Six years have passed since dozens of Euromaidan activists were shot to death in the centre of Kyiv. In the years following, a Kyiv court has heard evidence from relatives of the dead and wounded survivors. It has now moved on to questioning former members of Berkut police squad, accused of the shootings. But last December, a Kyiv court released five convicted ex-Berkut officers as part of a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia.
The shootings on Kyiv’s central Instytutska Street on 20 February 2014 are central to the investigation into the events of Euromaidan. In the dock are five ex-members of Berkut: Serhiy Tamtura, Oleksandr Marynchenko, Pavlo Abroskin, Serhiy Zinchenko and Oleh Yanishevskiy. These men are accused of killing 48 people and wounding 80, and their trial has been going on for over four years in a Kyiv court.
Last summer a court heard evidence from witnesses for the prosecution and started questioning defence witnesses, among them former and serving Ukrainian politicians, as well as colleagues of the defendants who also worked for Berkut. At that point, all five were in detention, but in July 2019 a court released one of the accused, Serhiy Tamtura.
A few months later, a court softened the restraint on another defendant: Oleksandr Marynchenko was released from pre-trial detention and transferred to house arrest. In December 2019, the court held another sitting and ordered an adjournment until 14 January 2020, but none of the defendants were present after New Year. The ex-Berkut officers had been included in an exchange as part of the Normandy Format talks, aimed at ending the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
On 29 December, a day before the exchange, Kyiv’s Appeal Court, which was examining requests for lighter penalties for all the defendants, released the five men on bail. Serhiy Tamtura and Oleksandr Marynchenko were in court with their three lawyers, while the other three, Pavlo Abroskin, Serhiy Zinchenko and Oleh Yanishevskiy took part in the session by video conference.
Some relatives of victims were also present in court, although most of them took part in the proceedings from other cities – Rivne, Vinnytsia, Chernivtsi, Lviv and others - via video conference. The victims’ families said that they had no prior knowledge of the meeting, so couldn’t arrive on time. They also asked for the meeting to be postponed until the next day. Moreover, the relatives of the family killed on Institutskaya Street stated several times that the Ukrainian government hadn’t asked their opinion on the prisoner exchange or the fact that the accused would not be returning to the courtroom.
But the decision had already been taken, a fact confirmed by Ukraine’s General Prosecutor Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who had sent a letter to the Appeal Court requesting lighter sentences for the ex-Berkut officers. Ryaboshapka explained this by the fact that Ukraine and Russia had come to an agreement on the upcoming exchange, and that if the five were freed they would be immediately handed over to the unrecognised separatist territories in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Yevgeniya Zakrevska and Olena Storozhuk, the lawyers for the Institutskaya Street victims’ families, said that Ryaboshapka’s letter effectively wrecks Ukraine’s law enforcement system - creating a situation where public officials are, in effect, choosing to operate not according to the law, but political decision-making. The lawyers also called the judges’ attention to the fact that sentences in this case would help address the conflict which has arisen in Ukrainian society following Euromaidan.
"For five years now we've been examining this case twice a week," Zakrevska said in court. "No one objects to this procedure. And so we have a unique situation when the defence and the prosecution, and the aggrieved parties are all agreed in terms of the procedure. And this means that the verdict which will be taken also has a very good chance of satisfying a majority of people in Ukraine. And this could also be a solution to our social conflict, a moment of harmony. But instead they are proposing to do the complete opposite. To deepen the divide. To make the situation worse. Where should the aggrieved - who right now patiently attend court and wait for a verdict - go in this case? What kind of responsibility are the people who are doing this taking on themselves?"
The judge, however, handed down the decision requested by Ruslan Ryaboshapka and released all five of the accused. The next day, the former Berkut officers were handed over to Donetsk and Luhansk, while Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the accused men would receive not more than five-year sentences. But Zelenskyy either didn’t know, or was confused, or was misinformed: according to the statutes with which they were accused, they could be given life sentences.
The first court session following the prisoner exchange was rescheduled by the judge. According to Ukrainian law, a session must be held in the presence of the accused and so it was imperative to discover their whereabouts. But the ex-Berkut officers’ lawyer Oleksandr Goroshinsky insisted that “he had no contact with his clients”. The next court session is scheduled for 17 March this year.
In early February, two of the accused, Serhiy Tamtura and Oleksandr Marynchenko, announced that they were returning to Kyiv and would continue to take part in the legal process. As Goroshinsky says, those who have returned have not given any commentaries or interviews until now, but their defence lawyers are “doing all they can to return the remaining three to Ukrainian territory”.
This is a major and complex trial. Several initiatives are currently under way in Ukraine to enable court cases to be completed without defendants in the courtroom, and one of them permits a case to be reclassified from a standard to an external process. Ukraine currently has no procedure to move a case from a trial where the accused are physically present, to a trial without parties present.
So far, a conviction with no accused present is possible only when a case is re-opened, but it will take another five years to get to that point in the Euromaidan case.