How Czechia became a leader in convicting ex-mercenaries who fought against Ukraine in the Donbas

How Czechia became a leader in convicting ex mercenaries who fought against Ukraine in the Donbas

Convicted of participating in the war against Ukraine in the Donbas, wrote a letter from the penal colony to the Ukrainian embassy, Pavel Kafka (the one holding an assault rifle) wrote a letter from the penal colony to the Ukrainian embassy, in which he said that he would like to apologize to Ukraine and that he even "believes that Ukraine will be able to restore its territorial integrity using diplomacy." Photo via Radio Svoboda
 

Russian Aggression, War in Donbas

Article by: Maria Shchur
Translated by: Yuri Zoria

Mercenaries from more than 30 countries took part in Russia’s war against Ukraine in the Donbas, but only a few countries are working systematically to identify and prosecute their citizens, according to the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office. So far, the Czech Republic has convicted most of its citizens who had taken part in the war against Ukraine on the side of Russian hybrid forces.

As of the end of June, according to the Ukrainian embassy, Czech courts had served six sentences on charges of terrorism to Czech citizens who had fought on Russia’s side among the fighters groups of the so-called LDNR (Russian-run Luhansk and Donetsk “people republics” – DNR and LNR, – Ed.). A number of other cases have been currently under investigation by Czech law enforcement with verdicts expected soon.

The two Russian-run self-proclaimed “republics” occupy roughly one-third of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Map: Euromaidan Press ~

The two Russian-run self-proclaimed “republics” occupy roughly one-third of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Map: Euromaidan Press

In total, more than 20 Czech citizens are being investigated or have been convicted on charges of involvement in the fighting in the Donbas on the Russian side, said Ukrainian Ambassador to Prague Yevhen Perebyinis.

The participants of the webinar, which was held on 29 June jointly by the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union (UHHRU) and the Media Initiative for Human Rights, discussed why these cases have become important for the Czech Republic.

Back in 2016, the Czech city of Ostrava saw the opening of the so-called “DNR consulate,” Czech President Miloš Zeman voiced statements that the loss of the Crimea to Ukraine was a fait accompli and Kyiv would better bargain a discount for buying fossil fuels from Russia, while some right-wing Czech parliamentarians paid visits to the occupied Crimea and Donbas.

President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons ~

President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

However, according to Ukrainian Ambassador Yevhen Perebyinis, the Czech Republic is a state governed by the rule of law, where law enforcement agencies operate regardless of the political context. Therefore, the Czech state institutions didn’t pay attention to propaganda and worked systematically, and throughout 2016-17, the so-called “DNR consulate” was shut down by a court decision.

According to the Ukrainian ambassador, the work of the Czech law enforcement and judicial authorities could be an example for other countries, where the Russian hybrid spy network similarly tried to present the Russian invasion and occupation as a “civil war in Ukraine” (the civil war narrative is concurrent in the Russian propaganda since 2014, – Ed.). According to Yevhen Perebyinis, even the court hearings and the wording that were heard in court were important to call a spade a spade.

Oldřich Grund (marked with the red circle) sentenced in absentia by a Czech court to 15 years in prison. Photo via khpg.org ~

Oldřich Grund (marked with the red circle) sentenced in absentia by a Czech court to 15 years in prison. Photo via khpg.org

According to Roman Máca, a Czech security expert who has been monitoring the activities of Czech pro-Russian forces for years, in addition to Pavel Kafka, for now, the verdicts have also been delivered against Erik Eštu, Oldřich Grund, Martin Kantor, Lukáš Nováček, and Aleksey Fadeev, a Belarusian citizen. For some of them, cases and court hearings took place in absent, since some are hiding in Russia, some in the occupied territories in the east of Ukraine, as for others, it is unknown whether they are still alive.

Their trials began around the same time, and the first sentences were mostly conditional, as it was difficult to prove the direct involvement of Czech citizens in the hostilities, some were tried in absentia, as for others there was no certainty whether they were alive or hiding in the occupied territories, or in Russia proper. Therefore, as Yevhen Perebyinis says, it was important to wait for the first “real sentences”.
Belarusian national Aleksey Fadeev being tried by a Czech court. Source: novinky.cz ~

Belarusian national Aleksey Fadeev being tried by a Czech court. Source: novinky.cz

“The first was the Belarusian citizen (he had a residence permit in the Czech Republic – Ed.), And the second one was a Czech named Pavel Kafka, who was sentenced by a court firstly to probation, and then, appealed, to a “real” sentence – the three-year imprisonment for his participation in hostilities,” the Ambassador stressed.

