At the start of the month, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko announced that the pre-trial investigations into the deadly shootings of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution had been completed. The claim was soon refuted by the head of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Special Investigation department Serhiy Horbatiuk and Yevhenia Zakrevska, a lawyer to one of the deceased.
More than 100 people were killed between December 2013 and March 2014 participating in the protests across the country. While there may have been some progress – such as the recent in absentia sentencing of fugitive former president Viktor Yanukovych – many of the people responsible for the deaths remain unpunished. What’s more, some members of the now-disbanded Berkut riot police – at whose hands the beating of the Euromaidan protesters occurred – continue to serve in the Ukrainian police force. So are the families of the so-called Heavenly Hundred really any closer to seeing justice for their loved ones?
As February 20 marks the fifth anniversary of one of the bloodiest episodes of the revolution, we’ll be taking a closer look at the progress of the investigations so far. We’ll be joined by Hromadske’s Editor-in-Chief Angelina Kariakina, who has been following the cases closely since day one.
International audiences may not really understand what's going on with the Maidan investigations. There are so many rumors, there are so many conspiracy theories and, somehow, it's still not a topic of discussion. So what do we know?
You know, weirdly enough, not only the foreign audience but also the domestic audience here in Ukraine still has some things that are speculated over and politicized all the time. And I should say that it is really hard to keep on track, you know, in this trial. It has been [going] on since 2015; the first suspects were arrested in 2014 already, so it's the fifth year of this case, it's the fifth year of this trial now, I should say. So from the very beginning, the investigation did say that the people who were responsible for the killings of the 48 – I should correct you, not 45 but 48 people – who were killed on Instytutska street on February 20, were police special forces, members of the force of Berkut. The whole work of the investigation was to prove that and to find who was giving orders. So currently, now, according to the Prosecutor's Office, it was a vertical line that went from Yanukovych and through the interior minister who fled – he's now in Russia, Mr. Zakharchenko – and then down the hierarchy, down to the Berkut officers and Kyiv police. So who is in court? Who are those people whom we know? They have faces, they have names, it's five officers. Five officers are now on trial, they were arrested in 2014 and it's the people that Hromadske also talked to. I should say that they do not recognize that they're guilty, but, what they say though is that they were defending themselves. So it's the contradictory thing that they say, but the prosecutors are saying they are giving evidence that, specifically, these people were there.
How is it that a lot of people don't really know that there are these five people in court?
Yeah, we actually very often we hear: Where are those people who are responsible for the killings? Well, the prosecutor is saying: Here they are, five of them, for five years, on the same place each week, on Tuesday and Thursday. There is this trial in Sviatoshynskyi court in Kyiv for years, each Tuesday and each Thursday, and it's a jury, so it's a court that consists of several jurors, and they hear this trial. In my opinion, it is really hard to follow an event that is so continued in time. People just, for some reason, they stopped paying attention to it.
What's lacking in this trial? Are some people not giving testimonies, for instance, former president Yanukovych? What’s made it last so long?
Well, the fact that so many people were killed and so many people were injured takes so much time. 48 were killed, 80 injured. You can imagine that, just double those numbers, it will also consist of the number of victims, it will be just around twice as that because it's all the relatives, all the possible witnesses and the whole jury needs to listen to each of them. So, at this point, the jury has heard the testimonies of victims, so they stopped hearing the victims and they will start hearing the witnesses. So it's going to take [more] time. Then they will stop hearing the witnesses and they will start listening to the accused side, and then there will be debates, and then there will be a verdict. So according to different calculations, this whole trial may take another year. We have talked to the head of this jury, to the judge Diachuk who is the former military judge, he's very disciplined and I should say that I think this historical trial is really lucky to have that sort of judge who is very tolerable in terms of openness, media and all that. But, at the same time, he's very strict, to the point and he's trying to make everything not as quick as possible, but everything will stick to the point, but also not prolonged for some different reasons. So he also says that it's gonna take around this time and he says that it's a normal time for such a case. It's a historical case of mass shootings in the central city, so it will take time anyway, in any trial, in any city, in any country.
If you read western media and international media, there are still all those rumors and conspiracy theories about another force being involved – a third force, not just the Ukrainian government, not just the protesters, but Georgian Lithuanians, some other foreigners, for example. What do we know about that?
