Vladimir Balukh: Rough Justice in Russian-Occupied Crimea

The Balukh Trial: Testimony of Prosecution’s Witnesses Diverges
Grani.Ru
May 15, 2018

The testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses diverged during the latest hearing in the third trial of the Crimean Ukrainian political activist Vladimir Balukh, who allegedly assaulted Valery Tkachenko, warden of the Interior Ministry’s Temporary Detention Facility in the Razdolnoye District, reports the news website Krym.Realii.

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Duty officer Mikhail Shubin claimed Balukh wanted to attack Tkachenko, but the guards holding the political prisoner stopped him from doing it. At the same time, Shubin claimed Balukh had “taunted” the warden.

Meanwhile, the facility’s deputy warden, Dmitry Karpunov, testified he did not see the conflict itself. He could only report Tkachenko had entered Balukh’s cell, whence an “intense conversation” was audible, and then the warden exited the cell stained with some kind of liquid.

Karpunov said there had been no attack. Balukh had not committted any violations of prison regulations, not counting his refusal to put his hands behind his back.

The Crimean Human Rights Group reports a total of five witnesses were questioned during Tuesday’s hearing. Aside from Shubin and Karpunov, they included temporary detention facility staffers Seyran Mambetov, duty officer Sergei Tishin, and technician Alexander Konovalov, who extracted the recordings from the CCTV cameras. The Crimean Solidarity Facebook page identifies Konovalov as Balukh’s aquaintance.

Our correspondent reports that, during his testimony, Major Mambetov said, “We are not the Gestapo. We don’t assault people. We police officers do not offend anyone, and we treat all convicts the same.”

The next hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, March 16.

Balukh went on hunger strike on March 19, 2018. May 15 was thus the fifty-eighth day of his protest against the unjust verdict in his previous trial, in which he was convicted of illegally possessing ammunition. On Tuesday, the Crimean Human Rights Group published a letter from Baluch, in which the political prisoner wrote that, on the twenty-fifth day of his hunger strike, his social defender, Archbishop Kliment of the Simferopol and Crimean Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, urged him to moderate his hunger strike. Whereas earlier Balukh had consumed only water and tea, after his conversation with Kliment he drank two glasses of oatmeal kissel and ate fifty to seventy grams of dried breadcrumbs everyday, and added honey to his tea.

Balukh made the decision, he wrote, “To rule out the possibility of forced feeding and the use of medical means of life support I have not authorized, and also to avoid causing irreparable grief to my loved ones.”

Earlier, Balukh’s common-law wife Natalya had pointed out her husband suffered from liver disease, and it was unacceptable for him to go on hunger strike.

93614.jpgVladimir Balukh and his attorneys Olga Dinze and Taras Omelchenko, May 15, 2018. Photo by Alexandra Yefimenko. Courtesy of Grani.Ru

The hearing on the merits of Baluch’s third trial began April 2. Tatyana Pyrkalo, chair of the Razdolnoye District Court, which is controlled by Russia, has presided over the trial. Aside from Archbishop Kliment, Balukh is defended by three professional lawyers, Dmitry Dinze, Olga Dinze, and Taras Omelchenko. Ms. Dinze and Mr. Omelchenko were present at Tuesday’s hearing.

The 47-year-old Balukh, a farmer from the village of Serebryanka in the Razdolnoye District, has beeen charged under Article 321 Part 2 of the Russian Criminal Code (non-threatening violence against a penitentiary officer during performance of his duties), which is punishable by a maximum of five years in a penal colony. According to the prosecution, on August 11, 2017, during morning rounds of the cells at the Razdolnoye Temporary Detention Facility, where Balukh had been transferred from a remand prison while he attended his second trial, Balukh struck Warden Tkachenko in the stomach with his elbow while they were in the hallway, after which he went into his cell, grabbed a bottle of detergent, and struck the policeman on the arm.

Actually, Tkachenko himself assaulted Balukh, insulted his ethnicity, and swore at him. Moreover, these actions were captured by CCTV cameras. We also know the warden had verbally assaulted Balukh prior to the incident. Balukh was framed on the new charges after his defense lawyers filed a complaint against Warden Tkachenko with the police.

During the pretrial investigation, conducted by N. Bondarenko, an official with the Razdolnoye Interregional Department of the Russian Investigative Committee, Warden Tkachenko refused to report to a face-to-face confrontation with Balukh, although Russian law does not provide this right to victims.

Until today, only two hearings had been held in the case. Warden Tkachenko took the witness stand at the second hearing, on April 11.

As defense lawyer Dmitry Dinze noted after the hearing, “The funniest thing about the whole case is that the so-called victim has not evinced any get-up-and-go. The criminal charges did not interest him at all. He was ordered to file a report and draw up all the papers in order to get the case opened. Personally, he has no material and emotional gripes against my client. It transpires the Razdolnoye District Police Department had a stake in cooking up more criminal charges against Balukh.”

In December 2013, during the early weeks of the Revolution of Dignity, Balukh hung the red and black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) above his home in the village of Serebryanka. After awhile, the flag was surreptitiously torn down at night, and the farmer replaced it with the Ukrainian national flag. After Crimea was occupied, Balukh did not apply for Russian citizenship.

Balukh was convicted for the first time in 2016 and sentenced to 320 hours of community service for, allegedly, offending a government official, as stipulated by Article 319 of the Russian Criminal Code. The “victim” in this case was Lieutenant Yevgeny Baranov, a field officer with the Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”), who was involved in searching Balukh’s home in November 2015.