According to Roman Máca, the motivations of people who went to war against Ukraine varied. Some were attracted by the ideology – they wanted the restoration of the Soviet Union and believed that they could return it in this way, others fled from justice in the Czech Republic, incurring debts, others could not find their place in life and sought adventure. Such was the case of Pavel Kafka, a young man without a family who grew up in a foster family and dreamed of a career as a “brave soldier.”

The Ukrainian ambassador said that lately, his embassy received a letter from Pavel Kafka from the penal colony, in which he continued claiming that he had not taken part in hostilities despite this being proven in court, but also said he’d like to apologize to Ukraine and even believed “that for Ukraine it will be possible to restore its territorial integrity using diplomatic means.”

According to the ambassador, the wording and legal qualification of the actions of Czech militants provided by the Czech prosecutor’s office and courts are very important.

“As a rule, almost in all cases, the Czech prosecutor’s office indicted them with ‘participation in the commission of a terrorist act.’ Not all courts agree with this wording – the court sometimes changes it to the ‘participation in an organized criminal group,’ because Russian troops in the Donbas and their proxies are, of course, a criminal group, and it’s organized. In any case, it is important that the Czech courts follow this path and a number of court decisions is to come in the near future,” the ambassador said, adding that the Czech prosecutor’s office is actively cooperating with Ukraine and plans to expand this cooperation in order to replenish the evidence base.

Yevhen Perebyinis pointed that in the case of the Belarusian citizen, the Czech judiciary used the norm of universal jurisdiction (a type of extraterritorial criminal jurisdiction that allows states or international organizations to demand criminal proceedings against an accused person, regardless of their nationality, country of residence, and regardless of where the alleged crime was committed, – Ed.), terrorism and illegal armed groups exist in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is helping Czech courts determine the international legal status of these events.

The example of the Czech Republic, according to Perebyinis, is important for law enforcement agencies of other countries, which, responding to Russia’s subversive activities in their countries, protect themselves, in the first place, but also support Ukraine.

According to Olha Reshetylova of the Media Initiative for Human Rights, Ukrainian courts are not as consistent in classifying the crimes committed by militants in Donbas:

“These cases are qualified very chaotically under various articles of the Criminal Code: encroachment on the territorial integrity of the state, high treason, creation of a terrorist organization; preparing, planning, and conducting an aggressive war against Ukraine. We also need to talk about war crimes separately,” she said.

Deputy Prosecutor General Hiunduz Mammadov, who was until recently in charge of his agency’s Department for Supervision of Criminal Proceedings for the Crimes Committed in Armed Conflict, said that since the establishment of a separate department in the Prosecutor’s Office for dealing armed-conflict-related crimes, Ukrainian law enforcement officers have been investigating into mercenarism crimes.

“To date, we have 32 criminal proceedings against more than 250 international mercenaries from 32 countries who took part in the armed conflict in the Donbas. Separate cases are underway regarding Crimea. As for the Czech Republic, we have identified 24 people who took an active part in the hostilities. We have registered these cases as illegal participation in armed groups, mercenarism, and in some cases as participation in terrorist organizations,” Hiunduz Mammadov said.

According to him, the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office is ready to assist in the investigations against Czech citizens, but so far no such requests came from the Czech prosecutor’s office to Kyiv. The Ukrainian side even offered to set up a joint investigation team, similar to the one working to investigate the downing of the MH17.

According to the participants in the online discussion, such cooperation would be useful for the investigation not only in the Czech Republic but also in other countries, because so far most of the verdicts passed in the Czech Republic are conditional precisely because of the lack of relevant evidence.

On the other hand, Mykola Hovorukha, Deputy Head of the Military Conflicts Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office, said that the evidence gathered by their Czech counterpart could be used in Ukraine and handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) if the ICC would be considering the case. He also noted that whenever Ukraine is investigating cases of recruiting foreign nationals in the Donbas, the prosecutor’s office sends a request to the relevant authorities in their countries, encouraging those agencies to cooperate in the investigation and exchange of information. But, according to Mykola Hovorukha, requests for legal assistance are a long and bureaucratically complex process.

The webinar participants also noted that the practices of Czech courts’ sentences can be used in the International Criminal Court, where Ukraine is dealing with multiple cases related to the war that Russia has been waging against Ukraine in the Donbas.

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Translated by: Yuri Zoria
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