Ukrainian Journalist Pavel Volkov: “I Have Been Kept Behind Bars for More Than 1 Year Solely for Political Reasons”

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


September 27th marked exactly a year since the Ukrainian journalist Pavel Volkov was planted in a pre-trial detention center in Zaporozhye. The prosecutor’s office brought charges against him under part 2 of Article 110 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine – infringing on the territorial integrity of Ukraine (by a group of persons) and Article 258-3 – giving other assistance to terrorists. Both articles are imputed to him because of his publications on the Internet and an allegedly found badge of an observer of a referendum in Donetsk. Every two months the courts extend Pavel’s measure of restraint.

Pavel’s case is being continuously monitored by the human rights platform Uspishna Varta. The September 25th hearing on his case didn’t take place because of the illness of the judge. The trial of Volkov was postponed for an indefinite period of time. Meanwhile, on October 25th the term of the detention of the journalist under guard expires, and if the judge doesn’t leave the sick-list before this time, then there is a risk that the consideration of the case will start from the beginning with a new panel of judges.

We handed over questions to Pavel Volkov for an interview via his relatives. We publish the answers received in writing in their entirety, without changes.

Pavel, you have been in a pre-trial detention center in the city of Zaporozhye for already a year. Why were you detained and what are you accused of?

“I was detained on September 27th, 2017. At first I was charged under part 3 of Article 110 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine – making appeals to change the borders of Ukraine that violate the order established by the Constitution of Ukraine. Well, and part 3 is the aforementioned actions entailing the mass death of people or other severe consequences. Thus, I was accused of my actions leading to about 2000 deaths. Then, having understood the absurdity of their charges, they requalified my actions under part 2 of Article 110 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, which stipulates punishment for making the aforementioned appeals, but by a group of persons [his previous charge, part 3 of article 110, alludes to a criminal offence committed by an individual, which provides a less harsh punishment – ed] according to preliminary arrangement. In the indictment it is written that I ‘entered into an arrangement with unidentified persons at an unspecified place’. I am accused of committing a crime in accordance with a preliminary arrangement with a group of persons who nobody has identified, and in addition they don’t know the place that I ‘arranged’ something with this group. Now you understand all the absurdity of the charges.

Besides this, I am accused of ‘giving other assistance to the DPR terrorist organisation’ under part 1 of Article 258 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine. My ‘assistance’ is that, staying in Donetsk for personal reasons (the serious illness of my uncle), I became a witness of events in 2014-2015, which I described and filmed. In my videos I spoke about war with the words of great writers, poets, and philosophers: L. Tolstoy, A. Saint-Exupéry, and M. A. Lucan.

In other words, I simply expressed my thoughts and my attitude towards the events that were going on in Ukraine. Both the Constitution of Ukraine and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms grant me the right to freely express my thoughts and to collect and distribute information. And it is for this that I am being trialled: for thoughts, words, and information.”

Every two months the court prolongs your measure of restraint in the form of detention under guard, although you didn’t commit any violent crime. How do you evaluate the prospects for the measure of restraint being changed soon?

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“Firstly, I didn’t commit not only violent crimes, but also any crimes in general. In October, 2014 an amendment was made to the Criminal Procedural Code of Ukraine, in part 5 of article 176, which stipulates that under certain articles (in accordance with which the authorities bring to trial everyone who loudly opposes them) only one measure of restraint should be applied to the accused – detention. I consider that I have been kept behind bars for more than a year only for political reasons. In today’s Ukraine, saying that the Russian and Russian-speaking population have rights and also to support the implementation of the Minsk Agreements and the restoration of peace in Donbass are already considered to be crimes.

Each two months the prosecutor demands to extend the measure of restraint in the form of detention in a pre-trial detention center, without providing any proof of my danger to society. And the court appeases the prosecutor allegedly because the articles are severe and all the evidence hasn’t yet been considered. In addition, in my opinion, pressure is being put on the court. In September we expected that the situation would change, since according to the lawsuit of my lawyer 80% of the so-called ‘proof’ that was defined by the court and gained validity is recognised as inadmissible, and the others are being disproved by examinations.

However, on the day of the court hearing, when we planned to demand to change the measure of restraint, one of the judges unexpectedly broke their leg, and the hearing was postponed for a month. It isn’t known if the judge will recover by this time. We will hope for the best.”

During the year that your case has been considered in court, what proof of your guilt has been presented by the prosecution?

“Post shares on social networks about different events in Donbass and Crimea and a number of articles in ‘LiveJournal’ that they connect to my authorship were presented as proof. They were examined, and it was specified that there are no calls to change of borders of Ukraine in defiance of the order established by the Constitution. The overwhelming part of the ‘proof’ was obtained in violation of the right of the suspect to a defence, as well as in violation of the criminal procedural law, and that’s why it was recognised by the court as inadmissible. Searches in the apartment of my mother, where I am registered, and in the apartment of my wife were carried out in the presence of the prosecution’s ‘witnesses’. Searches were conducted simultaneously in all rooms, therefore I couldn’t control this process. There was no talk of a lawyer’s presence. It’s no wonder that after the searches were carried out ‘proof’ appeared, the existence of which I didn’t even suspect. Fortunately, the court recognised this so-called ‘proof’ as inadmissible.”

