Between February 24 and April 5, 2022, when the full-scale invasion launched by the Russian Federation started, Andriy Domansky was at his home in the occupied town of Vorzel, near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. Enemy tanks were positioned right at his gate. “During the first days of the occupation, Domansky and I were delivering food to a local orphanage. We all listened to Andriy since he was a lawyer, a counsellor,” says Mykhailo Neymet, Domansky's neighbour. “We would get in touch, climb up to the attic, find out from his friends, journalists and human rights activists what was the current situation in Ukraine.”
Domansky’s grandmother, a survivor of the Holodomor [a terror-famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1933-1934] had taught the family to keep food supplies at home. After the occupants arrived in Vorzel, he and his family tried not to leave their house unnecessarily. Some neighbours who went to the village centre to buy food disappeared without a trace. However, the Russian soldiers would soon visit the lawyer's home.
“They came to my house, told me to wait for their chief, and then five soldiers came in with the commander,” the lawyer said in an interview with Zlochyn.dp.ua [Crime and punishment]. “As it turned out later, neighbours said that so-called ‘Nazis’ were hiding in my house, so the occupiers were searching for them. It's an unpleasant feeling when a weapon is pointed at you, when your loved ones are standing behind you. The Russian officer made sure that I didn't have a basement in my house and luckily I wasn't hiding anyone.”
“If the occupiers had read the Ukrainian Wikipedia, I would not be alive today. After all, although I did not hide any ‘Nazis’ in my house, I have repeatedly defended in court the interests of Ukrainian patriots [including members of the far right]. I am referring, in particular, to the cases of the Maidan protesters. In addition, among my clients are Bohdan Tytskyi, a leader of the ‘OUN’ Ukrainian volunteer battalions and other individuals who are declared terrorists in Russia."
Joseph Stalin's lawyer
When the Russians came to his house, he says, he introduced himself as "lawyer Domansky”. Those who came in checked their files, entered his name on a tablet. They came across an article about "Stalin's defender" and asked if it was true, then referred it to their command. Domansky is convinced this is the reason why nothing serious happened to him.It impressed the occupiers, so they did not touch Domansky and his family. “This case [initiated by Prosecutor's Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol] is still ongoing. In 2020, I was involved to fulfil the tasks of the criminal process and protect the interests of the suspects. My client is J. V. Stalin. Since Ukraine is a state governed by the rule of law, we provide legal aid even to suspects of a serious crime, even in absentia or deceased,” explains the Ukrainian defence lawyer. Domansky is also known to have defended in court the interests of Kirill Vyshinsky, former head of the Ukraine branch of the Russian RIA Novosti. Vyshinsky spent more than a year in a Ukrainian detention centre on suspicion of treason and was released in 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine.
According to Domansky, when they came in 2022 the Russian forces were not only hunting for ‘Nazis’ but were also eradicating any trace of the heritage and memory of the Ukrainian people: "What I cannot forgive is my family photo albums. The occupiers destroyed the photos that I did not digitize and that I had put aside to do it later. My grandmother was on them wearing embroidered shirts and flower wreaths. Isn't this exactly what the Soviet government used to do? Destroying memory, the genetic code.”
“One day I was barbecuing and a [Russian] soldier approached my fence, surprised by the quality of life in Vorzel. He did not believe that ordinary Ukrainians could be living in the houses they saw. I realized one thing: the Russian occupiers were very envious. ‘Who allowed you to live like this?’ I could read it in their eyes.”
Also, as a person who has been taking care of animals all his life, Domansky says he was deeply shocked by the way the occupiers treated cats and dogs. The Russian military ate them, so the frightened pets would seek refuge in the homes of Vorzel residents. “Personally, I had 10 dogs and 7 cats hiding in my house. A Rottweiler, a Dane, and three cats ate from the same bowl.”
Defending the rule of law
By mid-April 2022, when they withdrew, Domansky swiftly returned to legal practice. The legal field was lacking specialists, and the need for professional assistance was very high. Since then, Domansky has been representing in courts the interests of persons subject to judicial and pre-trial special investigations in absentia. Today, Domansky has about 50 "Russian" cases on his record. He defends not only the military, but also senators and even the head of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, Valery Zorkin. The vast majority of cases relate to violations of the rules of war, looting, rape and murder of civilians in the Kyiv region.
“I have known Andriy for ten years - he is a man of principle. He stands for the rule of law and it doesn't matter to him who he defends,” explains Viktor Ovsyannikov, a former lawyer and now an officer in the Territorial Defence Forces. But “there is a negative opinion about lawyers who defend the enemy in court. Why? The main problem is that the defence lawyer is often equated with the client.”
Domansky highlights that Ukraine, as a state governed by the rule of law, guarantees legal assistance to any person, which often surprises the accused. “I have had occasions when some of my clients would call me and ask if I was really their defence lawyer. Unfortunately, a part of the Ukrainian society does not understand that a lawyer is the same as a doctor who should provide assistance to any person. None of the crimes will go unpunished and every suspect will be offered legal assistance - these are the principles of the rule of law. Let's remember that there were lawyers at the Nuremberg trials.”
A strong Bar means a strong state
Domansky also emphasizes that the defence of individuals who committed crimes during the war is the experience of a democratic country. In the future, he says, many of these matters will be transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which will allow to further repair the harm caused to Ukraine by the Russian Federation. “I will quote a classic: 'Learn from others and do not be ashamed of your own'. A functioning Bar is a confirmation that laws are working in Ukraine. A strong Bar means a strong state. And the way we position ourselves will either make us a nation for which European values do matter or it won't. We need to prioritize our wish not in searching traitors, but first and foremost to win.”
This report is part of our coverage of war crimes justice produced in partnership with Ukrainian journalists. A first version of this article was published on the "Zlochyn" website.