Traitors around? How supporters of Russian aggression are (half) punished in Ukraine

An important part of war-related trials in Ukraine concerns crimes against national security. One thinks of the trials against captured Ukrainian separatist soldiers for treason. Or against some civilian authorities for collaboration. But ordinary citizens are also being prosecuted. In Kirovohrad region, in the center of the country, the courts have passed 12 verdicts against civilians for expressing online support of Russia’s aggression.

A "Z" (symbol of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine) is painted in white on the hood of a car and then repainted with the colors of the Ukrainian flag (yellow and blue).On an abandoned car in Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, the white "Z" that marks vehicles involved in the Russian invasion has been repainted with the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine. © Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP
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Unlike neighbouring regions or courts in Ukaine’s capital city, where cases against adjusters [someone’s who’shelped direct the enemy’s fire], collaborators or Russian military accused of war crimes are heard, currently in the central region of Kirovohradmost of the proceedings concern Internet support of Russia's actions – that is, the dissemination of various pro-Russian calls and posts on social networks that violate Ukrainian legislation. And in 100% of the cases we analyzed they ended with suspended sentences.

Between March and July, the courts of Kirovohrad region passed sentences in 12 cases of support of the Russian attack, most of them under Article 436-2 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (justification of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, glorification of its participants) which entered into force on March 16, 2022. All defendants signed plea agreements and received suspended sentences without confiscation of property. Only in two cases – which, by the way, were heard by the same judge of the Kirovsky District Court of Kropyvnytskyi – the accused were imposed additional "creative" obligations such as reading the Constitution of Ukraine and Ukrainian literature of national-patriotic nature.

As a result, two people were sentenced to 5 years in prison (suspended) with a probationary period of 3 years; the rest received from 2 to 4 years in prison (suspended) with a probation period sentence of 1 to 3 years.

Most defendants are people of retirement age who used social networks "Odnoklassniki" and "VKontakte", which are banned in Ukraine, and who subscribed to pro-Russian propaganda groups. Some of them are also Russian citizens. In most cases, they acted of their own free will, guided by their beliefs. At least, there is no evidence in the case files that they acted on the order of Russian agents or the like.

Minor crimes

This is for instance the case of a man who was found guilty of the crime of justifying the Russian aggression in a June 28 judgment by the Vilshany District Court. According to the case file, the man has Russian citizenship and is a native of Masly village, Kilmez district, Kirov region, Russia. The investigation found that he had been systematically spreading Russian propaganda narratives on his Odnoklassniki page since October 2021. For example, in October, he posted a photo with the text: "Crimea managed to return to Russia 6 months before the start of the implementation of secret agreements between Ukraine and the United States on the permanent deployment of 3 US military bases in Crimea - naval, aviation and land. Hence the furious reaction of the US and NATO, and the sanctions. Crimea has not become American."

According to the court-appointed expert, this post justifies the occupation of part of the territory of Ukraine. During February-March, the man was repeatedly sharing posts that, the expert found, justified Russian aggression. In particular, in March he posted a photo of a soldier in the uniform of the Russian Armed Forces and the Latin letter "Z" in the colours of the "St. George's ribbon" [The black and orange striped Georgian ribbon is associated in Ukraine with Russian nationalism and militarism] and the Russian flag banned in Ukraine with the signature "1945-2022" and the text: "Russian soldier is again liberating Europe from fascism."

In the judgment, the court approved the plea agreement and sentenced him to imprisonment for a term of four years without confiscation of property. But the accused was released from serving the sentence, with a probation period of one year.

Guilty pleas

The court clarified that the violation committed by the accused belongs to minor crimes. There is no victim in the case file, and the damage was caused only to the public interest. As stated in the agreement and during the trial, the parties concluded the agreement taking into account the public interest in ensuring a speedy trial, as well as the active assistance of the accused in the disclosure and investigation of the criminal offense. The court also took into account the sincere repentance of the accused and the fact that he had no criminal background.