This information pops up, sometimes deliberately, in a number of documentaries or quasi-investigations by some sometimes unknown foreign media, in English, saying that there were different forces here in Ukraine – snipers from Georgia, from Lithuania – and with some people giving some testimonies about that. But, according to what prosecutor is saying, the whole operation on the ground was led and commanded by the local police. And what they are really investigating, and we just heard the quote from the special prosecutor, is the fact that emmisars from Russia, in particular Vladislav Surkov, who is the advisor to the president of Russia, well, the prosecutors had information that he was here around that time in late February. But what exactly his role was, and what he was communicating, and what impact it had on situation on the ground in Instytutska, in Maidan – that is still a huge question and there is a lot of speculation about that. But, I think, what we need to stress is the fact that, in order to have a clear picture of what happened in late February and throughout those three months of the protest, we need to have all the legal tools, and we are quite limited in that because there is the so-called law on amnesty in Ukraine, which doesn't give opportunity to the investigators to question and investigate anything done by the protestors themselves. It was done for a reason, for a good reason, because there were lots of misconducts by legislative system in 2013 and 2014, where protestors were taken to prison for nothing and it was a step to protect thousands of people, who were taking part in the protest. But now we are in a sort of legal trap that doesn't give the prosecution an opportunity to investigate what needs to be investigated. And it is also the fact that the protestors also had some weapons too, as many say, to protect themselves because through all those three months there were only two days when these weapons were shot, and it was after the storm against Maidan. So even people who had these guns, they could've used them at any moment, but they did use it at the most critical point, when there was the crackdown on Maidan, so the investigators, according to this law, they cannot investigate it, they cannot question or arrest anyone. But Hromadske also did an investigation, we had a person, a protestor, his name is Ivan Bubenchik, who stated that he did have a gun and he did kill two of the policemen. So in order to have as much information as possible and to be sure that it was exactly this person who shot the policeman but not the third party, third agent or mysterious sniper, we also need all the legal tools to do that and still there is some limitation to that.
Another issue we’ve been following is that the General Prosecutor of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko said that the investigation is almost done. However, we later learned from lawyers that this is not exactly the case and that the General Prosecutor seems in a rush to close this case. And we understand that it's also connected to this experiment, which is taking place as part of the investigation on Instytutska street, the street where it happened. They would now like to build a monument in that place, so what's so critical about that?
So the most critical thing is that, in order to keep this territory in tact, and to have this investigative experiment done in the way it should be done, you cannot move anything on that street. Now, according to Ukrainian law, this street is under arrest, so to say, so you cannot move anything, you cannot build anything, you cannot take the stones out of that street. But, for some reason, we heard from the General Prosecutor that this investigative experiment is over and we need to start the construction of the memorial as soon as possible. Who needs that? I don't know. In my opinion, it looks like a political moment, where the government would need a memorial for their own political reasons, maybe, they have some, they probably have some, because the elections are coming, two campaigns are coming. So the critical point is to preserve that street right now and to have that experiment done and from what we see part of the street is already... something has been moved there, and on the part of the street already some constructive works started. So it is really very much concerning fact for the investigation and also for the lawyers of the relatives of those who were killed.
After the revolution, the Berkut riot police unit was dismantled, but another special unit has been created. But what do we know about these people? We just talked about five people, who are on the trial. What do we know about the rest?
You're not mistaken, this special squad which is called the Black squad because they were wearing black, it's the police special forces, they had around 25 people and 5 are in trial and 20 of them fled, they just disappeared from Ukraine. Interestingly enough, 16 of them ended up in Russia, and 16 of them got Russian citizenship.
So we have their names, we know who they are?
Yes, the Ukrainian investigation turned to Ukrainian General Prosecutor's Office, turned to Russia with an official request to question those people, but Russia officially denied Ukrainian prosecutor this opportunity, saying that there is the reason for Russian national security [as to] why they wouldn't give or help in any way with the questioning of those people. So many of them ended up in the Russian police and they ended up working there. Four of them, according to the prosecutors, are in occupied Crimea. We don't know if they serve in police or in some other forces but they ended up in occupied Crimea. Of course, for us journalists, it's one of the most interesting and intriguing stories, you know, destinies of those people, where they ended up, some of them - yes, we know, they are in the Russian police now, but the others -- we also found out that, for example, one of the officers was killed, for some reason, in Chechnya and, last year, if I'm not mistaken, his family received his body. They cannot say what was the reason for his death. And it is very interesting for us to dig into that story and understand what happened.
