Separatist regions in Ukraine set up war crimes tribunal

27 April 2018 by Maxence Peniguet (Moscow)

Citizens of the separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine have created a court to try those responsible for war crimes allegedly committed by government forces. Civil society groups have dismissed it as a “political show”.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, the main focus of the Ukrainian People's Tribunal (Photo: Flickr/Oleg Dubnya)
Image caption: 
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, the main focus of the Ukrainian People's Tribunal (Photo: Flickr/Oleg Dubnya)

Images show a sizable audience in a seemingly makeshift courtroom. Floodlights light up the scene for the many television cameras. And a fancy red logo announces this is the Ukrainian People’s Tribunal for investigating war crimes of Petro Poroshenko’s regime or UPT for short. The images were taken by the Donetsk Press Agency (DAN) earlier in April. The court sits in Donetsk, capital of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a separatist statelet in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.

Since the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces started in March 2014, some 10.000 people have lost their lives. The International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary examination into the events in Ukraine, a first step to a possible official investigation. In its latest report on the state of the probe, the ICC prosecutor says it “has recorded more than 1,200 incidents involving crimes allegedly committed since 20 February 2014 in the context of events in eastern Ukraine”.  

These crimes committed by both Ukrainian forces and separatist groups remain largely unpunished. It is against this background of impunity that a group of citizens from the two separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk set up the UPT which focuses on the alleged crimes of Petro Poroshenko, who became president of Ukraine in May 2014, and his regime.

The creation of the UPT, which is seated in Donetsk, was announced in March this year. It is reviewing cases “in accordance with the Ukrainian legislation and norms of international law,” Russian news agency TASS explained.

Flying start

On its first day in operation on March 26 the tribunal got off to a flying start and issued indictments against eight people: Ukrainian president Poroshenko and seven other government and military officials including the minister of the interior, the defence minister and the chief of general staff.

“The accused were not present but that did not stop the UPT from holding its first session,” the tribunal’s presiding judge Elena Shishkina told the DAN press agency. The presentation of the alleged crimes will be done in batches. They include: ‘uses of armed forces against the civilian population’, ‘torture’, ‘genocide’, ‘the illegal creation of armed forces’, she’s quoted as saying.

The judge also said the cases would help bring atrocities to the attention of the international community and could contribute to ending the conflict in Donbass. Once the Minsk accords (which outline steps to end the conflict) are implemented “the tribunal will transfer to the Ukraine Supreme Court all the elements for an official verdict,” she explained.

During the hearings on April 3, the court looks packed. According to news agencies TASS and DAN the session deals with atrocities committed by nationalist Ukrainian militias against the civilian population in Donbass. A man testifies that he has been held prisoner by such groups. He says he was tortured.

A woman is called to the stand to tell the judges about her kidnapping in Mariupol, a city currently under Ukrainian government control. “Two cars approached me. Soldiers got out and placed a bag over my head and took me. They questioned me, they put a plastic bag over my head and tightened it,” she said, adding that she lost consciousness. Two other women have told similar stories before the court.

Local rights organisations are critical 

With its clear bias against the Kiev-based Poroshenko regime, naming its officials as the accused from the start, and its location on disputed territory, the tribunal does not have unequivocal local support. The coalition for peace and justice organizations in the Donbass region stressed that under the European Convention on Human Rights “all people have the right to a fair, public and expeditious trial by an independent and legally established tribunal”. A member of the coalition, the Eastern-Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives, says that setting up a special tribunal like the UPT is not allowed under the Ukrainian constitution. “As a result, the UPT … cannot be considered a tribunal under Ukrainian law” and is “a political show”.

Nevertheless, the creation of the UPT, political though it may be, highlights the need for justice for the victims of crimes in the Donbass region. The road to accountability may seem long, but several judicial processes are on-going. First there is the on-going preliminary examination of the ICC.

Another investigation victims can look towards is the Joint Investigative Team looking into the crash July 17, 2014, of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 shot down en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, over Ukrainian territory. In total 283 passengers and 15 crewmembers were killed. It was announced in July last year that any suspects would be judged in the Netherlands.

And Ukraine is also still attempting to bring Russia to the UN’s highest court: the International Court of Justice.  Among Kiev’s demands is that Moscow cracks down on border security to prevent acts of terrorism financing, including the supply of weapons to pro-Russian militias. But so far, the ICJ says Ukraine has not provided sufficient evidence. 

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