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26 May, 2017  ▪  Stanislav Kozliuk

The Odesa trail

Three years after the May 2 fire at the Trade Unions’ Building in Odesa, virtually all those involved have fled Ukraine. The remaining suspects have been under trial for more than two years now

Commandant of crime. In addition to his involvement in Odesa clashes, Oleksiy Fominov (see photo) has featured in a number of other crimes, including murder, against civilians in Luhansk Oblast


I had not known him before,” Valeria says. “I’ve seen him by my parents’ car on photographs. Later I’ve heard that he referred to himself as the “commandant of Kulikovo Pole in Odesa.”

On August 10, 2014, Valeria’s mother, Olena Kulish and her husband Volodymyr Alekhin who lived in Peremozhne, a village near Luhansk Airport, were kidnapped. Her grandfather and several kids from the next-door families who were using the basement as a bomb shelter stayed in the house for the days that the shelling lasted. Valeria’s parents never returned. Six months later, Valeria got a call from the “Luhansk People’s Republic prosecutor’s office”. She was told of two bodies that had been found and could be her parents. She was invited to come to Luhansk and identify them. That visit could be pretty risky. Her relatives managed to send the DNA of the bodies to Kyiv. The analysis confirmed the assumptions of the “LNR prosecutor’s office”.

An “individual special force Odesa brigade” was involved in the murder of Valeria’s parents. At least two suspects featured in the case: Oleksiy Gerikh and Oleksiy Fominov. The same gang was involved in another murder: on August 22, 2014, seven armed men from it killed the Bochnevych family of four.

“Many residents of Peremozhne used to work at the Luhansk Airport,” comments Yevhenia Zakrevska, a human rights advocate working with Valeria. “When the fighting began, some locals started delivering humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian military, mostly food. That put them on the militants’ execution lists. In fact, those lists featured both people who were helping the Ukrainian Army, and those who were more or less open about their pro-Ukrainian stance, those who were wealthier than others, and those who were more successful. Valeria’s mother had worked at a radio station, her stepfather had been a software developer,” Yevhenia says.

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The Odesa gang was involved in kidnapping people and looting, among other things, she adds.

“Some people from those execution lists fled, some were killed. There are reasons to believe that it was done by the Odesa brigade. In some cases, people were taken to an unknown destination and then brought back home. The facts of looting were recorded. For instance, the house of Olena Kulish and her husband was looted at least twice after they had been kidnapped. At that point, Valeria’s grandfather still lived there,” Zakrevska says.

The gang named itself Odesa for a reason. Some of its members had been noticed before the war broke out in Donbas. The first mention of them dates back to the May 2, 2014 tragedy in Odesa. Moreover, Oleksiy Fominov personally admitted that he had been a “commandant of the Kulikovo Pole” (the square where the Odesa Trade Unions’ building is located and the anti-Maidan gathered in the late 2013 and early 2014 - Ed.). He said this in an interview for Den-TV, an online channel. A closer look reveals curious details. In addition to calling himself a “commandant” he speaks of his involvement in the May 2 clashes in Odesa, his move to Rostov-on-Don in Russia, and later to Luhansk. It was there that Fominov organized the gang. In the interview he also mentioned his stay in Peremozhne and fighting over the Luhansk Airport.

According to reports in the media and the letters sent by Fominov and Gerich to the St. Petersburg Defense and Security magazine, the “commandant of the Kulikovo Pole” is a citizen of the Russian Federation. Before Fominov visited Odesa in May 2014, he had allegedly been in jail but had been released early. No more details are available on him at present.

“When we found out that Fominov and the others were Russian citizens, we sent an inquiry there to find out whether that information was accurate, whether they had actually been in jails and how they got released early. After all, we were trying to find out whether Russia was doing anything to hold them accountable for the crimes committed in Ukraine since they are Russian citizens, and so they can go under a Russian trial, not just a Ukrainian one. But our requests were ignored,” Yevnehia Zakrevska recalls.

Overall, the list of suspects over the May 2 incident in Odesa included 131 people. Fominov is one of them. However, he was not put on the wanted list until half a year after the fire at the Trade Unions’ building. The lawyers dealing with the case of Olena Kulish assume that this was after he had murdered her and her husband. On the clashes in Odesa, the city Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal investigation for hooliganism committed by a group of individuals under Art. 296.2 of the Criminal Code that entails up to four years in jail. The Ukrainian Week’s sources at the prosecutor’s office claim, however, that there had barely been any investigation of Fominov’s role in the disruptions in Odesa, organization of rallies and the camp at Kulikovo Pole etc.

