The trial of Ukrainian soldier Vitaliy Markiv, accused of involvement in the murder of Italian photographer Andrea Rocchelli, began yesterday in Pavia, Italy.
Rocchelli and his Russian translator Andrei Mironov were killed during fighting between Ukrainian armed forces and Russia-led separatists in May 2014, near the city of Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine. Markiv, who was serving in the Ukrainian National Guard at the time, is now being tried for assisting the armed forces who stand accused of firing at Rocchelli.
Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova/HROMADSKE
Markiv, a dual citizen of Italy and Ukraine, was detained a year ago in the Italian city of Bologna. Since then, he has been behind bars awaiting trial.
During the trial, the prosecution is representing Rocchelli’s family and the National Italian Press Federation, and the defense is representing Markiv.
Hromadske looks at what has happened over the course of the year and why Markiv’s lawyer has claimed that “all of Ukraine is on trial.”
What is Markiv accused of?
Rocchelli and Mironov were killed at the foot of Karachun Mountain on the outskirts of Sloviansk, during an exchange of fire between the two sides of the conflict, in May 2014. Another journalist from France, William Roguelon, was injured during the cross fire.
While Ukrainian authorities have started investigating the incident, there has been little progress. Italian authorities specifically cited the inefficacy of Ukrainian investigative efforts in their initial charges in 2017.
Photo credit: facebook.com
When first detained, Markiv was charged with acting in conjunction with an “unidentified, illegal military group” based around Karachun Mountain, where he allegedly murdered Rocchelli, first using multiple firearms, and then firing 20 mortar rounds to thwart Rocchelli’s attempts to escape.
However, the charges against Markiv have since been reduced. Now he is accused of providing “material support” to those who shot at Rocchelli and injured Roguelon.
According to investigate materials, prosecutors claim that Markiv saw the journalists and provided information on their whereabouts to other Ukrainian military personnel, “despite knowing that they are shooting at civilians.”
The prosecution has refused to examine the incident in the context of war, referencing the fact that even the Ukrainian government then called it an “anti-terrorist operation.” The prosecution is convinced that the journalist was killed deliberately.
In the year since Markiv was detained, he has been transferred from a jail in Pavia to a heightened-security complex in Milan. Markiv’s lawyer requested to move him to house arrest but was rejected due to the possibility of his escape.
What evidence is being brought forth against Markiv?
The main piece of evidence levied against Markiv is a telephone conversation with journalists in which the national guardsman seems to admit responsibility for the death of Rocchelli. Italian journalist Ilaria Morani published her version of the conversation in the newspaper Corriere della Sera.
“Usually we don’t shoot toward the city and civilians, but when we see movement, we load the artillery. This happened with the car of the two journalists and their translator. We shoot from a distance of half a kilometer,” Morani claimed Markiv said.
Photo credit: Giornale L'Irpinia
From the materials of the investigation, which were accessed by Hromadske, it can be gathered that Morani recorded the conversation she heard on speaker-phone between Markiv and photojournalist Marcello Fauci. The two met during the Maidan protests. Since Markiv spoke Italian and later joined the National Guard, Fauci frequently called him to learn more about what was going on in the conflict zone.
The recording of the conversation was not preserved and is not among the case materials. Only its participants know what was said. Neither Markiv nor Fauci corroborate Morani’s allegations of Markiv admitting to involvement in Rocchelli’s death. Moreover, Markiv says that he only learned of the journalist’s death from that conversation.
The prosecution is also relying on the testimony given by the wounded French journalist, William Roguelon. When questioned in 2017, he stated that the journalists were shot at from the side of the hill where the Ukrainian military was stationed. However, in 2014, just after the incident he stated that he was not sure where exactly the shots were being fired from.
What is the defense arguing?
Markiv is being represented by one of Italy’s most prominent lawyers, Raffaele Della Valle. The lawyer insists on the innocence of the national guardsman, who was a regular soldier and did not handle heavy artillery.
The defense maintains that the actions in question took place in the context of a full-scale war. Rocchelli and the others were not shot at deliberately, they were likely victims of cross fire. These conditions were observed by Mironov in a video recorded only minutes before his and Rocchelli’s deaths.
