Former Lieutenant-Colonel of Kyiv ‘Berkut’ riot police, Oleg Yanishevskiy, only had one demand regarding this interview: he didn't want to speak from behind bars. The only place where this requirement could be fulfilled was a ward in the Lukianivskiy detention center in Kyiv.
This is his first interview since the arrest. Neither him nor the four other people from his unit accused of killing 48 people and wounding 80 others on February 20th, 2014, have commented on their cases. If he his proven guilty, he will be sentenced to life imprisonment.
He arrives at the interview wearing a shirt, jacket and jeans. He has with him a notebook which is almost full; he always takes detailed notes during his court hearings. Yanishevskiy makes notes of witness’s statements. He keeps his papers from the case and a copy of the Criminal Code with him at all times.
He speaks Ukrainian on camera even though he usually speaks Russian. He reminds us that some of our questions relating to case may remain unanswered, because, at this stage in the court proceedings, he is yet to testify. Yanishevskiy will only be able to answer these questions once the witnesses and victims have presented their evidence. That is why, everything he or the other four ex-riot police members do say attracts great interest.
He keeps track of the number of days he's spent in the detention centre: he has been there one year, three months and two days. He hasn't his wife or two children so as not to upset them.
This interview lasted for three hours. It quickly became a dialogue – as it wasn't just us journalists asking the questions, but Oleh Yanishevskiy had a few questions of his own. Our conversation had to end when supervisor’s working day also came to an end.
Hromadske’s Info: What happened on February, 20nd, 2014?
20th February was the day of Euromaidan protests in which the greatest amount of people lost their lives as a result of violent confrontations. 48 people were killed and 80 others were wounded. It was reported that the ‘Berkut’ riot police used firearms against unarmed protesters whilst snipers targetted people from the roofs.
I would like to start by discussing your status of 'combat veteran'. How come you were awarded this? Where? When? Under what circumstances?
It happened when military action in eastern Ukraine began to escalate. The unit was offered the chance to take part and redeem themselves for the Maidan events.
Who came to you with this proposal?
It came from the Minister of Internal Affairs Arseny Avakov. The commander of the unit was invited. Attending was our commander, leadership of the head office of Kyiv police, Avakov and his deputies.
What do you mean by ‘redeem’?
It was made very clear that if we disagreed, we’d have problems. Two people were detained in April. In order to avoid further prosecution the unit went to take part in the anti-terrorist operation.
You’ve talked about going to the frontline with the Maidan hundred. So were you on the same side as them? How can you explain that? You say that the protesters were aggressive to you on the Maidan, they were throwing Molotov cocktails at you, but then you also claim that you were protecting the motherland alongside them. I don’t know how you view your actions there, but they were definitely protecting the motherland.
We found a common language with them. They understood that Maidan was over. We understood that the country was split: the issue of eastern Ukraine, the loss of Crimea, military actions… But we had to fight. We were told about these events, but didn’t think it was going to grow into any serious conflict. Ultimately, even that changed very quickly.
You were working in that unit during the Orange Revolution. You have two images of Maidan in your memory. The difference is that the special forces weren’t engaged before; and in 2014 it was a completely different picture.
During the time of the Orange Revolution a person in the military could move freely among the protesters. At that time, the people that were on Maidan weren't as radical, and maybe not as many people took part in it, but they didn’t ignore the police. Why didn't anyone make the decision to disperse the people on Maidan? That's not for me to say. But you have to understand that they didn't take over any administrative buildings then. There was no blockade of military units.
Okay, so you returned from the anti-terrorist zone and were promised redemption, but then you were announced as a suspect.
This all happened over one year. I was invited to the Prosecutor General’s office, on the 26th of June 2015, it was a Friday. Agents from the Ukrainian Security Service came and introduced themselves, saying :”We would like to talk to you”. That’s how I was detained. I wasn’t in after Maidan.
Did you expect it?
Do you have a grudge against anyone? Avakov maybe?
I have a feeling of injustice. They looked, made some notes and decided who was guilty and who wasn't.
When was the first time you went to Maidan?
For us everything began from that famous tractor on the 1st of December, when the assault on the military happened.
You were there?
We arrived in the evening.
What were you doing there?
We were guarding the Presidential office. The task of all the units was to guard or protect the Presidential administration from attack from the protesters. The internal forces were standing on the first row, so now you understand who was the first to be attacked. The “peaceful” protest started with bottles, chains and that tractor.
