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I investigated who really killed my colleagues in Donbas. Now I am under attack by Russian & Italian media

A rally in support of Vitaliy Markiv in Milan, 1 October 2020. Photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine
I investigated who really killed my colleagues in Donbas. Now I am under attack by Russian & Italian media
Article by: Olga Tokariuk
Vitaliy Markiv, a Ukrainian soldier who fought off Russian-backed militants in 2014, was convicted of killing two journalists in the Donbas and sentenced to 24 years of jail by an Italian court. But it was physically impossible for him to do so, says Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk, who co-authored a documentary investigating who really killed the two journalists, examining evidence that the court didn’t care about. Now she is under attack by Italian and Russian media – and it is not surprising, given that the verdict is laden with Russian propaganda. We republish her Twitter thread here.

A thread about the project I am currently working on with my Italian colleagues: a documentary called Crossfire. It has been recently under attack from Russian propaganda TV, Italian pro-Lukashenko, pro-Assad websites, and left-leaning weekly L’Espresso. The documentary is an investigation of the killing of two journalists – Italian Andrea Rocchelli and famous Russian dissident Andrei Mironov – in Ukraine in 2014. 

Rocchelli and Mironov were killed on 24 May 2014 near a railway passage in Sloviansk. The passage was blocked by a cargo train, which separatists used as a barricade to shell the Ukrainian positions on Karachun hill. The city was then controlled by Russian forces and local proxies. This spot, as confirmed by other journalists who worked there, was one of the most dangerous in the city, and fighting in the area had worsened in that period. 

Last year, an Italian court in Rocchelli’s native town of Pavia has found guilty and convicted to 24 years for complicity in murder a Ukrainian National guard soldier Vitaliy Markiv. The jury has concluded that Markiv – the only one of 100+ soldiers present on the Karachun hill with Italian citizenship – spotted and identified journalists, shot them with his Ak-74 from 1700m distance, and then passed their coordinates to the Ukrainian army, who proceeded to shell them with mortars. 

No investigation on the scene in Ukraine was done. The case was based on circumstantial evidence with no direct proof of his involvement.

The jury concluded that Markiv was a “spotter” based on photos and videos in which he wore radios. It was never proved that he was on a position that day, or that he actually was able to recognize journalists and reach them with Ak-74. Nor his criminal intent was proven, considering that he was a source of information for many Italian journalists. 

The only thing that links Markiv to the murder of journalists is an article published online by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera the next day after journalists’ death. In it, freelance journalist Ilaria Morani quotes an unnamed “captain of the Ukrainian army,” who allegedly told her: “Usually we do not shoot in the direction of civilians, but when we see movement, we load heavy artillery. This is what happened to the two journalists and their interpreter.” 

The court believes this to be Markiv’s extrajudicial confession. However, it turned out that Morani never talked to Markiv, and reportedly heard his conversation with another Italian journalist, Fauci, on a loudspeaker.

There is no recording of that call.

Fauci in court didn’t recall that Markiv told him anything about his – or the Ukrainian military – role in the death of journalists. He testified that Markiv only told him not to approach the area because it was dangerous.

The court concluded that the Ukrainian military and Markiv deliberately wanted to kill “uncomfortable” journalists and that it was a unilateral attack, a crime against the freedom of speech. This is based on the account of William Roguelon, a key witness, a French photographer who survived the attack.

In court, Roguelon said he didn’t see who was shooting, but he had “an intimate belief” it wasn’t the pro-Russian side because they treated journalists well. He has never seen Markiv. 

The jury has ignored a crucial piece of evidence: a video, recorded by Roguelon, in which Andrei Mironov is heard talking to a taxi driver during the shelling. In it, Mironov clearly says they “are caught in a crossfire,” that there is someone nearby “who is shooting from everything he has” and that from Karachun Ukrainians are responding with mortars. In the video, AK shots from a short distance (ie, from separatist positions) are also heard. 

In court, many cliches of Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine were used, such as that civilians in Sloviansk suffered only from the actions of the Ukrainian military (while it is well-documented that separatists tortured and killed civilians and fired from residential areas). Sources such as Russian spring and RT were quoted by the prosecution as trustworthy. The New York Times published a brilliant article about that.