Furthermore, the photographer and his colleagues, who were located in separatist-held territory, did not have accreditation to be in a zone of military action. They had neither protective vests nor helmets with “press” written on them.
Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova/HROMADSKE
“There are many witnesses that maintain that the area was very dangerous, and that to move through it was highly risky. There are letters from the Italian Embassy in Ukraine urging Italian citizens to avoid these areas. The victims had no signs identifying them. They arrived in a regular car, not marked as a taxi,” said Della Valle.
In addition, according to the hospital staff that attended to the two after their deaths, Mironov was clothed in camouflage pants. Regardless of who was shooting, the journalists could have easily been perceived as members of the opposing group.
How has the investigation been conducted?
Investigators rejected petitions by Markiv’s lawyer to examine the site of the events in Sloviansk, instead relying on satellite imagery and GPS coordinates.
Della Valle took the initiative to travel there with his assistants. During the trial he will submit a second request for an investigation to be performed in Ukraine. A ballistic analysis of Rocchelli’s backpack was done, but it revealed nothing about what kind of weapon killed him.
How have Ukrainian authorities responded?
After Markiv’s arrest, Ukrainian authorities offered to organize a joint investigation team multiple times, as stated by Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin. Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov also discussed the matter with Italian ambassador Davide La Cecilia in March.
However, the numerous requests from the General Prosecutor and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) were ignored.
“We offered to visit the area in question, inasmuch as this would dispel a number of reservations, and maybe even disavow the testimony from the Italian side. As of today we have yet to receive any response from the Italian authorities, despite our repeated reminders,” stated Deputy Prosecutor Yevhen Yenin in an interview with Hromadske.
In May, Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov addressed the Italian ambassador, urging him to avoid the influence of Russian propaganda with respect to Markiv’s case, citing the investigation materials as containing the phrases “pro-Russian separatists,” “civil conflict,” and “aggression by Ukrainian soldiers.”
How is Italian media covering the case?
Since Markiv’s arrest, the Italian media have covered the case under the presumption of Markiv’s guilt, referring to the Ukrainian soldier as Rocchelli’s “murderer.” In Italy, the incident has been treated as a deliberate attack on a journalist.
Rocchelli’s parents talk about their determination to find the truth about the death of their son. The lawyer representing Rocchelli, Alessandra Ballerini, has accused Ukraine of becoming interested in this case only after Markiv’s arrest, and even then, only in criticizing the Italian courts.
The media has played a large part in this process, not only because the investigation concerns the death of a photographer and injury of a journalist. The accusations against Markiv are based on the testimony of journalists, and the National Italian Press Federation is represented in the case. It was also the Federation that insisted that Italian authorities seek justice in the matter of Rocchelli’s death in Donbas.
The prosecutors have taken the line that the Ukrainian army is full of “scoundrels and criminals that shoot at peaceful civilians,” and are apparently supported by the government, whereas the separatists seek to free Ukraine from the rule of an illegitimate regime, according to Markiv’s lawyer.
Della Valle has stated that in the court process against Markiv “all of Ukraine is on trial.” He says that the defense is being cautious with calling forth witnesses, as any member of the Ukrainian army could have charges placed against them.
Is a fair trial possible with a pro-Russian government in Italy?
In May, the Liga and Five Star Movement parties took power in Italy. Both parties seek to remove sanctions placed against Russia. The head of Liga, Minister of Internal Affairs Matteo Salvini, is famous for his ties to the Kremlin, and his party frequently works with United Russia, the governing party of the Russian Federation.
However, Italy is a democratic country, where branches of power are independent from one another. Della Valle is confident in the impartiality of the judges that will be looking at Markiv’s case. However, there have already been three occasions where the court decided in favor of the prosecution: by taking Markiv into custody, refusing him house arrest, and keeping the case open for consideration instead of closing it.
Regardless, Della Valle is optimistic: “The investigative actions of the prosecutors are one thing. Another is the actions of the tribunal, which has very professional judges.”
/Translated by Vladislav Yakovlev and Natalie Vikhrov