(Kyiv) – A military tribunal in the separatist-held area of Ukraine’s Donetsk region convicted a professor with pro-Ukrainian views on trumped-up charges of illegal weapons possession on May 3, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The court sentenced the academic, Ihor Kozlovsky, to 32 months in prison. The de facto authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) should immediately annul the sentence and free Kozlovsky.
“Kozlovsky’s treatment from detention through trial has been a huge affront to the rule of law, and his conviction and sentence should be immediately annulled,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kozlovsky has been behind bars for nearly 15 months for no other reason than his political views, and he should be immediately released.”
Kozlovsky, 63, spent a month incommunicado following his arbitrary detention on January 27, 2016. Before his arrest he taught humanities at Donetsk University. He was known for his pro-Ukrainian views and for his active participation in an ecumenical prayer marathon in Donetsk for a united Ukraine in 2014. At the time of his detention, he was working on an article about the impact of the armed conflict on religious communities in separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, focusing on the persecution and exodus of minority groups.
Kozlovsky’s wife, Valentina, told Human Rights Watch, that she was away in Kyiv when her husband was detained, and that their son, Svyatoslav, who was born in 1979 and who has Down syndrome, paralysis, and other disabilities, was alone in the apartment and unable to move. After representatives of the local authorities’ State Security Ministry (MGB) took Kozlovsky away, they forcibly entered and searched the family apartment. They seized all electronic devices in the apartment, some valuables, and many documents, including Svyatoslav’s passport and medical documents.
Valentina Kozlovsky said she found out later from authorities that Kozlovsky was taken to an MGB detention facility, where he was held for a month incommunicado, without any contact with his family or a lawyer. On February 26, 2016, he was transferred to a pretrial prison in Donetsk, SIZO 5, where he remains. No family member has been able to see him since he was detained. He was allowed, however, to see a lawyer.
Kozlovsky’s other son, Aleksandr, told Human Rights Watch that on May 3, a military tribunal in Donetsk found his father guilty of possessing two grenades that had been allegedly found in his apartment during the search. Aleksandr Kozlovsky said that staff of an international organization were able to attend some of the hearings. He said that Kozlovsky’s lawyer cannot appeal the sentence because rulings by military tribunals in the separatist region are not subject to appeal. Apart from the bogus evidence underlying the conviction, Aleksandr Kozlovsky said, the judge also refused to consider his father’s age or the fact that he supported and provided care to a son with Down syndrome as mitigating circumstances when determining the sentence.
“In the absence of a functional criminal justice system in the region, Kozlovsky stood little chance of getting a fair trial,” Cooper said.
The conflict between the Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine led to the complete collapse of law and order in the areas controlled by the separatists. Since 2014 separatist forces have attacked, beaten, and threatened anyone they suspected of supporting the Ukrainian government, including journalists, local officials, and political and religious activists.
Human Rights Watch documented the arbitrary, incommunicado detention of nine civilians, including Ihor Kozlovsky, by Russia-backed separatists in a 2016 report. The civilians were held for weeks or months without charge and, in most cases, subjected to ill-treatment. Human Rights Watch found that the region’s security officials operate without adherence to the rule of law, and are not subject to checks and balances. The MGB is the most feared organization in the separatist-controlled territory – “a black hole,” as one man described it. Anyone the agents detain is fully at their mercy, and the victim’s relatives have no one to turn to.
International human rights law severely restricts trials of civilians before military courts. The UN Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors compliance with the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has said that “[t]rials of civilians by military or special courts should be exceptional, i.e. limited to cases where the State party can show that resorting to such trials is necessary and justified by objective and serious reasons” and where “the regular civilian courts are unable to undertake the trials.” The ICCPR also guarantees all criminal defendants a right to appeal: “Everyone convicted of a crime shall have the right to his conviction and sentence being reviewed by a higher tribunal according to law.”
“Detaining Kozlovsky and prosecuting him before a military court is another egregious example of disregard by the DNR’s de facto authorities for the rule of law,” Cooper said. “The entire case against him is a travesty, designed to deny him the possibility to effectively defend himself and to punish him for his peaceful opposition to separatists’ actions.”