Lisbon, Portugal – On March 10, 2020, like tens of thousands of Ukrainians before him, 40-year-old Ihor Homenyuk travelled to Portugal.
But he was refused entry at the border, detained in Lisbon’s Portela airport, and scheduled to be deported.
Two days later, he died at a detention centre at the airport after enduring physical abuse, leaving behind two children and a widow.
On Monday, a Portuguese court found three border guards guilty of contributing to his death by causing grievous bodily harm.
Homenyuk’s death was “a direct consequence of the actions of the accused”, said the judge.
“In this sense, the accused did kill Ihor Homenyuk … The agents deliberately treated Homenyuk in a way that was dehumanising, knowing that he was in pain and having difficulty breathing. They left him to his suffering.”
According to the forensic pathologist who carried out his autopsy, Homenyuk died on March 12 of slow asphyxiation, after sustaining eight fractured ribs.
His limbs had been bound with parcel tape and he was left lying in his own urine for hours in the airport detention centre.
Inspectors Luís Silva, Duarte Laja and Bruno Sousa were captured on CCTV entering the room where Homenyuk was being held. In the footage, Laja has his baton poised.
The judge sentenced Silva and Laja to nine years in prison, and Sousa to seven years.
He also absolved the defendants of the homicide accusation, while Duarte Laja and Luis Silva were cleared of possessing an illegal weapon.
The circumstances of Homenyuk’s death have been the subject of a public outcry in Portugal, resulting in a large compensation payout from the government to the victim’s family and a move to dissolve Portugal’s border agency the SEF (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras) amid revelations of serious systematic failures.
The trial, brought by Portugal’s Public Prosecution Service, took place despite the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and called on dozens of witnesses who saw Homenyuk in his final hours.
Further investigations are under way into the role played by others, such as the private security guards working for the company Prestibel, who were present or participated actively in Homenyuk’s detention in the hours leading up to his death.
The judge referred to witness statements made during the trail as “clearly evasive and contradictory” and named suspects who he recommended should be further investigated by the Public Prosecution Service.
“There were many people who knew what was happening and did nothing [including] all of those who left Ihor tied up like a package, and those who asked three SEF agents to go in the room where Homenyuk was held, and then did nothing.”
Silva, Laja and Sousa were initially accused of Homenyuk’s murder, but the charge was reduced to manslaughter during the trial, provoking criticism from immigration and human rights organisations.
Ukrainians in Portugal
Homenyuk travelled to Portugal via Turkey, apparently hoping to enter under the European Union convention that allows Ukrainians visa-free travel to Schengen-area countries.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have moved to Portugal to work since the 1990s when Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union.
At one time, Ukrainian nationals formed one of the largest diaspora communities in the country, with many taking jobs in construction and domestic work.
Pavlo Sadokha, president of the Ukrainian association in Portugal, said the initial decision to deny Homenyuk entry at the border was “very surprising”.
It is common practice for migrants seeking work or asylum in Portugal to enter without a visa.
It emerged in court that the decision to deny Homenyuk entry was partly based on an interview conducted using Google Translate, in which a border guard heard a word that “sounded like ‘tractor’ in Russian” – although Homenyuk spoke Ukrainian not Russian.
“We think [Homenyuk] was misunderstood there,” said Sadokha.
According to José Gaspar Schwalbach, the lawyer representing Homenyuk’s family in the trial, “the inspector who made the decision to deny Homenyuk’s entry did not have authority to do so under Portuguese law. This was just one of multiple serious failures.”
Homenyuk was not offered a phone call, access to a lawyer, or to a Ukrainian-speaking translator.
He did not speak Portuguese and reportedly became distressed while being detained.
He was briefly hospitalised on the day of his arrival.
After resisting deportation the following day, he was again detained in the airport.
He was handcuffed and later further restrained by guards who used plastic binds and parcel tape to tie his arms and legs together.
According to SEF inspectors and private security guards who gave testimony during the trial, this practice was not unusual in the airport detention facility.
But Schwalbach said: “I’ve seen the way people were treated and the conditions in which people are held there … It is, in fact, a prison.”
Witnesses working in various capacities at the airport detention facilities between March 10 and March 12, 2020, testified to having seen Homenyuk laid stomach-down on a mattress on the floor, handcuffed and bound, and with his trousers around his knees, smelling of urine.
Dr Carlos Durão, the coroner who carried out Homenyuk’s autopsy, described in graphic detail to the court a “slow death” that “could not possibly be attributed to natural causes”.
According to Durão, Homenyuk sustained multiple fractured ribs and bruises, injuries that suggested he had been hit or kicked with “something like a boot” at least twice.
The cause of death, according to the corner, was asphyxiation, resulting from the combination of his injuries and having been laid down on his stomach, with his hands restrained behind his back for many hours.
Lawyers for the defence suggested Homenyuk had had an epileptic fit, was withdrawing from alcohol and that some of his injuries were the result of attempts to resuscitate him.
They also maintained that Homenyuk had become aggressive in custody.
Both the suggestions of epilepsy and alcoholism were contradicted by a medical report provided by Homenyuk’s family.
According to Sadokha, “Ihor’s friends and family describe him a calm and gentle man”.
Leaving the courtroom, lawyers for the defence said that they intended to appeal.
But reacting to the sentence, Schwalbach said: “Justice has been done.
“No one is above the law.”