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“Fominov was known in Odesa. I don’t know how it went elsewhere in Ukraine, but the EuroMaidan and the anti-Maidan communicated with each other in Odesa. They organized their rallies to avoid coming across each other and clashing. There was only one case on March 30 when the clash almost happened but the police intervened. But everyone thought Fominov was from Odesa. We knew nothing of his Russian citizenship,” comments Tetiana Herasymova, board chair at the May 2 Group, a civil expert analytical group that is doing its own investigation of the incident.

Still, Fominov was never detained. Nor were a number of other people involved.

“There are nearly 50 people who feature in the criminal proceedings as suspects but have not been detained,” Zakrevska explains. “This means that nothing is known on whether Fominov crossed the border, where his mobile phone traffic led, whom he spoke with and where this traffic stops. Moreover, I can say that people from Fominov’s gang later featured in other crimes. For instance, a slew of explosions in Odesa in 2014-2015 which, luckily, claimed no victims,” she concludes.

Once Fominov ended up at the “LNR” controlled territory, he was put in jail eventually. This could have been because of infighting between the militants. At the same time, the “LNR prosecutor’s office” was investigating - although it is difficult to know how that investigation goes - the crimes committed by the “commandant” and his cronies. These included the murder of Olena Kilish and Volodymyr Alekhin. Fominov didn’t stay long at the detention center and was released as soon as the “investigation” was over. The case of the Odesa brigade should theoretically have been reviewed by the “LNR Supreme Court”, but it has none. So the suspects are free.

Ukraine notified Fominov of the allegations in absentia and issued an order to arrest him in 2016. However, there are plenty of questions regarding the quality of the May 2 investigation by the prosecutor’s office and courts. One is why the suspect pro-Russian “activists” were released on May 4, 2014, in the first place? Another one is why Volodymyr Bodelan, ex-chief of the State Emergency Service in Odesa Oblast, was released even though he had been the one to instruct the firemen to not respond to calls without his personal permission (the instruction was given verbally, not in writing)? Why no trial in absentia has been launched against him yet, while his subordinates are being prosecuted?

“Several criminal proceedings were opened on the night of May 3 after those tragic events,” says Tetiana Herasymova. “They covered mass unrest and police inaction. Eventually, it was all combined into one big case and the most promising episode was singled out. It was about anti-Maidan protesters detained at the Afina shopping mall right after the clashes (it could have been the building from which pro-Ukrainian protesters were shot - Ed.). There were many suspects under that case but only 20 ended up in trial. Some managed to flee while others were exchanged (for Ukrainians held hostage at the “DNR/LNR”- Ed.),” Herasymova comments.

One such person was Oleksandr Hrybovsky, a key figure in the Odesa events. Local activists insist that he was the intermediary for the flow of funding to pro-Russian rallies and pro-federalisation marches. In 2015, he and some other suspects were allegedly swapped for several Security Bureau of Ukraine (SBU) officers that had been taken captive in the ATO area. It is known for now that Hrybovsky has gone to Donbas. No further information on him is available.

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“Out of those 20 people, five are in jail and 15 attend trials that have lasted for almost three years now,” Herasymova shares. “The prosecutor’s office has not yet managed to prove them guilty. The indictment that was transferred to court looks like a political essay rather than a well-grounded document. Almost all 20 accusations have a similar text saying that former officials wanted to return to power and were therefore paying participants of the Kulikovo Pole protests. The actual charges are limited to some three lines: throwing Molotov cocktails and stones, and resisting the police. It is difficult to prove all this, so the judges are imitating a trial process, the prosecutor’s office is imitating work, and only activists rally regularly to attract attention,” she sums up.

The text of the indictment is different for Serhiy Dolzhenkov of the Odesa Guard, a radical pro-Russian organization active at the anti-Maidan. According to the Ukrainian activists, he had been their contact for coordinating actions with the anti-Maidan and avoiding clashes. On May 2, Dolzhenkov knew that the several thousand-strong pro-Ukrainian march had to take place. Yet, he led his several hundred “guard men” to cross ways with the march and turned off his phone at the very last moment.

This is probably the only episode that is as serious as the State Emergency Service case which has made it into the courtroom so far. The others are either not properly investigated or stalling. Those involved in those cases are in the suspect lists, but they have not been detained. So they have either fled Ukraine or have gone to the occupied parts of Donbas. Where they can continue committing more crimes.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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