Balukh faced trumped-up charges for the second time after he attached a sign inscribed “Heaven’s Hundred Heroes Street, 18″ on his house. He was jailed in a remand prison, where he was imprisoned for nearly a year before he was transferred to house arrest. He was returned to the remand prison after his conviction on the second set of charges. Balukh was charged under Article 222 Part 1 (illegal trafficking of ammunitition) and Article 222.1 Part 1 (illegal trafficking of explosives) after police planted gunshells and TNT blocks in his home during a routine search. Earlier this year, Balukh was sentenced to three years and five months in an open penal colony.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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The Annals of PreCrime: “An Absolute Nightmare”

precriminals.jpegUnder legislation currently tabled in the Russian parliament, these up-and-coming Russian businesswomen could do hard time in a penal colony for the wholly fanciful crime of “complying” with western sanctions against target businesses and individuals. Image courtesy of Credit Bank of Moscow

Sanctions Victims Refuse the Russian State’s Protection
Big Business Categorically Rejects Adopting Law on Anti-Sanctions
Yelizaveta Bazanova, Anna Kholyavko and Yekaterina Burlakova
Vedomosti
May 16, 2018

“An absolute nightmare”: that was the phrase used by the majority of lawyers and executives of Russian and foreign companies whom we asked to comment on plans to imprison people who “implemented” foreign sanctions. On Monday, a law bill to this effect, tabled by State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, and leaders of all four parliamentary factions was passed in its first reading. The second reading has been scheduled for Thursday.

Under the law bill, if a company refuses to sign a public contract with an entity on the sanctions list, the company and its executives would be threatened with a maximum fine of ₽600,000 [approx. €8,200] and a maximum prison term of four years.

The board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) has decided passage of the law would be completely unacceptable. Companies would find themselves between the frying pan and the fire: violations of sanctions would threaten them with secondary sanctions, while complying with sanctions would make them criminally prosecutable in Russia.

The RSPP’s resolution was supported even by board members who had themselves been sanctioned.

“We believe it would cause further damage to the Russian economy, including business with foreign and Russian companies, and both Comrade Vekselberg [Renova Group Chair Viktor Vekselberg] and I voted for the resolution,” Interfax has quoted VTB Bank president Andrei Kostin as saying.

A spokesperson for Vekselberg did not respond to our questions. We were also unable to contact a spokesperson for Oleg Deripaska, another target of western sanctions, yesterday evening.

If passed, the law would be unlikely to have a considerable impact on how businesses operate, but it could be a means of threatening and pressuring them, the entrepreneurs we surveyed said unanimously. The wording of the law bill is harsh. Nearly anyone could be prosecuted on the flimsiest of pretexts, complained an executive at a transnational food producer.

The key risk is the absence of clear criteria for defining what would constitute a violation of the proposed law, our sources all agreed. Even the Russian Finance Ministry could be prosecuted. In its Eurobonds prospectus, it pledged not to use the funds raised to support entities targeted by western sanctions. In January, Alfa Bank warned Russian defense companies it would not handle their accounts due to sanctions. Spokespeople for the Finance Ministry and Alfa Bank did not respond to our inquiries.

The Kremlin has also been unhappy with the law bill, said a federal official close to the presidential administration.

The law bill, if passed, would also generate risks for those companies who refuse to do business in Crimea due to sanctions, said Alexei Panich, a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills. These include the state banks Sberbank and VTB, as well as mobile telecom operators. Andrei Isayev, deputy head of the State Duma’s United Russia faction, claimed  companies who do not open branches in Crimea would not be affected by the law. What was at stake, he said, were the ordinary deals and transactions companies perform almost automatically. However, refusal to do business with counterparts in Crimea could be considered a criminal offense under the terms of the law, said an attorney at a major international law firm. The law could complicate public offerings, the issuing of loans, and contracts and transactions, he specified.

An employee at a major international firm explained it would be hard to determine whether a company refused a deal with a counterpart due to their bad reputation or the threat of sanctions. An auto dealer agreed the threat of criminal prosecution would be powerful leverage. To encourage its partners to agree to a deal, a business could threaten to report them to law enforcement agencies, argued Panich.

The proposed measures were excessive, agreed a spokesperson for an agricultural commodities trader. Some companies have in-house rules restricting such deals. Our source said the law bill appeared to be means of coercing such companies. Theoretically, it could be used as leverage. A company or person on the Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons List (SDN) could show up and demand another company do business with them, agreed the head of major private bank. It was difficult to imagine how banks would solve such dilemmas, he said.

“There are many ambiguities in how the law would be interpreted, and what specific actions or inactions would be punishable,” he concluded.

Foreign businesses could interpret the law bill as a signal it was time to wrap up their operations in Russia, said the vice-president of a major foreign company that produces popular consumer products. No one has any intention of sacrificing their top executives to the Russian law enforcement and judicial system.

All issuers of bonds include in their covenants the refusal to do business with entities targeted by sanctions. Perhaps expatriates who do not want to take risks would leave the country, argued an employee at a large foreign company.

Passing the bill into law would be a mistake, said political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko. The law would have to be seriously amended over time.

“Knowing how this could affect both Russian companies and foreign business operating in Russia, this is very risky decision in my opinion,” Minchenko told us.

Spokespeople for Sberbank and Credit Bank of Moscow declined to comment.

With additional reporting by Vladimir Shtanov, Darya Borisyak, Alexandra Astapenko, and Svetlana Bocharova

Translated by the Russian Reader