 2015.
According to Zalikhanova, during the search, which was authorised by Kabardino-Balkaria’s high court, police from the Centre for Combatting Extremism (Center "E") discovered a cache of marijuana in a safe. Galina managed to convince the cops that the drug did not belong to either herself or Andriy, and they were not formally charged. Instead, the police took Kolomiyets, who they deemed “suspicious”, into custody and drove him to the republic’s capital of Nalchik. They just wanted “a chat”.
Accounts of what happened after the three hours the police were allowed to hold Kolomiyets, differ depending on whom you talk to. According to the Center "E" staff, Kolomiyets was released that evening after his conversation with the police. He supposedly spent the night of 15-16 May on a bench in Nalchik, as it was too late to go anywhere else.
Andrey Kolomiyets during his trial.Kolomiyets spent the next day travelling to the town of Prokhladny, close to the village where he lived. On the way, he picked 152g of wild marijuana near the the village of Novo-Ivanovskoye. On the night of 16-17 May, he was arrested in the town of Chegem.
It’s perfectly possible that Kolomiyets spent a night in Nalchik and journeyed on to Prokhladny, but the police couldn’t explain his further journey to Chegem. Unlike Prokhladny, which lies 50 km to the north-east of Nalchik (Novo-Ivanovskoye is in the neighbouring district), Chegem is a mere three kilometres from the regional capital. The investigators could simply not explain why Kolomiyets, after leaving the police station, did not go straight home, but spent the entire day picking hash and travelling around Kabardino-Balkaria.
Kolomiyets himself has a different version of events. According to Kolomiyets, the police didn’t release him on 15 May, but kept him in custody without charge and continued to interrogate him. He was eventually charged with possession of the marijuana he was supposed to have picked. I leave you to decide which version of events sounds more likely.
As well as possession of narcotics, Kolomiyets was charged with abducting with intent to murder two former members of the Crimean Berkut riot police, who allegedly recognised him immediately, a year and a half after a street fight that had taken place on 20 January 2014. The police lineup he took part in consisted of himself and two much older men from the north Caucasus who looked nothing like the young Ukrainian.
According to investigators, Kolomiyets’ attempted to kill Kozlyakov and Gavrilenko, the two former Berkut officers, by throwing two Molotov cocktails at them during a street fight and setting their coats on fire.
However, the trial revealed that the two had not reported this crime to the Ukrainian police for the entire month prior to the overthrow of the Yanukovych government in February 2014. Nor did Gavrilenko, the supposed victim of an murder attempt, seek medical help. Despite feeling pain from his burns, he apparently had no injuries. Information about police officers who lost their lives during the Maidan confrontations is publicly available and shows that they were all killed by gunfire – not a single one died of burns.
Just as they’d done with Kostenko, the police tried to present Kolomiyets as active in one of Ukraine’s nationalist organisations. The investigators claimed that while a member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a group banned in Russia in 2014, he had thrown Molotov cocktails. As the UPA was disbanded in 1954 and never revived, and Kolomiyets was only born in 1993, this was a strange accusation. In court, Kolomiyets retracted all statements forced out of him by the police, including admitting drug possession and attempts on the life of the Crimean police officers, not to mention having been a member of the UPA.
These days, most of Russia’s political prisoners have little support. They receive some help from their families and any organisations to which they belong
Apart from the two Berkut officers, the prosecution called no other witnesses — not even a “Styopa” clone. There was also no examination of material evidence, such as photos or tapes, since there was none, and the judge wasn’t interested in new statements from the defendant. There was also no attempt to verify Kolomiyets’ statement about the torture he was subjected to in Nalchik. He was also refused an interpreter, even though he went to school in a Ukrainian village and, as his defence lawyer confirmed, had never learnt written Russian.
All the rest mirrored Kostenko’s trial. The prosecution put forward the same allegations and the court (Simferopol’s same Kyivsky District Court) accepted them. Andriy was sentenced to ten years in a high security prison camp and married Galina in pre-trial detention. The prospects for his release are as unclear as those of other Ukrainian political prisoners.
With Ukraine not recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it is practically impossible for it to protect any of its citizens who get into trouble on the peninsula. Andriy Kolomiyets, for example, couldn’t marry Galina Zalikhanova for several months because of a lack of consular services to facilitate citizenship and arrange formalities. Ukraine’s position on Crimea is clear. What’s more difficult to explain is why many Ukrainian political prisoners face endless problems with everyday issues such as receiving money from their families while in pre-trial detention or penal colonies. For friends and relatives these may be large sums, but even for a troubled country such as Ukraine, they are tiny amounts.
These days, most of Russia’s political prisoners have little support. They receive some help from their families and any organisations to which they belong. They’re also supported by human rights organisations. None, apart from the Ukrainians, have a state behind them that could actually protect them. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Ukraine could do more to help its citizens languishing in Russian prisons.
All images courtesy of Human Rights Center Memorial.