Ukraine seeks justice in deaths of Maidan protestors

Ukrainian authorities are nearing completion of an investigation into the shooting deaths of Maidan protestors, but bringing those responsible to justice could be the most difficult law enforcement challenge in Ukraine’s history.

More than 100 people were killed during the Maidan demonstrations last winter, with most of the fatalities occurring between February 18th and 20th at the hands of the Berkut, a Ukrainian special police unit which was disbanded after former President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office.

According to experts, Russia is violating several international conventions and ignoring the demands of Ukrainian law enforcement authorities to extradite the suspects, who are hiding in Moscow.

“We have the 1957 European Convention on Extradition [covering] persons against whom there is an investigation, we have the Minsk Convention of 1993 on legal assistance in the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States. These international instruments regulate our relations with Russia in the issue of extradition suspects, but they are violated,” Yaroslav Kuts, a lawyer with the firm A2K and an expert on criminal law, told SETimes.

According to the general prosecutor’s office, 77 people are suspected of having connections to the shooting of Maidan protestors. Among those who allegedly gave the orders are former high-ranking officials, such as Yanukovych, former Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka, former Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, as well as the former head of the Security Service of Ukraine Oleksandr Yakimenko.

Most of the 77 suspects were members of the Berkut special forces, which were directly involved in suppressing the protests.

“We couldn’t manage to prosecute all involved in these grave crimes,” Deputy Prosecutor General Oleh Zalisko told reporters, adding that it is common knowledge that Yanukovych, Pshonka and other leaders fled from Ukraine. “Almost all of the heads of law enforcement agencies, ministries, the central government and the majority of deputies all escaped in the early days of the revolution.”

Experts say the investigation into the shootings of Maidan protestors is one of the most complex cases that Ukrainian prosecutors have ever faced.

“This is a very complicated matter,” Vadim Karasev, director of the Institute of Global Strategies in Kyiv, told SETimes. “You have to understand that it is difficult to prove anything when orders are given verbally. I am sure that if the orders from Yanukovych existed, he never gave them in writing. It is very difficult to prove something, as one thing is political charges and completely different is legal evidence in court. Therefore, the investigation is so difficult. It is important to prevent the case falling apart in court, otherwise it will be a victory for Yanukovych.”

Karasev added that the difficulty also lies in the fact that crimes against demonstrators were committed by Russian security services. This information is confirmed by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), whose chief, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, said three groups of Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives came to Ukraine last winter. SBU has arrested five of its own officers who are suspected of aiding the FSB personnel.

“We have evidence that in December 2013, January and February 2014 a group of generals and senior officers from the FSB of Russia came to Kyiv and worked in the premises of the Security Service and one of our landfills,” Nalyvaychenko told reporters on November 18th. “We are investigating their involvement in the events on Maidan.”

Serhiy Taran, the director of the International Institute for Democracy, said the investigation is complicated because “a huge part of the documents” have disappeared. “There is a field for work, but there are no mechanisms,” Taran told SETimes. “The challenge for our government is to return suspects from Russia. Only they will be able to shed some light on what happened. They definitely need to be questioned. International forces can help us and influence the Russian side.”

Experts do not rule out the possibility that Russia eventually will allow extradition of the suspects.

“Maybe this will be after the war with Russia ends…and when there the management will be changed,” Taran told SETimes.

According to analysts, the government should make the investigation more open and transparent, because any lack of information could give rise to suspicions among Ukrainians.

“Families of the victims are waiting for an answer. They want to know why their relatives died and who killed them,” Karasev said. “The government must openly say that all this is very difficult, but it is working on it.”

This case has a fundamental impact on the state’s image of power, experts say.

“I strongly doubt that the attorney general’s office does everything that is needed,” Kuts said. “I want them to show at least one request for extradition which they sent to Russia. I understand that there is a secret investigation, but these materials do not affect the course of the investigation. We need to see these documents. It’s not a stalemate. If Russia really ignores our requests, we can open a criminal case against the Russian prosecutor general and the minister of justice. We can provide them lots of papers and get what we need.”

What steps should Ukraine take to spark progress in the investigation into the deaths of Maidan protestors? Share your thoughts in the comments section.