Show trial justice: Ukrainian human rights activist sentenced to 13 years

13th March 2023
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Introduction by Autonomous Action

On 10 March, the Russian Investigative Committee announced the sentencing of Ukrainian anti-fascist and human rights activist Maksym Butkevych, who joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces at the very beginning of the war and commanded a platoon before being taken prisoner in late June. A court in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic sentenced him to 13 years in prison. According to the investigation, while in Sievierodonetsk, he allegedly wounded two women by firing a grenade launcher at the entrance to an apartment building.

According to the newspaper Graty, on 4 June, when Maksym allegedly committed the crime, he was not in Donbas at all, and independent lawyers have never been able to gain access to the case materials or the defendant himself.

Writing for MediaZone, Nikita Kolugub tells Maksym Butkevych's story.


Philosopher, journalist, anarchist, human rights activist

Maksym Butkevych was born in Kyiv in 1977. He graduated in philosophy from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, was a member of the left-wing student trade union Direct Action and called himself an anarchist.

Having graduated as a philosopher, in late 1990s, Butkevych became a television journalist, filming reports and documentaries about globalization, migrants and refugees, clearly sympathetic to the alter-globalization movement. In the early 2000s, he worked for one and a half years in London as a correspondent of the international service of the BBC, and in 2003, he enrolled at the University of Sussex, where he studied applied anthropology.

At some point, journalism and left-wing activism became difficult to reconcile, and the young man opted for practical human rights work. “He went on to fight for people's rights on another level. For me Maksym Butkevych embodies the spirit of Hryhorii Skovoroda. Maks is a colleague with whom it was always a pleasure to have philosophical conversations. He was dealing with refugee issues back then,” said Irena Taranyuk, a BBC colleague.

In 2008, Butkevych became co-facilitator of No Borders, an initiative under the Social Action Centre, which helped refugees and migrants stranded in Ukraine and monitored xenophobia and racism. “I understood why I was involved in the creation of No Borders, why we help refugees, why we stand up for the rights of different people. And I sought, together with many of my colleagues, acquaintances and not, to influence the situation not only in Ukraine, but globally to shift the world system towards a more humane scenario of development,” he explained.

For several years Butkevych worked for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Eastern Europe and was an adviser to the UNHCR office. In 2012, he co-founded another NGO, the human rights centre Zmina, and a year later he co-founded Hromadske Radio, where he later covered the Euromaidan events as a presenter.

“Maksym fought against discrimination, against hate speech. He fought against Ukraine’s deportation of people to countries where they were in danger. He helped them find asylum here,” said Volodymyr Yavorskyi, a lawyer with the Ukrainian Centre for Civil Liberties. As a human rights activist, Butkevych helped hundreds of migrants, he estimated.

After the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas began in 2014, Butkevych coordinated the IDP Resource Centre and actively participated in the Committee of Solidarity with Kremlin Hostages - fighting for the release of Ukrainian political prisoners, notably Hennadiy Afanasiev, Oleh Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko.

Officer, prisoner of war, defendant, prisoner of war

Butkevych studied at university in the military department and received the rank of lieutenant in the reserves. On 24 February 2022 he went to the military registration and enlisted in the AFU as a volunteer. As Yevgeniya Butkevych, the human rights activist's mother, recalled, he told his family that “all these eight years it had been bothering him that his fellow soldiers were there and he wasn't.”

“He said he had to go and defend his country. Because there were no other options for him,” she recalled.

“When he went to war, it was strange. He is an anti-militarist. He's against the war, but maybe he didn't see how else to help Ukraine,” his friend Volodymyr Yavorski speculated. Butkevych himself wrote on Facebook: “There are times when you have to be ready to defend what's important - I firmly believe in that. And the rest is for after victory.”

On 24 June, RIA Novosti published a video of prisoners taken in the vicinity of the town of Gorskyy in the Luhansk Region - the Defence Ministry then reported that around 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been taken into the “Gorskyy cauldron”. Maksym Butkevych was among them.

“We were in the palm of our hands, not seeing the enemy. If we had not laid down our arms, we would have died almost without a fight. It was decided to lay down our arms and surrender in order to save our personnel. We were kept alive, we were not beaten, we were given water and food. They gave us water, food, they treated us well,” he said, looking at the camera.

Having recognised Maksym in the video, his parents filed documents with the Ukrainian Joint Centre for the Search and Release of Prisoners. A few days later, Oleksandr Butkevych, the human rights defender's father, suggested that Russia “wanted to hold a show trial” against him. He was prompted to do so by the publications of the ultra-patriotic media and bloggers, who called the prisoner a “valuable catch”, a participant in a “coup d'etat” and a “venerable Kiev propagandist and grunter” who allegedly “incited hatred towards Russians”.

Two months later, the Russian Defence Ministry reported that Butkevych was in the territory occupied by the forces of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LPR). The human rights activist could be seen in a RIA Novosti video from 21 August, filmed during a UN inspection of the penal colony in the LPR; Butkevych was visibly severely emaciated. At this meeting, he was given a mobile phone to use, but could not remember the numbers of his loved ones.

