A spinoff of war

11 August 2016, 21:09

In the winter 2015-2016, border guards in Zakarpattia, on Ukraine’s western border with Slovakia, tried to block the illegal traffic of counterfeit cigarettes to Europe. As it turned out, the trucks contained not only the products of Lviv Tobacco Factory involved in a series of scandals, but also the cigarettes of Khamadey Tobacco Plant from Donetsk. How tobacco from the occupied territories crossed the contact line remains an open question.

The list of crimes that became wide-spread after the war broke out includes extortion, kidnapping, torture, racket and even murder, in addition to smuggling of goods. Complicating the situation is the fact that, when servicemen or volunteers are involved, they tend to justify their actions with arguments about separatism of the local residents, and claim that, in time of armed hostilities, there is no time to investigate and confirm whether the affected locals do cooperate with the “LNR” and “DNR” militants. Moreover, the charges against the military wrongdoers are often based on allegations of open separatists. This is the case with the recent proccedings against one of the commanders of Aidar battalion, Valentyn Lykholit (known by his nom de guerre, Batya), and his subordinate Ihor Radchenko (nom de guerre Rubyezh). They were charged with stealing a camcorder, a camera and alcohol from the current Mayor of Severodonetsk Valentyn Kazakov. Kazakov himself is widely suspected, not without ground, of collaboration with terrorists: he is credited with promoting the establishment of the so-called self-defence militias, helping organize the fake referendum, and more.

The figure of Batya is not as straightforwardly evil as the police are trying to show. Most Aidar fighters speak of him only positively and cannot remember any openly criminal activities of their commander. As for Rubyezh, all those interviewed by The Ukrainian Week admitted off-record that he is a rogue, who was doing his own business rather than fighting. However, they refused to provide any details out of fear for their lives.

The case of Rubyezh is not unique. In the early 2016, Center for Civil Liberties, a human rights watchdog NGO, under the auspices of the "Justice for Peace in Donbas" Coalition of NGOs and initiatives, as well as in cooperation with lawyers and human rights activists, prepared a report entitled "In Search of Justice." It focused on the breaches of law in the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) area. Members of monitoring groups collected over a dozen facts demonstrating that since 2014, war veterans have become active players of the criminal world.

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One such case comes from the town of Bilokurakine, Luhansk Oblast. It happened in the summer–winter of 2014. Oleksandr Hladchenko, a private farmer, borrowed money for sowing from a local attorney. Shortly, he was paid several visits by unknown armed men who presented themselves first as the members of Ukrainian Armed Forces, then as Aidar, and then as the Right Sector. After a few visits, the anonyms wearing military fatigues moved from words to deeds. According to Hladchenko, he was beaten and threatened in order to extort money. Only the intervention of Aidar helped resolve the situation. The battalion volunteers helped detain three extortionists, who were handed over to the law enforcers. The victim knows nothing about the further investigation. According to his lawyer, as of April this year, his offenders were not even under suspicion for committing the crimes. Pre-trial detention is not in question, apparently.

Another story took place far from the front line. Oleksiy Petrovsky left Donetsk in 2014 for the Ukrainian-controlled territory. After crossing one of the checkpoints on the border of Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts, he was beaten up. About a dozen armed men blocked the road with their jeep, accusing Petrovsky of being a separatist and of stealing the car he was driving (even though he had all the necessary documents to prove he owned it). He was taken to the basement of a residential building, with a bag on his head. He spent three days there, whereupon he got back his car and personal belongings. However, his netbook, mobile phone and UAH 3,000 in cash were missing. According to him, one of his guards was a man with nom de guerre Dwarf, who later was himself captured by the Right Sector. Petrovsky suspects that he was held at one of the recreation facilities of Vodokanal municipal enterprise, where the Right Sector was stationed. The National Police classified the offense as unlawful imprisonment or kidnapping for mercenary motives concerning two or more persons by prior agreement under Art. 146.2 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine.