A previously unconvicted native of Kazakhstan, who has Ukrainian citizenship, received punishment under the same article on glorification. According to the June 17 judgment of the Kirov District Court of Kropyvnytskyi, during March-April, the accused posted the following publications on his Odnoklassniki page: "I support the President's decision! I am for the fight against Nazism in Ukraine! #save Donbass", "Russian soldier are freeing Europe from fascism again", "24.02.2022. Special military operation. We will support him in his fight against the brown plague in Ukraine", "Russia liberates Ukraine". Court experts confirmed that these statements contain justification of Russian aggression.

The case file includes a positive review on the accused. The court also took into account the repentance and assistance in solving the crime and approved the plea agreement. As a result, the man received a sentence of imprisonment for a term of four years (suspended) without confiscation of property with a probation period of two years. The judgment also states that the physical evidence, including a business card with the inscription "Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation" must be returned to the accused.

Repentant?

On July 14, the Svitlovodsk City District Court approved a plea agreement with a local resident on glorification of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation. As stated in the case file, the woman subscribed to many pro-Russian groups in Odnoklassniki, from where she circulated materials on her page that justified Russia's attack. Many of the materials she distributed concerned condolences to dead Russian soldiers involved in the war against Ukraine, glorification of the so-called "heroes" and their "feats" of liberation from "Nazis", the way Russian propaganda calls Ukrainians.

The court found the woman guilty and sentenced her to 4 years imprisonment (suspended) with a probation period of 2 years. Again, the court took into account her repentance and assistance in solving the crime.

The case file contains a link to the profile in "Odnoklassniki" where, according to the investigation, she posted the mentioned materials. From this profile, in August-September it appeared she “liked” the posts of Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan, Patriarch Kirill, and posts congratulating Russian actor Fyodor Dobronravov, known for his visit to the annexed Crimea.

Bad history

On June 16, a pensioner from the village of Buznykuvate in the former Vilshany district was sentenced for encroachment on territorial integrity. The case file mentions that the man has a higher education, yet he has his own interpretation of history. During February-March, he posted a number of posts with Russian propaganda slogans on his Facebook page. One of the videos he posted claimed that Ukrainian cities were founded by Russian figures and that Ukraine does not exist. Statements such as "Russian cities in Ukraine. The truth you need to know. Kharkiv is a Russian city. It was founded in the 1630s. Little Russians fleeing from the Poles from the right bank of the Dnipro River settled there..." Court experts assessed these historical claims as encroaching on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The man also distributed symbols of illegal terrorist groups such as "LDPR" [The separatists members and authorities of Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine] supported by Russia, and posts calling to bring Russian troops to Kharkiv region.

The court approved the plea agreement and sentenced him to three years of imprisonment (suspended) without confiscation of property – except for the accused’s mobile phone - with a probation period of two years.

More pros than cons

As verdicts show, repentance as a mitigating factor in the form of a suspended sentence is a rather general concept, even if the sincerity of the accused is difficult to verify.

"The purpose of the [plea] agreement and this instrument in general, [works] as a compromise, expressed in the mitigation of the punishment of the accused if he pleads guilty, [while] ensuring procedural economy [by] reducing the procedure of trial and pre-trial investigation," explains Yevhen Vorobiov, a criminal lawyer with the NGO "Human Rights Platform".

In Ukraine, the investigation and the trial can last for years. A quick resolution allows to reduce the waste of time, labor and resources from the state budget. And the legislation allows for plea bargaining in cases of minor crimes. "The agreement itself may carry corruption risks. During the negotiations, the parties are actually already conducting an informal trial, agreeing on the question of why they need this agreement and how it is more profitable than a full pre-trial and trial,” says Vorobiov. “However, it has more pros than cons. The prosecutor who feels he has insufficient evidence base, thanks to this tool can achieve the punishment of the person; and the accused is also interested because there is no need to play with fate: what decision will be made by the court? Thus, it saves time, money, human resources, plus meets the goals of the state - punishment of the person."


This report is part of a series on war crimes, produced in partnership with Ukrainian journalists. A first version of this article was published on « Gre4ka.info » website.