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'Tornado' Trial Tests Kyiv's Ability To Rein In Rogue Paramilitaries

  • Christopher Miller

A photo of some of the Tornado detainees, taken outside Kyiv's Obolon district court in August 2016. Twelve Tornado members are now on trial behind closed doors.

A photo of some of the Tornado detainees, taken outside Kyiv's Obolon district court in August 2016. Twelve Tornado members are now on trial behind closed doors.

PRYVILLIA, Ukraine -- Eighteen months after the last of the Kyiv-backed militiamen vacated this weary town near the front lines of Europe's only active war, School No. 32 is a crime scene.

A former forward operating base for one of the ragtag "territorial defense battalions" recruited to defend Ukraine in its war against Russia-backed separatists in the east, the schoolhouse is cordoned off with razor wire.

"It's a house of horrors," an elderly woman calls out admonishingly to the RFE/RL reporter photographing it under a gray sky, as she shuffles to the nearby bus stop.

"A house of horrors": School No. 32 in Pryvillia

"A house of horrors": School No. 32 in Pryvillia

Ukrainian military prosecutors, police, and residents allege that members of the Tornado battalion tasked with policing Pryvillia and nearby communities went rogue, committing violent crimes against at least 13 civilians in the first half of 2015. The list of accusations includes rape and torture, kidnapping, illegal imprisonment, extortion, robbery, and creating a criminal gang.

Tornado was disbanded in June 2015 and 12 of its members were arrested and are now on trial behind closed doors in Kyiv's Obolon district court. The defendants include the defunct unit's leader, Ruslan Onyshchenko, a burly fighter with at least three former criminal convictions who also led a battalion previously disbanded after charges that it had pillaged towns under its control.

Eleven of the defendants have proclaimed their innocence, while the other has pleaded guilty and is said to be cooperating with authorities to build a case against his former brothers-in-arms.

Twelve more of Tornado's 170 or so former members are on a national wanted list for serious crimes.

While questions remain as to individual guilt, there is little doubt that the battalion -- motivated, locals and detectives argue, not by patriotism but by a penchant for anarchy and contempt for eastern Ukrainians they deemed to be pro-Russian -- cultivated a climate of fear and intimidation in the communities it was supposed to protect.

Of more than 20 people, including law-enforcement officials, that RFE/RL approached in Pryvillia and neighboring Lysychansk to talk about the Tornado battalion, just three -- one police officer, one local man, and one journalist -- agreed to let their names be published alongside their comments. Others demanded anonymity to avoid being targeted for retaliation by former battalion members or their sympathizers.

Even from the relative safety of the capital, observers and officials in Kyiv have been reluctant to talk publicly about the case, and media have been careful in their mostly perfunctory coverage.

Litmus Test

Ukrainians have been shaken and divided by the Tornado trial, which observers view as a test of authorities' capacity to deliver justice and hold their own fighters accountable for crimes committed in the conflict zone.

"Tornado" scrawled on a building in Pryvillia.

"Tornado" scrawled on a building in Pryvillia.

Many of those same observers have also accused Russia-backed separatist militias of war crimes and documented evidence of abuses against civilians in areas under their control.

"The Tornado case can show whether the Ukrainian legal system is willing and able to bring to justice people from the Ukrainian side who are accused of committing the most serious crimes," Anton Korynevych, a Ukrainian lawyer and researcher at U.K.-based Global Rights Compliance who has followed abuses by Ukraine's volunteer battalions, told RFE/RL. He noted that such wrongdoing might constitute war crimes and could, in theory, be taken to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Rights activists and lawyers note Ukraine's limited success at trying and convicting its own militiamen, despite plenty of opportunity. There was an exception in July when a court in Luhansk, near the front lines of fighting, convicted another Tornado fighter of rape and sentenced him to six years in prison.

But high-profile cases in Kyiv have failed to deliver convictions or even be carried to completion.

In one, a commander and fighter from the volunteer Aidar battalion were remanded to pretrial detention in July on suspicion of robbery and abduction, among other offenses. But the two were released after supporters blocked their transfer to court and influential deputies and the prosecutor-general, Yuriy Lutsenko, intervened personally.

Ukraine "failed completely" in that case, Maria Tomak, a civic activist at the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), told RFE/RL, citing what she said was an abundance of evidence.

So the ongoing Tornado trial in Kyiv marks perhaps the authorities' biggest test to date. But it's not so cut-and-dried.

Counterclaims

Tornado's detractors say the battalion's story is one of brutality and depravity and that it has left a stain on the mostly positive reputation of the country's patriotic volunteer fighters. Its supporters blame an alleged smear campaign orchestrated by state officials to conceal some of those same officials' illicit business dealings in separatist-controlled territories. (Officials have denied those accusations.)

Authorities and at least one member of parliament have claimed video evidence exists that proves the rape allegations against the Tornado members in Pryvillia. But the only video known to have been shown in court is a reenactment made with the help of purported eyewitnesses.

The prosecution's case rests heavily on the testimony of six alleged victims. All 12 of the accused Tornado members have refused to take polygraph tests, Current Time TV, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, reported, quoting officials.

Tornado commander Onyshchenko's partner, 26-year-old Yulia Marzhut, told reporters outside the courthouse in August that the charges were outlandish and the case politically motivated.

Onyshchenko did not have his own room in the Pryvillia schoolhouse, she said.

"He slept in a room with 10 men," Marzhut said, adding that she was also present on the makeshift base. "Tell me, when could he have raped this woman? Where was I?"

A building on the grounds of School No. 32 in Pryvillia is spray-painted with the phrase "Glory to Ukraine."

A building on the grounds of School No. 32 in Pryvillia is spray-painted with the phrase "Glory to Ukraine."