However, not all the victims got off so cheap. Human rights activists have recorded some cases when the fight against separatism took the form of murders. That was the case of the Dorohinsky family, Zinaida and Hanna, in Luhansk Oblast. The two women lived in the village of Luhanske in Bakhmut County. In June 2015, two Armed Forces servicemen broke into their home "to search for members of illegal armed groups." The police and the military prosecutor's office could not reach a unanimous conclusion on who exactly shot the family. However, the incident was classified as premeditated murder and violent home invasion under Art. 115 and Art. 162.2 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine.

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In other cases, servicemen themselves became victims of crime. The case of Serhiy Kostakov (nom de guerre Maestro) is quite well-known. He had conflicts with senior officers and repeatedly warned of his intention to disclose the information about their illegal activities. Kostakov went missing in late November 2014, following his transfer from the 72nd to the 81st brigade. He was seen alive for the last time at a checkpoint near Volnovakha (on Sloviansk–Donetsk highway), which at that time was guarded by the soldiers of Kyiv-2 Patrol Police Battalion. According to witnesses, Serhiy was beaten up and handcuffed to a radiator. The reasons that led to this are a mystery to this day. Six months later, in June 2015, his body was found near the village of Prokhorovka in Volnovakha County. His hands were handcuffed, and there were 20 bullet wounds in his head. The investigation was started by the Prosecutor's Office in Donetsk Oblast, and later taken over by the General Prosecutor's Office. The crime was classified as premeditated murder under Art. 115.

The "suicide" of Dmytro Shabratsky (nom de guerre Poet), soldier of the 24th Assault Battalion, better known as Aidar, is less famous, but no less heinous. The man was associated with the aforementioned Radchenko (they served in the same unit). As we found out, he often criticized his commander, accusing Rubyezh of using his soldiers for illegal activities, such as the kidnapping of a pro-Ukrainian activist and the former Mayor of Pryvillya Valery Beshenko. Following the liberation of Lysychansk, a city in Luhansk Oblast, from the militants, public hearings on the cooperation of local businesses and industrial groups with the separatists were to be held at a City Council session. Beshenko was supposed to speak there. However, on the same day he was kidnapped by Radchenko's group and taken to Polovynkyne, where Aidar was stationed at that time. After the session of the City Council was over, the activist was released. However, there was an issue: Shabratsky, a resident of Pryvillya, was in the group of kidnappers. He recognized Beshenko, and later went to Radchenko with his claims. There is every reason to believe that Poet also took part in a number of other illegal activities of Rubyezh's group, or at least was aware of them. He was even supposed to give testimony to the State Security Service representatives. Shortly before his death, he warned his parents that his life was at risk. On the day of his death, March 26, 2015, he called his friends asking them to collect him from Lysychansk. However, no one came to help. Shabratsky committed a "suicide" at the battalion's base by shooting himself from his Kalashnikov and blowing himself up with a grenade at the same time. The death of Poet, strangely enough, was reported by Rubyezh himself, who happened to be at the same floor at that time. The case was classified as premeditated murder and incitement to suicide under Art. 115 and Art. 120. No internal investigation into the death was carried out. Moreover, the investigators did not check whether the bullets were fired from Shabratsky's gun. Radchenko, the key witness/suspect, was not interrogated. The criminal investigation into the murder was closed for some reason. Through the lawyers' efforts the investigation has now been resumed, and the story continues.

The above examples are not exhaustive, but at least can give a rough picture of how the war affects the criminal situation. We haven't mentioned the murder of the group led by Serhiy Halushchenko, nom de guerre Andrew, that was investigating and reporting illegal smuggling in Luhansk Oblast. We did not talk about the racket of local Luhansk farmers, which is also associated with Rubyezh, according to local activists. The affected businessmen simply refused to talk to the journalist of The Ukrainian Week out of fear for their safety and lives. We have not mentioned the cases that have not been registered, because local residents have not reported them to the police, since they don’t trust law enforcers.

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The military make the situation more complicated by accusing locals of separatism. While the case of Mayor Kazakov is more or less clear, the situation with the murdered Dorohinsky family or with Petrovsky who was beaten up is more obscure. Successful investigation into those crimes by the law enforcement agencies could help resolve the situation. However, unfortunately, in most cases they just create a semblance of activity. And while criminal records collect dust in their archives, contraband traffic through the line of demarcation continues. 

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