Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Ukraine’s prosecution of former Slovyansk mayor alarms rights groups

In worrying trend, former mayor of Ukraine city charged with colluding with rebels; she says they held her hostage

KHARKIV, Ukraine — The trial of Slovyansk’s former mayor Nelya Shtepa on charges of colluding with pro-Russian separatists — despite the fact that she says they held her hostage — has alarmed rights groups, who say her case is just one of many in which the right to a fair trial is taking a backseat to Kiev’s focus on putting down the rebellion in the east. 

Shtepa is awaiting trial on charges that she violated the highest level of Ukraine’s law on separatism. If convicted, she could face life in prison. In April, armed pro-Russian separatists stormed administrative offices in Slovyansk, where she served as mayor from 2010 until this spring. Her lawyers say the rebels took her hostage for nearly three months, forcing her to make videotaped statements in support of the separatist movement. Her lawyers say she was released only when Ukrainian forces retook the city. 

Only days later Shtepa was arrested by Ukrainian authorities, with prosecutors citing the videos as evidence that she collaborated with the rebel groups.

Her lawyer say she is innocent, a victim of first the pro-Russian rebels and now the Ukrainian government.

Kiev is trying to unite the country after nearly 10 months of conflict. The difficulties are compounded by political fervor for a strong and swift response to any anti-Ukrainian sentiment ahead of the parliamentary elections on Oct. 26.

Observers say that as a result, Shtepa and several hundred others charged with violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity may not be receiving fair trials.

“Ukrainian society is very polarized now, and it seems that many people are ready to put human rights aside while this war is going on,” said Heather McGill of Amnesty International. “But we don’t agree with that and think the authorities should not forget the international laws of human rights and the Geneva conventions.”

McGill said rights groups fear that defendants like Shtepa could become scapegoats in a politically charged bid by Ukrainian authorities to prosecute those who may have collaborated — willingly or not — with the separatists.

Shtepa’s case is complicated, in part because of the amount of media attention given to her role in the three-and-a-half-month occupation of Slovyansk by rebels from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

According to Helena Stativa, one of Shtepa’s lawyers, Shtepa was shopping on April 12 when she got a call about armed men storming four of Slovyansk’s government buildings. Shtepa immediately called the regional governor, Sergei Taruta, to alert him to the problem and rushed to the scene.

Prosecutors say her involvement in the ensuing events is questionable, citing her membership in and close ties to other members of the Moscow-friendly Party of Regions, which has been accused by the current Kiev leadership of supporting the separatist movement.

When she arrived at the police station, barricaded and full of armed men, Shtepa took a bullhorn and tried to calm the gathering crowd.

The building siege in Slovyansk came just a week after similar takeovers by armed pro-Russian separatists in neighboring Donetsk and Luhansk, and tensions in the eastern cities were high. The armed groups said they were protecting their cities from a protest movement in Kiev that had spurred the ouster of a Kremlin-favored president popular in eastern Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Many eastern Ukrainians feared the Kiev demonstrators would push a pro-European agenda on a region with strong historical and economic ties with Russia.

Shtepa told the crowd that the men who had seized the buildings were “local guys” who were against the Kiev government but ready to negotiate. She asked for restraint and calm in the city. Russian media aired the speech and reported it as mayoral support for an anti-Kiev movement. (On April 16, in a media interview at a Party of Regions emergency meeting in Donetsk, she said that in fact the men weren’t locals and that she didn’t know who they were.)

Two days later, she said in an interview with local Ukrainian journalists that most of her city was seeking more local autonomy for the regional government but that more than 75 percent of residents were “in favor of staying part of Ukraine.”

The Russian media video clip caught the attention of the Ukrainian authorities, which today are using it as evidence against her.

Ironically, the Ukrainian government has for the past six months accused the same Russian news channels of using anti-Ukrainian propaganda to influence Russian-speaking Ukrainians and draw support for the separatists.

According to Stativa, late on the night of April 17, armed men went to Shtepa’s apartment, forced her into their car and took her to the third floor of the city administration building, where the rebels had taken over her office as their headquarters. 