Our journalists travelled to see their parents.
Yes, yes. We travelled to that village and actually we wanted to talk to this officer’s mother and also his sister. We know that he was in touch with his sister and what they know is that his son, his name is Serhiy Horbyk, that he went to Russia and that their instructor, their trainer, helped them moved to Russia. What exactly he was doing in Russia? According to some relatives he was working as a masseur. So, he learned massage and he was working as a masseur, then he was working in the police, but, there are also allegations that he might be serving in this so called private military squad Wagner, and that he could have taken part in some military operations in Syria. Unfortunately, it is really hard for us to have it as a fact, it's just an allegation but still, it is an opportunity and it is a possibility for some of them to have, you know, that life and to have that destiny.
We also know there were, for instance, Russian nationals who later went to Donbas and Crimea, and it was then proved that they went to Syria also as part of this Wagner Group. What happened after? Because I would like to separate these stories, there are couples of different trials and different cases...
Many of them, yes.
There are these horrific cases of the murders on February 18 and 20, and also the earlier killings in January, but the Hromadske team have done a story on the what's happening to the people who were there at the beginning of the Maidan, the people who were beating students in late November. What's important in this story?
Well, it is a story of how this squad was dismantled and it is actually story of the police reform. So, what we really wanted to know is, Hromadske is following reforms in Ukraine generally, and, of course, we've been taking closer look specifically at the reform of law enforcement for five years now. We're really interested in where did those officers go, those officers who took part in the brutal crackdown on the students Maidan, which actually gave the beginning to this whole story with this three-month protest. So, what we found out is that not only some of the officers who took part or who were on trial, you know, serving the police but they’re commanders. So one of the officers who we investigated and, according to our investigation, he took part in that brutal beating, he is now the commander of Kyiv Police Special Forces. So he is now the face, the hands and the brain of this now so-called reformed police, which give us the reason to say that it's the same Berkut but just without the specific name Berkut.
Recently, the former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych was charged high treason in absentia and sentenced to 13 years. He is currently in Russia, he's serving his sentence. Are we still expecting Yanukovych to be a witness in some of the cases?
So, I should say that these are two different cases. So, trial against those who are responsible for the killing on the Instytutska street is one thing, and the trial against Yanukovych in absentia is a second thing. So, Yanukovych was accused of high treason and it's another case in which there are different thoughts and different opinions about the way this whole trial was handled. The thing is that it [became] impossible for Ukraine to have Yanukovych tried in the case of high treason once again. So, it's been done in absentia and now you cannot have him on this trial again, even if he, for some reason, ends up in Ukraine, you cannot do that. So, the case is closed. He will appeal, of course, and he will probably take this case to the European Court of Human Rights because he believes there...
Yeah, it's political and there are other things that he may appeal, but still, it's done. But the case on the killings on Maidan, it's a separate thing and he has already had his word. What did he said? As a witness at this trial, he said that he is not involved at all with these killings, he denied that and he thanked the officers of Berkut for their work, and he said that they were used by politicians in this clash between political forces, as he puts it, and they are just innocent victims of this situation.
To finalize, there were a lot of foreign press here during the Maidan. It was a big international story and now people are coming back after five years to see what has happened since. Even for the Ukrainians, it's very difficult to understand what's going on. What should people from abroad know about the other investigation?
I think the main fact what people should know in Ukraine and outside Ukraine is that there is the investigation, there is a small group of investigators that were digging for years and years, that were digging facts, they were sitting in their small, gray [offices] with the piles of evidence and papers, and they were working. Unfortunately, I don't know why, maybe because there is so many things in Ukraine happening: the war, the political struggles, so many things are happening that sometimes you lose focus and, unfortunately, it's not something that the media also is following. So, first thing is that there is an investigation, there are people on trial and, to know things, you need to listen and you need to follow that trial. Secondly is that, unfortunately, the case of Maidan and, as [with] any other case, [it] is being also very much speculated and politicized by specific people who are in very responsible positions -- like the General Prosecutor, who proved [that] throughout these years, in his position, in his office, he remains a politician and that he puts his political ambition over justice and it is very unfortunate.