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11 August 2016, 19:46

“I want to cry with all my heart that I’m not guilty,” Oleksandr Yefremov whines from his cell in the stuffy hall. “It’s impossible when the entire state machine is working against you.” The one-time head of the Party of the Regions faction in the Verkhovna Rada is now the #1 suspect in a case over separatism. 

Yefremov is unlikely to get used to being in the defendant’s seat. In winter 2014-15, when Viktor Shokin was the Prosecutor General, they tried to arrest him for the show-of- hands vote on the “draconian laws” on January 16, 2014. At that time, Yefremov was incriminated for overstepping his authority and stirring inter-ethnic enmity. But by February, he was released under bail and fitted with an electronic bracelet. Later, the fine print in Ukrainian laws allowed Yefremov to get rid of even that, get back his passport and freely move around in Ukraine.

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Later he was jailed once again. On July 30, 2016, at 07:28, he was removed from an Austrian Airlines flight enroute to Vienna and arrested right in Boryspil Airport. This time, he was accused by the Prosecutor General of far more serious crimes: acting in a way to change the territorial boundaries of Ukraine, providing organizational and other support at the time when LNR was emerging, and, for the icing on the cake, of stealing assets belonging to LuhanskVuhillia, the regional coal association. Had the accusations been limited to just this last item, Mr. Yefremov might have easily expected that he would once again be released on bail and the familiar little bracelet on his arm. However, infringing on the territorial integrity of the country was a far more serious accusation. At this point, there was no alternative to detention in a pre-trial facility, known as SIZO in Ukrainian. The intriguing question at the court hearing this time was just one: Would the former PR leader walk free this time and how would he manage that?

There were two possible options: violations of procedure during the arrest of the politician which would allow the infamous Pechersk Court to let the suspect go free, or a simple delay in the process. In the second case, the lawyers had to drag the court hearing out until the morning of August 2. That would pass the 72-hour time limit during which preventive measures with regard to the suspect needed to be decided and Yefremov would then be free as the wind in the Luhansk steppes. For the PGO, this arrest was an all-or- nothing move. If it won, that is, if it got to arrest the odious Regional, the PGO could get to wear a big star for “downing a pilot” and show everyone who had accused it of doing nothing to investigate so many cases related to separatism, that it had put a blue-and-white politician behind bars. In other words, “We may be working slowly, but we’re working. Expect more arrests.”

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But if the PGO lost and Yefremov was released, there would not have been enough fingers on the hands in all four sides of the courtroom to calculate the loss of reputation of the government in general and Yuriy Lutsenko as the new Prosecutor General in particular. What’s more, President Poroshenko’s opponents would have a great excuse to get into fights on television talk-shows. So the arrest and punishment of Yefremov is a matter of principle and a case that will boost all kinds of ratings. His lawyers decided to drag things out. In the hearing hall, they confidently insisted that the Prosecutor’s request to arrest Yefremov was granted only the day before the court hearing, on July 31 in the evening.

So, as they put it, they hadn’t had enough time to agree to a strategy for their defendant and to overcome this error they would need at least three hours just to familiarize themselves with the materials in the case. The court sustained this demand but limited the lawyers to just 40 minutes. This was probably the first hint that “cutting a deal” with the justice system did not work this time. So it looks as though the PGO has actually managed to put together some more-or- less serious evidence of Yefremov’s guilt in events from two years ago. Here, there is his likely role in the takeover of Oblast State Administration and SBU buildings in Luhansk, and in organizing demonstrations in support of Donbas joining Russia.

Testimony about these events began to come from Tornado, the scandalous volunteer battalion, in particular Mykola Tsukur. They claim that their first testimony from 2014 mysteriously disappeared from the military prosecutor’s office. And now the GPO has to reconstruct them. The Tornado witnesses also clamed that Yefremov’s people tried to negotiate with them, but they refused to cooperate. Not long ago, another ex-PR deputy and Yefremov’s fellow homeboy, Volodymyr Landik, showed up again. In his recent comments to the press, Landik has openly accused Yefremov of being a principal in these crimes. After the fiasco of their first delaying tactics, Yefremov’s lawyers decided to try another approach: they proposed examining the evidence presented to the PGO and, if possible, interrogating witnesses. This would have meant the court not only working until dawn but actually sitting without interruption in the courtroom for several days. The folks in the black gowns did not agree to this and remained implacable: the norms of the Criminal Procedural Code stated that when selecting preventive measures, there was no obligation to engage in a detailed review of the materials of the case. At this, the court  withdrew to the deliberation chambers. It became clear that, unless Yefremov suddenly became sick and an ambulance appeared on the scene, by evening he would be in an SBU detention cell.

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Perhaps the situation would have changed had there been any associates of the Luhansk Regional, but not one PR or Opposition Bloc deputy showed up. At previous hearings, Yefremov’s support group included Natalia Korolevska, Yuriy Voropayev, Tetiana Bakhteyeva, and Mykhailo Dobkin, but this time the “boss of Luhansk Country” was left pretty much on his own with the prosecutors. The overwhelming impression was that his former comrades had decided to write off their colleague. Instead, the room was filled with his opponents: Narodniy Front’s Andriy Levus and Yuriy Bereza, Samopomich’s Semen Semenchenko and Svoboda’s Yuriy Levchenko. There were also rank-and- file activists from Aidar and Dnipro-1 batallions. Were the court to rule in favor of Yefremov, they had simply threatened not let him out of the room.

So far, things have not turned violent. The ex-PR leader in the Rada has been sentenced to two months in the SIZO, which he will probably spend in an SBU cell. His lawyers are preparing an appeal, but have not named a specific date so far. They only said that they would be prepared to say something specific after August 5, when they see the entire text of the court ruling. However, the boss man of Luhansk has little reason to feel optimistic: because this is case is intended to be a demonstration, the decisions of the lowest court will, of course, remain in force. As for Ukrainians, they can probably get ready to enjoy the showcase trial of a top-tier politician from Party of the Regions.

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