In first conviction for Donbas war crimes, Ukrainian court sentences aide of Russian FSB Colonel Bezler to 11 years

In first conviction for Donbas war crimes, Ukrainian court sentences aide of Russian FSB Colonel Bezler to 11 years

Viktor Mekhed, a Ukrainian citizen who joined the ranks of the Russian puppet "Donetsk Peoples Republic," was sentenced to 11 years by a court in Donetsk Oblast in Ukraine"s first guity verdict for war crimes in Donbas. Photo: DonPress 

War in the Donbas

Ukraine has issued the first sentence for war crimes committed during the war in Donbas.

Viktor Mykhed, a Ukrainian citizen who joined the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”) in 2014, was sentenced to 11 years in prison by a court in Sloviansk, less than 100 km from the territory of the “DNR,” which is uncontrolled by the Ukrainian government.

The court found him guilty of joining the "communications" department which conducted "information activities" curated by Igor Bezler, Lieutenant Colonel of the FSB of the Russian Federation. During the early phases of the "DNR" in 2014-2016, Bezler was a prominent commander of the so-called "self-defense" of Donbas whose group controlled the local police department in Horlivka. The group he controlled ("Bezler group") is accused of committing heavy crimes on Ukrainian territory: brutal murders, seizure of state power, terrorism, and others.

A UN report from 2016 accused the group of torturing and brutally raping two women and seizing their property.

Fragment from the UN report ~

Fragment from the UN report

According to the Sloviansk court, Mikhed, following the instructions of the leadership of the so-called Bezler Group, videotaped the interrogation of Ukrainian prisoners of war and civilians illegally imprisoned by "DNR" members, filmed, edited, and distributed various videos with the participation of the "DNR," which considered a terrorist group in Ukraine, produced and distributed the so-called "battle leaflets" of the Bezler group, the Kyiv-based Media Initiative for Human Rights reported. Inter alia, he was responsible for propaganda, including filming fake executions, and escorting prisoners.

As a result, Mikhed was charged not only with participating in a terrorist organization (the most common article of the Ukrainian Criminal Code applied to militants in Russia's puppet republics), but also with violating the laws and customs of war (Article 438 of the Criminal Code). It is important to note that violations of the laws and customs of war and war crimes are the subject of the International Criminal Court.

Thus, the Sloviansk City District Court passed the first sentence under Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine regarding the events of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. This is the first such verdict in the history of Ukraine in propria persona. Earlier, two similar sentences, for events in the occupied Crimea, were handed down in absentia under this article.

"For us, this court decision is extremely important, and my conclusion is simple: we must go down this path," Serhiy Zayets, deputy head of the Donetsk Regional Prosecutor's Office, commented to Media Initiative for Human Rights. "I would like the courts to support us and consider cases of this category in a special regime in the absence of the accused, and not stop them."

The verdict has not yet come into force, it is only a decision of the court of the first instance. Currently, the parties have the opportunity to challenge it in the Court of Appeal. It is likely that Mikhed's defense will take advantage of this opportunity, as during the trial the accused, who has been in custody since 2020, pleaded not guilty, repeatedly alleging violations of his rights, including providing him with a translator from Ukrainian into Russian.

Since 2014, Ukrainian law enforcement agencies have been conducting thousands of criminal investigations dealing with the consequences of the occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, as well as the armed conflict in east Ukraine, the Media Initiative for Human Rights told Euromaidan Press.

According to Ukraine's Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO), as of September 2021, over 30,000 criminal proceedings were initiated in regards to conflict-related crimes (concerning both the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of certain parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts).

For starting and waging a war of aggression against Ukraine and assisting in the commission of these acts, about 150 persons have been prosecuted in absentia as part of the aforementioned and other criminal proceedings under Art. 437 of the Criminal Code, including Russia’s Minister of Defense and Chief of the General Staff, their deputies, army and brigade commanders, and other high-ranking officers of the Russian Armed Forces. Indictments have been sent to court against 78 people, of which 31 have been convicted.

But war crimes (article 438 of the Criminal Code) started to be investigated only in late 2019, with the creation of the Department of War in the PGO. Before that, crimes involving serious violations of international humanitarian law were investigated under general criminal articles, e.g. premeditated murder, unlawful deprivation of liberty, torture, etc. There are currently 21 criminal proceedings ongoing against 41 persons accused of committing crimes of this category. As of September 2021, law enforcement agencies identified over 1,600 crimes under Art. 438.

The PGO and investigative bodies explain the relatively small number of indictments and verdicts by the fact that most suspects remain in the temporarily occupied territory or in Russia. Also, the option of conducting special (in absentia) pretrial investigations and trials in regards to this category of crimes only became available in May 2021, after the Ukrainian Parliament had amended the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). Court proceedings are often dragged out because of the need to hold hearings to establish the defendant's absence.

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