Are you receiving support from public and/or international organisations?

“International organisations and human rights activists learned about my case thanks to my relatives and friends. Now the case is being monitored by the leadership of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Institute of Legal Policy and Social Protection founded by Irina and Elena Petrovna Berezhnaya, the International Red Cross, and International human rights organisations provide help. One of the first to stand up for me is the human rights activist Oksana Chelysheva, who lives in Finland. Also, I was recently visited by the representative of the Commissioner for Human Rights in Ukraine. An appeal was sent to the European Parliament asking for this esteemed international structure to demand that the leadership of Ukraine release K. Vyshinsky and me from custody.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – one of the OSCE’s institutes with its headquarters in Warsaw – also monitors my case. It is pleasant that during the recent arrival of the head of this structure to Ukraine, during a discussion about the violation of human rights in Ukraine, my case was also spoken about too [This concerns the OSCE Human Dimension Meeting – HDIM 2018 – in Warsaw, where on September 11th information about Pavel Volkov’s case was provided by the human rights platform ‘Uspishna Varta’].

Besides this, a number of Ukrainian, Russian, and European media outlets regularly write about my case. But nevertheless, the measure of restraint remains unchanged.

I know from my wife that both friends and strangers help, they worry and offer support. Besides this, on the Internet the #freevolkov hashtag was launched, which many people who aren’t indifferent joined.”

Did the leaders of the prosecutor’s office or SBU make contact with you? Did they offer to resolve the issue the “easy way”?

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“Only during the investigation. The SBU offered a deal. I was proposed a conditional term in exchange for a guilty plea. The investigator even told my mother that he understands everything and doesn’t want to damage my life. But only afterwards did I understand that even a deal that is signed by the prosecutor’s office is still not a guarantee. The court could refuse, but the recognition would be signed anyway. So the only way is to fight for the truth and to prove your innocence.

Alas, the prosecution works without shunning any dirty methods. Once I told the prosecutor that all the charges against me are falsified. And he answered by saying ‘not all’. However, during the recess in one of the court sessions when the case started to collapse and the court recognised volumes of ‘proof’ as admissible, the prosecutor offered an exchange with the separate districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions [LPR/DPR – ed]. But these are ruses from the same series as forcing me to sign a recognition, and then… well, you understand.”

How do you feel after spending a year in a pre-trial detention center? Is medical care provided? How satisfactory are the conditions of keeping?

“Concerning health, everything is predictable. During the summer period I had an aggravation of chronic asthma attacks. At night I often choked. Cholecystitis attacks, my vision fails because of bad lighting, there isn’t enough movement. At first there were panic attacks, depression – I miss my relatives very much. Medical aid in the pre-trial detention center can’t especially be administered. Not because they don’t want to, but because there isn’t any medicine or specialists. I experienced a virus with high temperature several times, and all that they could give me is a couple of tablets of paracetamol. This is as example. There is no hot water in the cell, and in the shower that we are taken to once per week there is hot water only during the heating season [winter – ed]. Not only are some special services (Internet, satellite television) not provided, but elementary, things that are provided by standard legal norms of Ukraine are also absent: medical care and the appropriate sanitary and hygienic conditions. And this happens to people whose guilt hasn’t been proved and who are kept in a pre-trial detention center, even though the presumption of innocence is in effect.”

In the pre-trial detention center have you met people with a similar composition of charges? How do cellmates treat such criminal articles as yours?

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“Yes, in the pre-trial detention center there are people with similar articles. However, I am the only one who was sent to Zaporozhye under 110 [article of the Criminal Code of Ukraine] – I don’t know of other cases. But, as I heard, for more than two years minibus drivers who transported pensioners from Donetsk across the demarcation line so that the latter could receive their lawful pension have been held in the pre-trial detention center. And this, allegedly, is giving assistance to terrorists. I don’t even want to comment on it. Thank God, my cellmates behave with understanding, somewhat with interest too. In principle, in prison there are such rules: if you didn’t commit certain unacceptable actions, then the rest doesn’t matter. And so we communicate and discuss different subjects.”

To what extent have your life values and precepts changed after spending a year in a pre-trial detention center and fighting against the state machine? What are your plans upon being released?

“If to speak about views, I unambiguously remained in my old positions – the war needs to be stopped and there is a need to sit down at the negotiating table. It is the only way to achieve peace and establish normal life. Do you remember Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great orator of the times of the Roman republic, who said: ‘An unjust peace is better than a just war’.

As for priorities. Of course now I understand that I didn’t find enough time for relatives and dear people – my family. That’s why in my plans after release, first of all, there is my family and everything that is connected to it. I very much want to have children. However, it is now difficult to make plans for the future – after all, Ukraine is a European state only geographically and in words. ‘Judicial reform‘ finally enslaved the courts, making them completely dependent on the authorities. But, as is said in the East: ‘It is always necessary to hope for the best, but to be ready for the worst’. Although I chase negative thoughts away and condition myself to think that justice always has to triumph, in any conditions.

Having summed up what was said, I would like to appeal to international organisations, experts, and human rights activists with a request to be actively involved in this process. The result in many respects depends on international publicity. For now, many thanks to you and everyone who has stood up for me in these hard times. Your support is invaluable.”

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