That night, the rebel’s self-proclaimed people’s mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, forced Shtepa to sign a resignation letter. When she initially refused, he beat her, striking her head and legs, according to the Shtepa’s retelling of events to Irma Krat, a Ukrainian journalist and well-known activist who became Shtepa’s fellow prisoner.

Krat, in an interview in Kiev, said the rebels held both women hostage for the next 11 weeks.

According to Stativa, Ponomaryov forced Shtepa to give damning interviews to Russian media, all of which are now being used as evidence against her.

In one of the videos, Shtepa tells a crowd of locals gathered in the town square on May 9 to vote for the rebels’ May 13 referendum on independence for the “people’s republic.” In another interview, she sits at her desk and pleads with Russian President Vladimir Putin to send help to Slovyansk.

The women were freed on July 5, when the Ukrainian military finally managed to drive the rebels out of the city.

Shtepa went with her family to a nearby hotel to and rest and recover with her sons, their wives and her grandchildren.

In Slovyansk, Ukrainian state security agencies began looking for those who had supported the rebels, interviewing more than 300 locals, according to Police Chief Igor Rybalchenko. Boxes were placed around town and in city government buildings for residents to anonymously submit names of suspected rebels or collaborators.

On July 11 armed, masked men from the state security agency arrived for Shtepa at the hotel. They told her she would be taken for questioning to Kharkiv, about 100 miles north.

There she was placed in a detainment cell and eventually charged with the high crime of violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Stativa, said. The charge precludes the possibility of bail.

With anti-Russian sentiment growing in Kiev, the eastern cities’ employees have been an easy target for a government and populace hungry for justice, said McGill.

“People like Nellie [Shtepa] who were in local government were in extremely difficult situations, in which they were faced with making a choice of either leaving and abandoning their cities or trying to stay and mitigate between the city and the armed groups,” McGill said.

Krat said she has volunteered to testify on Shtepa’s behalf and that she has tried to speak to the Ukrainian media about the case. She said that so far, they hasn’t been any interest in hearing her side of the story.

“The Ukrainian media doesn’t want to hear me defend Nellie because the population doesn’t support her and doesn’t want to hear it,” Krat said. “But I support justice.”

Click here for more coverage of Ukraine’s crisis.

The United Nation’s High Commissioner on Human Rights recently documented dozens of cases in which detainees were unlawfully detained, denied access to legal aid and interrogated on video, often later made public on the Internet.

In an Aug. 17 report the commission expressed concern “about cases of detention that appear to be politically motivated or may constitute a measure of reprisals.”

The U.N. commission and Amnesty International were particularly critical of volunteer battalions operating under the auspices of the Ukrainian government. Both agencies cite instances in which the battalions are accused of detaining, interrogating and abusing suspected separatist sympathizers without handing them over to the proper authorities.

Exact figures are difficult to obtain, but most estimates say Ukraine’s security services have opened nearly 1,000 criminal cases for separatism and have arrested and charged up to 400 people. Many of those charged await trial in Kharkiv.

Last month Ukraine amended its law to allow detainees to be held without a pretrail hearing for up to 30 days, another cause for concern, according to McGill. Previously, detainees could be held for a maximum of 72 hours.

“When we have a situation to keep law and order, we must be uncompromising,” said Ihor Terekhov, deputy mayor of Kharkiv. "At least we've done nothing to be ashamed of.”

Shtepa has twice had her detention extended since July 11. On Sept. 16, a day after the Ukrainian parliament passed a concessions package for the rebel-held territories that would expand the region’s self-governance and grant amnesty to those who have not committed serious crimes and are willing to put down their weapons, President Petro Poroshenko’s envoy for conflict settlement in the east, Iryna Gerashchenko, said in a press conference that Shtepa would not be eligible for that amnesty clause.

“Everyone who has committed grave crimes will be held liable, according to the Ukrainian legislation,” Gerashchenko said. “Shtepa was arrested for very serious charges, and it is very important to ensure that no other mayor will open the door of his city for terrorists and separatists. They should answer to Ukrainian law.”

“The most worrying trend is that there are many ordinary people who now are sitting in detention without access to basic justice,” said Stativa, adding that some of the detainees have not been able to contact their families. “At least Nellie is a high-profile public figure, so people know about her.”

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