Adding to the complexity of the case, lawyers for the Tornado defendants say their clients were subjected to torture while in official custody, something that human rights officials believe may be true.

In June 2015, Ukraine's ombudswoman for human rights, Valeria Lutkovskaia, reported violence by police officers against the 12 Tornado fighters after examinations that showed "bodily injuries of various severities." Her findings were widely reported, but no legal action has come from them.

The defendants' fates in custody and other details of the case are difficult to track, since judges ordered the trials closed over the sensitive nature of the alleged crimes and because the accused and their supporters have reportedly threatened the judges and accusers.

But even with the courtroom closed to observers, the latest Tornado trial has become a public spectacle. Authorities released video footage from a court session they said shows the defendants interrupting proceedings by shouting and hurling their own feces and urine at judges and prosecutors. One defendant is heard in the video recording threatening a judge, "I'll come after you, bitch, and I'll rape your corpse with a rubber cock."

Outside the trial, Tornado backers like Donbas battalion founder and lawmaker Semen Semenchenko have protested and called for supporters to storm the courthouse. Semenchenko told RFE/RL that he believes the charges are "fabricated." A scuffle involving dozens of police and protesters in front of the courthouse in August landed several officers in the hospital.

"Threats, intimidation, and violence outside and inside the courtroom have plagued this trial and, if continued unchecked, leave no hope for justice," Tanya Cooper, head of Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Ukraine office, told RFE/RL. "Such violence seriously undermines the integrity of the proceedings."

Battalion Beginnings

Ukraine's volunteer defense battalions emerged in April 2014, when they stepped in for an underfunded and inexperienced military that was struggling to combat a sophisticated Russia-backed separatist insurgency in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. For helping stem the insurgent tide, many Ukrainians view the battalion fighters as heroes and above scrutiny.

Eventually, as the Ukrainian military gained its footing, authorities began bringing such militias into the official chain of military command. Most have complied and continue to fight in the war.

Some battalions have resisted and become problems for the government, however, maneuvering unilaterally on the battlefield and seemingly operating outside the law. The Shakhtarsk battalion was disbanded in October 2014 after repeated instances of looting in towns it was assigned to protect. Two other battalions accused by Amnesty International, HRW, and the United Nations of abuses and war crimes in eastern Ukraine -- Aidar and Azov -- remain in action in a conflict that the UN says has killed more than 9,750 people, including more than 2,000 service members.

'Everything Was Not As It Seemed'

But Tornado, whose insignia was a yin and yang pierced by a sword, is perhaps Ukraine's most notorious battalion. Formed in December 2014 when Interior Minister Arsen Avakov signed an order to create a special police battalion to protect areas in the Luhansk region, Tornado was said to have signed on many fighters from the disbanded Shakhtarsk battalion, Onyshchenko among them.

Chief Military Prosecutor Anatoly Matios has described Tornado as a motley group of mostly misfits forced out of other battalions for misconduct, members of organized criminal groups, and common criminals. In June 2015, Matios said his office had found records showing that 43 Tornado fighters -- nearly one-quarter of its ranks-- had criminal records, including some felonies.

A report in October 2015 by the Center for Civil Liberties cited an interview with a Tornado fighter who -- speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from comrades -- appeared to corroborate Matios's claim.

Tornado's commander, Onyshchenko, has at least three prior convictions, according to court documents obtained by veteran Ukrainian crime reporter Volodymyr Boyko and seen by RFE/RL.

'They Could Do No Wrong'

In separate interviews in September, Nikolai Topolskov, a Lysychansk police colonel, and a local police detective in Pryvillia who requested anonymity recalled in detail the events that followed the battalion's arrival in January 2015.

Topolskov said heavy fighting had already come and gone and "everything was back to relative normalcy" after the area had changed hands twice -- from Ukraine's to the Luhansk separatists' and back -- by the time he found accommodation for Tornado inside School No. 32.

Accusations of violence and abductions arose almost immediately.

"There was one, and then another, and then another," Topolskov told RFE/RL. "At first, we thought that, well, this was a Ukrainian battalion. We didn't believe that they could do something wrong."

The exact number of cases of missing persons is difficult to say for sure, he and the detective said, due to the large number of complaints and because they have been consolidated into one report, currently in state hands, on Tornado's alleged crimes. But both men said they had recorded "very many."

One man came to Topolskov, he said, to tell him about Tornado fighters who forced him and another male detainee at gunpoint to rape a third man who was tied to a pommel horse.

"The man told me, 'We had to do it, because they threatened us with machine guns,'" Topolskov said, recalling the witness's statement.

'Thank God They Are Gone'

On June 17, 2015, Ukrainian authorities detained Onyshchenko and seven other Tornado battalion members. Tornado fighters suggested at the time that the arrests were connected to its members stopping a train that they said was moving illicit cast iron from the separatist-held city of Alchevsk to government-controlled territory the day before.

A day later, Avakov ordered the battalion disbanded, citing a formal complaint from the Luhansk regional governor at the time, Hennadiy Moskal, about a disturbing string of alleged abuses by Tornado. Many Tornado members simply joined other battalions, according to Topolskov and the police detective, who said some still serve in the Pryvillia and Lysychansk areas.

Now, well over a year since Tornado gunmen roamed the streets of Pryvillia, its effects on the town's residents can still be seen and felt. Until they see convictions, many said, they won't rest easily.

Leonid Mikhailovich, a Privilliya pensioner who lives in a cottage across from School No. 32, speaking of a seeming conspiracy of silence among locals regarding Tornado, told RFE/RL: "People hope that by not talking about them, they will be able to forget what happened here."

"But we can never forget," he added. "We can just thank god that they are gone."

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    Christopher Miller

    Christopher Miller is a correspondent based in Kyiv and covers the former Soviet republics. He can be reached at millerjchristopher@gmail.com

     

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