The inhabitant of Odessa Sergey Dolzhenkov, along with Evgeny Mefedov, spent in total more than 5 years in a pre-trial detention center. In the beginning they were accused of organising mass disorder in Odessa on May 2nd 2014. In September 2017 all 19 defendants in the case of “May 2nd” were acquitted. But the employees of the SBU present in the courtroom immediately showed new charges to Dolzhenkov and Mefedov – for the organisation of a “Odessa – Nikolaev” motor rally on March 28th 2014, which representatives of the SBU consider to be a crime under Articles 109 and 110 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (“violently changing or overthrowing the constitutional system” and “infringing on the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine”). These articles are considered to be political in nature, more than 500 people, including journalists, public activists, and users of social networks were detained under them during 2014-2019 in Ukraine.
On August 16th 2019 the court changed the measure of restraint imposed on Sergey and Evgeny to bail. During all these 5 years Dolzhenkov and Mefedov, despite the motions of lawyers aimed at changing the measure of restraint, they were in a pre-trial detention center without an alternative. Representatives of local ultra-right groups were present at the court sessions in Nikolaev on their case and repeatedly put pressure on the court and on the side of defence.
On September 7th 2019 Evgeny Mefedov took part in an exchange of held persons with the Russian Federation. But Sergey Dolzhenkov remained in Ukraine, intending to prove his innocence in court for the second time.
Sergey Dolzhenkov spoke to the coordinator of the “Uspishna Varta” human rights platform and journalist Pavel Volkov, who himself also spent a year in a pre-trial detention center under the same political articles, but as a result was acquitted by the court, about five years and the prospects of the business spent to the pre-trial detention center.
Sergey, you and Evgeny were given the right to bail after spending 5 years in a pre-trial detention center. In your opinion, why did this become possible now and what prevented it from happening earlier?
“If to look in the legal field, then as is well-known, the Constitutional Court recognised as unconstitutional the norm of Part 5 of Article 176 that so-called political prisoners need to be kept only under guard without an alternative measure of restraint. Accordingly, the highest possible bail was set for us – from 20 to 80 free minima of income – 153,000 hryvnia each. This is the main reason. And in general, it is possible to say that there is now such a thaw after the Poroshenko regime, and also because of this, because of the change of government, many political prisoners were released.”
You were acquitted in the case of May 2nd. Why, in your opinion, was a second, equally as absurd charge needed?
“The prosecutor’s office in every way wanted to keep me and Mefedov under guard. It can be called revenge because the court pronounced a not guilty verdict for the first case. Evgeny and I are media people, and they decided to show us in the vein that we were allegedly criminals in the May 2nd case, despite the acquittal. Nobody especially understood – for May 2nd or a motor rally. It was just necessary to show that some ‘separatists’ are imprisoned.”
Taking into account Savchenko’s law, you stayed more than the maximum term under the articles incriminated to you. Why hasn’t the court closed the case yet?
“Yes, if to consider the May 2nd case, due to which I stayed in jail for more than 3 years, and the new case, due to which I stayed in jail for about 2 years, then in total of course it turns out that actually I was continuously in custody for 10.5 years. If to consider Savchenko’s law, then I already overstayed for Part 1 of Article 109, which stipulates from 5 to 10 years. The court just didn’t take it into account. It could consider it only in the consultative room during sentencing. If a sentence was imposed on me, the court could have counted this to me for the entire term and let me go for serving my time. If there was of course such a conviction.”
The prosecutor told me that you didn’t try to overthrow the authorities in Nikolaev, but it is after all written in the charges. Where is the logic?
“All sane people, including the prosecutor, perfectly understand that there is no corpus delicti. But it’s his job. He has to support the charges. And we didn’t reach such a practice yet that prosecutors will rise and say: ‘I refuse to support the state prosecution’. Such things can happen only in 0.001% of cases in Ukraine. But in our case, this is definitely not the case, and the prosecutor is forced to slog on, supposedly trying to prove our guilt, although everyone understands that there isn’t any.”
All witnesses say that you did nothing illegal. Why does the prosecutor lead them on? He doesn’t know what they will say?
“The prosecutor summons those witnesses who were interrogated by the investigators of the SBU during the pre-judicial investigation. Accordingly, his task is to interrogate all witnesses and as much as possible to play for time in order that we, at that time of course, are held in custody for as long as possible. Since the witnesses were not all interrogated, there was reason to keep us in custody. During all this time defence witnesses were interrogated. They gave evidence in our favour – that they didn’t see or hear any illegal or anti-state actions. It is such absurdity when the prosecutor, seeing everything, brings them to court again. But I hope that we will nevertheless interrogate them and the court will make a legal decision in the near future.”