But before that, there was the events of November 30th. However, going back to the 1st of December- they way you understood it, people were trying to break into the Presidential Administration Building and your task was to prevent this, am I right? What was the order?
The order was to protect and keep public order. Our unit wasn't there. They also have a line. I understand that they had to guard all the state buildings. But what if your life is under threat? They reacted as they reacted.
Do you remember, were many of the protestors wounded?
And your unit had nothing to do with that?
Did you see what was happening there? How people were being arrested?
I hadn’t seen how they were arrested. All the events were on the edge.
And what about the video taken that evening, where the people lying on the floor are being beaten?
I wasn’t there.
Did you understand what the protest was about? Why those people were throwing Molotov cocktails?
Common people, maybe, who really wanted to change something. But it had been used by politicians, who came to power as revanchists. We came to that point because of the radical forces.
At the beginning nobody was calling for an overthrow of the regime. People were not radical at first. But there were several events in the run up to that which led to this.
Been there. We discussed that. But then why didn't people act through the executive power entities? Why didn’t they do everything legally - through elections?
Which institution was protecting the people’s rights back then, during Maidan?
I can tell you one thing - it is the same now.
You mean you feel this justice too?
I feel it myself.
Do you agree, that at the time of the Maidan Revolution,there was limited protection of human rights?
It still limited now. It's always like that.
But one has the right to protest. Like the way your relatives or friends could say that you’re being detained here illegally.
Believe me, my friends were also on Maidan. But we were looking for common ground.
On 20th February, who were the Berkut dealing with when they were securing the governmental quarter - radical forces or with demonstrators?
If you want to understand, we should start with February 18th. A peaceful march was announced. We received operational information that it was coming with arms. So we was ordered not to let them go to the Verkhovna Rada. The 'Antimaidan' was also taking place nearby.
Did you recieve information that the 'Antimaidan' protestors also had weapons?
Yes, people from that side were also detained for illegal possession of arms.
It started with a demand to let people in - because we had let in the MPs. At first, crowds started to build. Then Molotov cocktails and rocks. After that, we had our first fatalities.
The breaking point was when we received information about the riot police being attacked with weapons.
People from internal military forces fell near us because of gunshot wounds.
At that time, protesters were also being killed. We talked to one Commander, he told us that riot police were provided withweapons, bullet slugs in particular.
All I can say is, it was taken pretty serious in our unit. People who had those riot control weapons were under strict control of command.
Talking about these weapons you mean the semi-automatic ‘Fort’ pistol?
Did your people have these as well?
On February, 18th?
Yes. I suppose 10 people had them.
Did they use ‘Fort’ pistols?
I don’t know. I wasn’t behind them.
How did the morning of 20th February start for you?
With riot police officers being killed. As you know, armistice was announced on February, 19th. A line of riot police were standing there and not moving towards the scene. Some were trying to prove that a raid was planned, but all I can say is we had no such information.
And then you heard gun-shots? From where?
Did you see the riot police throwing Molotov cocktails at it?
Riot police? Were you nearby?
As well as the protesters.
So then it's official misconduct. You didn’t do anything.
The fine line was crossed on February 18th.
Picture by Alevtyna Kakhidze. Yanishevskiy is accommodated the retreat of the riot police. Prosecutors claim that among the security officers dressed in black, there was one person in blue camouflage - Oleh Yanishevskiy.
The commander of the Dnipropetrovskiy 'Berkut' called the General Headquaters, but nobody could give an answer of what to do. Did you call?
No. I made a decision immediately, and ordered my people to leave the governmental quarter.
So you made the decision to withdraw your people. You were on the move.
What were you wearing?
Common camouflage with ‘Berkut’ sign. The blue one.
Do you bear arms?
From watching the video from Maidan, it seems as though people were being shot by the dozen. How did that seem to you?
It looked like armed civil conflict.
From both sides?
It’s the only way I can evaluate the situation.
If I understand correctly - you think that riot police were acting as though there was a war on Maidan. When someone shot at them, did they shoot back?
I am just saying that the Anti-Terrorist Operation can be an example, I don’t say Maidan and ATO are the same. We’re talking about a situation that was assessed by the riot police.
Is there anything you regret? If you could turn the clock back, would you act differently?
I don’t know. I can only say that if I could choose another profession, I would still choose mine.
Yes, serving in the ‘Berkut’.