Families of slain Ukraine demonstrators demand justice

More than 100 people were gunned down in Maidan Square a year ago, but investigations have failed to bring prosecutions.

The Chaplinskiys are among more than 100 families whose loved ones were killed during protests in February 2014 [Katherine Jacobsen/Al Jazeera]

Obukhiv, Ukraine – Countless times on his computer, Volodymyr Chaplinskiy has watched the moment his father was shot dead, each time looking for details he might have missed the last time, or the time before.

The 21-year-old knows the sequence of events down to the second: his father, a protester in the centre of Kiev, was pierced by a bullet through his neck before he fell to the pavement in broad daylight on February 20, 2014.

The Maidan Square protests began in November 2013 after then-president Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign an association agreement with the European Union.

 Ukraine protests one year on

The Chaplinskiys – wife Svitlana, daughter Violetta, 6, and son Volodymyr – are among more than 100 families whose loved ones were killed during violent clashes between demonstrators and Ukraine’s former elite police unit, the Berkut.

Reports from Ukraine’s Ministry of the Interior show 118 civilians and 20 policemen were killed – the vast majority of deaths taking place between February 18-20 at the peak of the protests.

Honouring the dead

In cities all over Ukraine there are memorials to slain anti-government demonstrators. Yet the deaths have hardly been honoured with justice. 

Although on the first-year anniversary of the protests the fallen were awarded medals as “Heroes of Ukraine”, the “hero” status was bestowed only after families heckled President Petro Poroshenko for failing to recognise them 10 months after their killings.

On the anniversary of the bloodiest day of shootings on February 20, thousands of dollars were spent on a lavish service where Mozart’s Requiem serenaded the many lights of memorial candles.

Yet victims’ families received no social benefits. Even the promise that some of their utility expenses would be paid for by the government has gone unfulfilled.

Some Ukrainians say the event was an expensive hat tip in place of a real investigation into those gunned down in Kiev’s central square.

Finding the killers

More than a year later, no one has been convicted of shooting anti-government protesters such as Volodymyr Chaplinskiy, or any other Maidan-related crimes.

Svitlana has been unable to get her husband’s name added to the list of protesters allegedly killed by police on February 20.

Investigators at the General Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine have told her they have no proof as to which side – protesters or police – shot her husband. Svitlana has visited their office several times with a video of her husband’s death that provides evidence such as bullet angles, but with no results. 

Each time, the widow said, she had the distinct feeling that no one had even glanced at the video.

“I raised my voice at them a bit,” she said. “My child is watching his father’s death over and over again. Why?” Svitlana said she had asked the investigators.

“Because they’re not doing anything themselves.”

Of the investigations into Maidan-related crimes, five people have been arrested in connection with protester shootings, and no one has been detained for the deaths of policemen.

Orders to shoot

Ukraine Ministry of the Interior report was released on April 3, 2014, under the direction of the interim government. It detailed that on February 20, members of the elite special operations unit, Alfa, worked with members of the riot police “Black Unit” and killed about 53 protesters.

The Ministry of the Interior also stated that members of the Russian secret service FSB had infiltrated Ukraine’s security agency and gave orders to shoot protesters – an allegation the FSB has denied

On the day the report was released, three Berkut police officers were arrested in connection with the shootings of February 20 – a former commander, Dmytro Sadovnyk, 38, and two younger officers, Serhiy Zinchenko, 23, and Pavel Abroskin, 24.

Sadovnyk, who was later released under house arrest, has fled and has not been heard from since.

The Berkut, who fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, has since been disbanded. Former members now either work in other police units, have joined the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern front, or have fled from the government’s reach.

Memorials for 118 victims of the Maidan shootings have been set up around Ukraine [Getty Images]
Memorials for 118 victims of the Maidan shootings have been set up around Ukraine [Getty Images]

The Alfa special operations unit is still functioning under the State Security Service (SBU), Ukraine’s equivalent of the Russian FSB.

Twisted plot

Last October, a Reuters special report revealed the investigation against the arrested Berkut members was rife with irregularities.

Among these, it was brought to light that Sadovnyk, the escaped officer, was physically unable to hold a gun because his hand had been blown off by a grenade in a training accident. In addition, the report stated the prosecution had made prejudicial statements against the accused.

On February 24, 2015, days after the one-year anniversary of the shootings, the Ministry of the Interior announced two more former low-ranking Berkut officers had been arrested and a wanted list of 18 more suspects would be forthcoming.

After a hearing for Zinchenko and Abroskin last Thursday, one of their lawyers, Igor Varfolomeev, told Al Jazeera the two were being blamed for following orders to shoot when there was no evidence such orders were ever given.

According to Varfolomeev, the two men lack the training and temperament to kill unarmed protesters and are merely scapegoats.

The other two Berkut members have not yet had a court hearing, though they will be tried along with Zinchenko and Abroskin, according Alexey Donskoy, senior prosecutor from the General Prosecutor’s Office.

“Six months ago there were a lot of problems with getting information from the victims’ families to the investigation committee, but in that time things have gotten a lot better and we’ve been able to work a lot more closely with the lawyers for the victims’ families,” Donskoy told Al Jazeera outside the court. 

On the anniversary of the Maidan shootings, the Minister of the Interior announced that Ukraine had proof that Russian special forces were, in fact, involved. No new details about the Russian connection have been made public since, however.

Although a special department in the prosecutor’s office was set up to investigate the shootings, there haven’t been any noticeable changes in the investigation, said the Cheplinksiy’s lawyer, Markiyan Halabala.

Family initiatives

Families of the victims have started taking matters into their own hands. 

“We’ve organised ourselves, it’s the only way to propel the investigation forward,” said Volodymyr Bondarchuk, whose father Sergeii was also killed in Maidan. 

 No end to Ukraine crisis

The EuroMaidan SOS group, comprised of civil society activists, was established to help connect victims’ families with pro-bono lawyers. Families stay in close touch, sharing photographs, videos, and other information they find about the shootings.

“There is both a lack of initiative from the General Prosecutor’s Office, as well as the fact that people just aren’t used to the type of research that involves technology and piecing things together,” said Evgeniya Zakrevskaya, a lawyer working for a number of families.   

Inna Plekhanova’s son, Aleksandr, was shot on February 18, 2014. She has followed the investigations closely, but said she is highly sceptical that justice will follow.

“There are video cameras everywhere,” said Plekhanova, noting the Ukrainian Parliament, luxury apartments, and government offices are all located on the street where her son was shot.

“But the prosecutors did not turn up one single videotape of my son’s death. Not one,” Plekhanova told Al Jazeera. 

A month after her son was killed, Plekhanova found a lawyer through EuroMadian SOS and together they went looking for witnesses around Maidan. They found one.

But Plekhanova said she has received little to no support from the prosecutor’s office in tracking down other witnesses.

“There was even a tree near to where [Aleksandr] was shot. They chopped it down last spring,” she said, her eyes filled with emotion.

“The houses nearby also had bullet marks,” Plekhanova said. “The bullet holes were plastered in a short while later. No one could tell me who was responsible for that either.” 

Source: Al Jazeera