Mefedov’s defender, Valentin Rybin, is a well-known person. Speak a little about your lawyer.
“Yes, Valentin Rybin is a well-known lawyer in Kiev and in general in Ukraine. He is a professional of the business, a very courageous man, not only a lawyer. He was assaulted and his car was burned, but he reacted to all of this appropriately. My lawyer, Olga Balashova, was originally on my case on May 2nd as a state lawyer. However, I saw that she was fighting, that she was wholeheartedly rooting for her client – no matter who it was, whether it was a political prisoner or a robber. She fulfils her duty as a defender. I saw potential in her, I wanted to cooperate with her further, and we signed a contract with her. I am very glad that she represents my interests. She showed herself as a highly qualified professional”.
Is pressure still being put on the court by the prosecutor’s office and right-wing radicals? Or are they already in despair?
“Of course, pressure was put on during all these years. Now we can say that passive pressure can still be exerted on the court, since the judge is also a living person and she observes the political situation in the country. They, I think, perfectly see what happens in our state, all these legal processes can’t be concealed from anybody, everything is in open access. And the judge as a human can have some of their own convictions. But I hope that all the same the court will work only within the law, and that the prosecutor’s office or any other persons won’t take a detached view of any possible pressure.”
Some media, even after your acquittal concerning the case of May 2nd, report that you are responsible for this tragedy. Do you have any desire to punish them under the law for slander?
“During all this time, which is more than 5 years, a lot of media outlets poured tons of dirt on me, on my friends, on my family. However they didn’t succeed. I already completely stopped to react to all these publications and other attacks from their side in my direction. Media outlets must be objective, present the situation as it is, and not accuse anybody of committing a crime under articles of the Criminal Code. In Ukraine only the prosecutor’s office can accuse, and the person is considered a criminal only when the court pronounces a conviction and the sentence is approved in the Court of Appeal. Only then is it possible to say that the person committed some crime. As long as there is no such sentence, the person is considered to be innocent. But to write that they are guilty of this or that is wrong and unprofessional. Media outlets can only say that such a citizen is accused or suspected, but can’t undertake the function of the court and pronounce sentences to the persons who they write articles about. Over the years they certainly behaved ugly. But I don’t yet have the desire to open legal proceedings against them. I do not really have hopes on Ukrainian justice exacting any fines for slander from them. However, at the same time, there are objective media outlets that during all these years have been presenting information to their readers or viewers objectively, showing both the defence’s side and the prosecution’s side, and not just the narrowly targeted prosecution side.”
After leaving the pre-trial detention center you again laid flowers in front of the monument to Olshantsky’s heroes [Konstantin Olshansky, WW2 hero – ed]. Has something changed in the Criminal Code in Ukraine? Earlier it was crime, and now it’s not?
“I try to keep my promises. During a court session I said that if I have the opportunity to lay flowers in front of the hero-liberators of Nikolaev, then I by all means will do it. Which we also did with Evgeny Mefedov and Valentin Rybin. It is clear that this is not a crime and not even something to complain about. If they complain about a motor rally by saying that there perhaps were some [Soviet – ed] symbols that don’t convene them, then here ordinary people laid flowers and go back to Odessa. Therefore I see nothing criminal in either a motor rally nor in this flower-laying.”
In your opinion, what fate will the still imprisoned prisoners of conscience in Ukraine have under the new government? Is there a chance that the real criminals will be punished?
“Many guys still remains under guard. I wish them a fast release and reunion with their families, wives, mothers, children. I sincerely hope that it will happen in the near future. And those who already received sentences have only one opportunity – to be released as a held person within the framework of a prisoner exchange and a pardon. And for those guys who are still under examination or already are in court having their cases heard, their measure of restraint can be changed, there will be some alternative, like what Evgeny Mefedov and I had. Such options are also possible. I wish everyone a strength of spirit, not to despair, to endure. Never give up and you will see how others give up. And in general there has to be justice. If people commit a real, not inflated by the prosecutor’s office crime, then everyone should be held responsible to the extent of their guilt. It does not matter under what political banner they speak or with what speeches. If in the actions of the person there is a crime, they must answer in front of a fair trial whether they are an activist, radical, patriot, separatist, anyone.”
What allowed you to keep afloat during these years with the soundness of reason and firmness of mind?
“Firstly, each person must be supported by faith, the consciousness that all these tests are temporary, sometime they will end. Secondly, it is the help of my relatives, my family, my friends, non-indifferent citizens, volunteers. Hundreds and even thousands of sympathising people in Odessa, Ukraine, and abroad supported us both materially and morally. This allowed Mefedov and I to come out the other side and to endure a number of tests with dignity. A low bow to them.”
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