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Russia: Moscow court must free jailed Ukrainian human rights defender Maksym Butkevych

Before the war, Maksym Butkevych led a Ukrainian NGO helping refugees in the country © Private

Earlier this year, Butkevych given 13 years by ‘supreme court’ in Russian-occupied Luhansk for alleged crimes while fighting in Ukrainian army

Video issued by Russian authorities shows Butkevych with his hands tied giving apparently scripted answers to a Russian ‘investigator’ wearing a balaclava

‘Wilfully depriving Maksym Butkevych, as a prisoner of war, of fair trial rights constitutes a war crime in itself’ - Denis Krivosheev

An appeal hearing in Moscow tomorrow (22 August) must quash a lengthy prison term imposed on Maksym Butkevych, a Ukrainian human rights defender, Amnesty International said today. 

Earlier this year, Butkevych, who had enlisted with the Ukrainian army on the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, was jailed for 13 years by a so-called “supreme court” in Russian-occupied Luhansk in Ukraine for a “crime” which relied heavily on a video-recorded self-incriminating statement. 

As Amnesty shows in a detailed four-page analysis, the sham trial process used against Butkevych had “all the hallmarks of a forced confession obtained under torture or other forms of duress”. 

Butkevych was accused by his Russian captors of deliberately firing at a group of civilians with a hand-held anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade launcher in June last year, with his accusers saying his actions had wounded two people and damaged a residential building.

In a video released by the Russian authorities, Butkevych and two other Ukrainian prisoners of war - Viktor Pohozei and Vladyslav Shel - are seen individually sitting at a desk in front of uniformed “Investigative Committee” officers, apparently with their hands tied, answering questions about their rank and military units, while making apparently scripted statements incriminating themselves in deliberate attacks against civilians and admitting their guilt. 

Butkevych’s interrogator is seen wearing a balaclava hiding his face and there is no sign in the video of a lawyer, a legal requirement under Russian and international humanitarian and human rights law. Amnesty is aware from Butkevych’s family that the Russian lawyer whom they engaged was not allowed to see Butkevych at any point, nor were they given any information regarding the case’s progress, including the timing of the hearings. All these details and allegations show complete disregard for fair trial guarantees, as well as Russian efforts to apparently force captives to incriminate themselves in violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.

Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Deputy Director, said:

“A court in Moscow will be considering an appeal against the decision made during a sham trial which was held in secret, against a defendant who had no contact with the outside world, including his lawyer, and was apparently forced to incriminate himself on video for a crime which Maksym Butkevych simply could not have committed.

“Wilfully depriving Maksym Butkevych, as a prisoner of war, of fair trial rights constitutes a war crime in itself.

“Since his capture, Maksym Butkevych has been heavily smeared by the Russian media and the Russian authorities in Moscow, and portrayed as a villain intent on killing civilians. 

“The court of appeal must quash the decision to imprison Maksym Butkevych for 13 years and release him from the custody imposed by the so-called supreme court in Luhansk.

“The sham trial against Maksym Butkevych and his treatment since his captivity is a reprisal by Russia for his civic activism and his prominent human rights work.”

Denied basic POW rights

Before the war in Ukraine, Butkevych led a Ukrainian NGO helping refugees find protection in the country. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Butkevych volunteered for the Ukrainian Armed Forces before being put in charge of a platoon. His unit was later captured on the frontline by Russian forces.

Like the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russian forces and their proxies, Butkevych has had limited contact with the outside world. There is every reason to believe that he, like many other Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russia, has been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. In contravention of international humanitarian law, Russia has repeatedly denied the Red Cross access to prisoners of war and has wilfully denied Ukrainian POWs the right to a fair trial.

Butkevych’s family, friends and colleagues have been running a campaign for his release and justice, using the hashtag #FreeMaksymButkevych. 

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