VICE journalist Simon Ostrovsky described what happened in the three days of his detention by pro-Russian separatists in Sloviansk in 2014 thus:

“I was pulled out of a car at a checkpoint, then blindfolded, beaten, and tied up with tape. After spending hours alone on the floor of a damp cell with my hands tied behind my back and a hat pulled over my eyes, I was led into a room where I was accused of working for the CIA, FBI, and Right Sector, the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist group. When I refused to give the password to my laptop, I was smacked in the arm with a truncheon. When I was asleep on the floor, masked men came to wake me up and tell me how no one would miss me if I died, and then kicked me in the ribs as they left.”


Some factual mistakes that revealed ignorance of the situation in Ukraine were included in the sentence, such as “separatist movements in Donbas were formed after the declaration of Ukraine’s independence in 2014” [in reality, the pro-Russian insurgency, incited and later sustained by Moscow, emerged after the Euromaidan revolution of 2014 – Ed]. It was said that separatists in Sloviansk treated journalists well (ask Simon Ostrovsky about it!). The content of two official documents from OSCE and HRW was manipulated by the prosecution, with their findings quoted partially and in a distorted manner. 


Markiv case update. Prosecution presents same tedious arguments despite new evidence


It was said that there was no war situation at the time of Rocchelli’s and Mironov’s death, while the Mironov video points to the opposite. The same messages, completely distorting the real situation in Sloviansk in 2014, are being repeated by the prosecution in the appeals court in Milan.

The appeal hearings started in late September and the verdict is due in early November. 

For more than a year, our team – me and Italian journalists Danilo Elia, Cristiano Tinazzi, Ruben Lagattolla, have been working on our own investigation of what happened to our colleagues. We went to the scene on Sloviansk three times, created a digital map of the terrain with a drone, made visibility and arms range tests. We found two other survivors of that attack, never heard by the court. We spoke to a dozen of international journalists who were in Sloviansk at the time. 


In the course of our investigation, we have found plenty of evidence that puts into doubt the Italian court verdict.

Based on a 3D map of the terrain, independent Italian experts established that:

  • there was no visibility from Markiv’s position;
  • the shots heard in Roguelon video came from close by, i.e. there was a crossfire;
  • Markiv was physically unable to target and reach journalists with his Ak-74. 


Markiv case: International task group exposes glaring legal errors in Italian court hearings  


The only thing we were unable to do is to interview the other side: prosecutors, Rocchelli’s family, their lawyer, key witnesses Roguelon, Morani and Fauci, representatives of two Italian press organizations who joined the case as civil plaintiffs against the state of Ukraine. All of them ignored our interview requests or refused to be interviewed, sometimes explicitly saying that they don’t like our investigation. Now, they accuse us of being one-sided. 

The coverage of the first-grade trial in the Italian media was extremely one-sided, with Markiv called “a killer” since the day of his arrest in 2017 and the position of his defense never quoted. Recently, that has been changing, in part due to our investigation. We presented a short version of our documentary in September in Italy and Ukraine, and are currently finishing the full version.


Italian podcast & report on Ukrainian soldier Vitaliy Markiv ignore basic facts & evidence


We are all experienced journalists who value our reputation and financed the documentary via three crowdfunding campaigns and a grant from the Justice for Journalists Foundation. Markiv’s defendants have asked the court to consider the short version of our documentary as new evidence. No decision has been made yet. The prosecution unfoundedly accused us of not being independent. Rocchelli’s family lawyer also said our investigation is an offense to his memory.

We are also coming under attack from the media.

Russian propaganda TV Russia1 made a defaming story about our documentary. Recently, an article against the documentary, written by a former Italian mercenary in Donbas who fought on the separatist side, was published by a pro-authoritarian website Contropiano. Strikingly, it was later shared by Articolo 21, a website affiliated with the Italian press federation, a civil plaintiff in Markiv’s case. 

Our work is unprecedented: neither investigators nor other journalists have done such complex research. The attempts to discredit and censor our work are unacceptable. Especially if they come from the same people who in court pledge to defend the freedom of speech.  in memory of the deceased journalists, chose to attack other journalists, us, and our investigative work aimed at finding the truth about their death. 


Note. The documentary was originally called “In the wrong place.” After the publication of this thread, it was renamed into “Crossfire.” 


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