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More questions than answers in trial of Ukrainian soldier accused of killing Italian journalist

Vitaliy Markiv before the court hearing in Pavia, Italy, April 12, 2019
More questions than answers in trial of Ukrainian soldier accused of killing Italian journalist
The dramatic trial of Ukrainian soldier Vitaliy Markiv is nearing its end. The National Guardsman is accused of killing Italian photojournalist Andrea Rocchelli in the Donbas on May 24, 2014. Over the course of nine months, about 20 witnesses have testified, as well as the defendant and three defense witnesses. Four more defense witnesses will be heard on May 17.

Senior sergeant of the National Guard of Ukraine Vitaliy Markiv arrived in Pavia, Italy on June 31, 2017 to meet up with his mother, Oksana Maksymchuk. He was promptly arrested on suspicion of firing mortars and killing Italian photojournalist Andrea Rocchelli and his Russian translator Andriy Mironov near Sloviansk, Donetsk Oblast in May 2014. Markiv refutes this accusation. The trial started on July 6, 2018.

Markiv’s lawyers say that the last court hearing on April 12 was just another demonstration of the lack of key evidence in Markiv’s involvement in the tragic death of the Italian reporter near Sloviansk, Donetsk Oblast. One of the defense witnesses, former Ambassador of Italy to Ukraine Fabrízio Romano, outlined the geopolitical situation in Ukraine in the spring of 2014, confirmed that the war was ongoing, and that Italian citizens had been duly warned not to venture into the war zone.

Defense witness Fabrizio Romano, April 12, 2019

Romano underlined that Andrea Roccelli’s body was safely delivered to Italy four days after his death, thanks to the cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Ukrainian local authorities and the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The Ukrainian side also helped to collect the reporter’s personal belongings and transfer them to Italy. Romano did not exclude the fact that the Russian-backed militants may have helped in this operation.

The Italian diplomat underlined that the news of Rocchelli’s death was widely publicized in the Ukrainian media and political circles. Government officials in Kyiv were also well informed about the Italian authorities wanting to investigate the circumstances of Rocchelli’s death. Fabrízio Romano stated that he was officially informed of the investigation, but did not know the detailed content. The prosecutor and the lawyers of the Roccelli family interrogated the diplomat as to what extent the local and central authorities in Ukraine had actually investigated this case, because the prosecutor’s charges are based on Ukraine’s inaction for four years.

Weapon used still under question

The second witness was Luca Soldati. Basing his testimony on a forensic examination of the two bodies (Andrea Rocchelli and his translator Andriy Mironov), he provided a highly professional assessment of weapons that may have been used. Soldati stressed that both Rocchelli and Mironov had died from multiple wounds. He agreed with Ukraine’s investigation team that Roccelli’s death could have been caused by pulmonary bleeding due to the explosion of a hand grenade (presence of small wounds on Rocchelli’s body), and not from rifle or machine gun fire. However, he emphasized that he needed more data to accurately establish the type of weapon that actually killed both men.

Traces of different chemical components were also found on Rocchelli’s backpack, but it was impossible to establish how and when they got there. The expert explained that usually the actual territory should also be checked for traces of the same explosives. None of the holes on the backpack correspond to bullet holes. Having watched a video of the damaged vehicle used by the reporter and his guide, Soldati confirmed the presence of asymmetrical holes from different weapons, pointing out that the gunshots probably came from different directions and that it was impossible to establish the distance from which they were fired.

In his closing statement, Markiv’s lawyer, Raffaelle Della Valle, concluded as follows:

“With our military expert’s assistance and if we take into account the actual materials in this case, we still do not know what caused Rocchelli’s death (a bomb or mortar explosion), and from where the shots were actually fired (from the Ukrainian side or from the side of the pro-Russian militants). We don’t know who fired – that’s the most important fact. It was certainly not Markiv, because Rocchelli’s wounds were not caused by the AK-74 assault rifle, which belonged to Markiv. Such weapons are also used by the Russian-backed militants.”

Markiv talks to his lawyer, Raffaelle Della Valle

Reaction of the prosecution

The defense is now waiting for testimonies from four soldiers of the National Guard of Ukraine, who finally agreed to come to Pavia on May 17 after the judge had assured them that they would not be in any danger.

A member of the Pavia Tribunal made an off-the-record statement that the prosecution was very skeptical about the upcoming testimonies of the Ukrainian National Guardsmen:

“It looks very weird. Five years ago, when the Italian side contacted the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine for help in investigating Andrea Rocchelli’s death, we were given a list of 20 eyewitnesses – mostly pensioners and unemployed people… Ukraine did not cooperate at that time. And suddenly, everyone is ready to testify for the defense?”

The tribunal has categorically refused to travel to Ukraine in order to further investigate the tragedy. Moreover, when asked if videos and other materials from Russian media (Russian Spring website, Russia Today channel) can be considered reliable for use as evidence by the prosecution, sources in the prosecutor’s office replied that they focus mainly on demonstrative facts, and not on the origin of the media. For example, RT’s video is important, since it shows how Andrea Rocchelli’s body was allegedly found and brought to Sloviansk hospital by two Russian proxies.

For the prosecutors, this “fact” proves that Russian proxies did not kill Rocchelli, because “if they had killed him, they wouldn’t have taken him to the hospital”. The prosecutor’s office continues to insist that the shots were fired from Mount Karachun (deployment position of the Ukrainian forces), and that the defendant, Vitaliy Markiv, could clearly see the vehicle with the reporters. The suspect and defense witnesses – Ukrainian deputies and ex-commanders of National Guard regiments Bohdan Matkivsky and Andriy Antonyshchak – refuted this version.

The prosecution unofficially assured that they were “not funded by the Kremlin and were not advocates of the pro-Russian militants”. The prosecutor’s office just wants an answer to one simple question: who killed Andrea Rocchelli?

Role of the Italian media

Most Italian journalists also want the truth, but many are swayed by the prosecution:

“We’re not interested in who’s fighting who in Ukraine. We’re not fans of Ukraine or Russia… we’re looking for the truth – how Andrea Rocchelli died, who killed him?”

In other words, if not Markiv, then who? A guilty person must be found and brought to justice, but the dangerous military situation – the war in Ukraine – at the scene of the tragedy is not taken into account in these discussions.

Supported by some of the leading media in Italy, public opinion continues to build a negative opinion of Vitaliy Markiv, his countrymen and Ukraine as a whole.

Italian media articles and TV broadcasts continue to report on Vitaliy Markiv as a suspect of “Rocchelli’s murder”, and not of his involvement in the killing, as stated in the official case file. The Italian media hardly ever writes about the opinions expressed by the defense, although defense lawyer Della Valle, in contrast to the prosecution, openly communicates with journalists. Italian reporters comment on and carefully capture the suffering face of look of Elisa Signori, the mother of Andrea Rocchelli, on video, but they completely ignore the “nationalists in embroidered shirts” or the distressed face of Oksana Maksymchuk, Vitaliy Markiv’s mother.

The Rocchelli family and his colleagues continue to treat the Ukrainian observers with hostility. They ask the police officers to prevent the Ukrainians from entering the courtroom too early so that Italian viewers can take the more comfortable seats. They also avoid talking to the Ukrainian press. After the last court hearing, Andrea Rocchelli’s mother verbally abused an official Ukrainian press correspondent, demanding that he remove the photos he had taken from his smartphone. On the other hand, the Rocchelli family often meets with the local media…

Court hearings will continue on May 24, and June 14, 21, and unless the judge decides to introduce additional procedural actions, the sentence will be announced by the end of summer. The ambience in the courthouse is impassioned and intense as everyone awaits the truth.
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