Butkevych's parents hoped for his return as part of a prisoner exchange, but there was still no news of Maksym. It was not until 10 March that it became known that a court in Luhansk had sentenced him. The human rights activist was tried under the Russian Criminal Code and found guilty of attempted murder of two people, cruel treatment of civilians and the use of prohibited methods of war.

According to the Investigative Committee, Butkevych served as a platoon commander in the separate special battalion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Berlingo, and during the fighting in Donbas allegedly “used methods prohibited by the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, [...] involving infringement on the life and physical integrity of civilians”.

According to the investigation, on 4 June in Sievierodonetsk, he allegedly received an order “to inspect the streets and residential buildings”, went into a flat on the first floor of a house on Gagarin Street, saw people in the entrance of the house opposite and shot at them with an anti-tank grenade launcher. As a result, two civilians were injured. During the investigation, the Russian authorities specified, Butkevych pleaded guilty and “repented for what he had done”. A court of the self-proclaimed LPR sentenced him to 13 years in a strict regime colony.

The same Investigative Committee reported on the sentencing of two other Ukrainian servicemen, Viktor Pohozey and Vladyslav Shel. The first was sentenced to 8.5 years on charges of beating a woman with a rifle butt, the second to 18.5 years on charges of killing an elderly man. According to the investigation, they committed both crimes in Mariupol.

Almost simultaneously with the press release of the Investigative Committee, a note about Butkevych appeared in Kommersant. Referring to the materials of the criminal case, the newspaper wrote that on 4 June there were no military clashes in the area where Butkevych was staying - only civilians were there. A platoon under Butkevych's command occupied one of the flats on the first floor. When Butkevych saw people in the apartment across the street from the window, he allegedly decided to shoot at them with a Panzerfaust-3 grenade launcher “for the purpose of intimidating them”. To do this, he took a grenade launcher from one of the soldiers, chose a round with a fragmentation warhead “designed to hit people, not vehicles” and fired it at the door of the building. However, the miss made the grenade explode ten meters from the house, injuring two women - a mother and her daughter - in the legs. According to Kommersant, Butkevych “confessed to shooting the civilians himself, and when he was taken to the scene of the incident, he showed under video recordings how it happened”.

In addition to a term in a penal colony, a court in the LPR decided to exact from him compensation worth one million rubles for each of the wounded women.

According to the newspaper Graty, after being taken prisoner on 24 June, Maksym Butkevych was kept in the Luhansk remand centre the entire time. Once, he called his parents from the office of an investigator of the Investigative Committee and told them that a criminal case was opened against him in the LPR. Other than this call, there was no communication with Butkevych, and independent Russian lawyer Leonid Solovyov was not allowed to see him. The Russian Defence Ministry only confirmed to the lawyer's request that Butkevych was being held in the Luhansk detention centre. “I did not take part in the trial, did not see Butkevych and am not familiar with the materials of the case. Until today, I did not know where he was or what happened to him. We were not given any information,” lawyer Leonid Solovyov, who tried to find Butkevych in Luhansk, told Graty. Solovyov intends to file an appeal against the verdict demanding access to the case file and Butkevych himself in the detention centre.

Other independent lawyers - from the Russian and Ukrainian sides - have no access to Butkevych's case file.

Russian propaganda presented Maksym as a “Nazi” and a “punisher”. Among other things, by attributing to him a 2014 speech by Bohdan Butkevych, a journalist with Ukrainskaya Nedelya, that there were “one and a half million unnecessary people” in Donbas.

Kommersant writes that the materials of Maksym Butkevych's case claim that there were no hostilities in Sievierodonetsk on Gagarin Street, where he allegedly fired a grenade launcher, and that there were civilians remaining. Nevertheless, the victims questioned by the investigation said that on that day they had observed the mortar shelling and were hiding from it in the entryway. They said that there had been explosions of mines nearby on that day. They went downstairs to wait out the shelling. At about 17:00, there was an explosion in front of their apartment building, both women, a mother and a daughter, were wounded in the legs by shrapnel. The description of their testimony implies that they could not see who caused the explosion.

Alibi

Graty discovered information indicating that Butkevych could not have been in Sievierodonetsk on 4 June - his unit was not redeployed to Donbas until 14 June. According to Graty, Butkevych was in the Kyiv Region from at least the beginning of June until the 14th. He himself informed his colleagues of this (the correspondence is in the possession of Graty) in order to arrange a meeting. On 14 June, he was no longer able to see his colleagues in Kyiv, as he informed them in correspondence, adding that his unit had been redeployed and was passing through the Poltava region.

Similar confirmation that Butkevych was not in Sievierodonetsk on 4 June was also obtained by Graty from his colleagues with whom he was in daily correspondence, including on that day. “According to my correspondence with Maksym, I have not the slightest doubt that he was not in Sievierodonetsk on 4 June - he was in touch every day, which is impossible in warlike conditions. Moreover, when his unit was sent on a mission, he warned that he would not be in touch for some time. Which, in fact, happened several times - once in April and again on 19 June,” human rights activist Sasha Feinberg told Graty (Butkevych and Feinberg's correspondence of 4 June is also in the possession of Graty).

Graty is checking the information on when Butkevych's unit was relocated to Donbas.

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