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Kyiv Protesters Demand Freedom For Veteran Jailed In Italy For Journalist's Death

Protesters rally in support of Vitaliy Markiv in Kyiv on October 14.
Protesters rally in support of Vitaliy Markiv in Kyiv on October 14.

As hundreds of thousands of people across the country marked Ukraine's Defenders Day holiday, dozens of protesters assembled at the Foreign Ministry, calling on the country's diplomatic corps to take measures for the release of a former National Guardsman who has been convicted in Italy for his role in the deaths of an Italian photojournalist and his Russian interpreter.

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, a former political prisoner who was released from Russian captivity last month, joined the rally to call for Vitaliy Markiv's freedom. After leaving an appeal at the ministry, the group of demonstrators marched to the Italian Embassy and deposited a similar note.

Following his June 30, 2017 arrest in Bologna, the dual Ukrainian-Italian citizen was given a 24-year prison sentence in July for actions he allegedly committed five years ago while being posted near Slovyansk, a town in the Donetsk region that was held by Russian national Igor Girkin, a former colonel in the Federal Security Service, and the forces he was leading comprised of other Russians and local separatists.

At the time, Markiv and about 150 servicemen were stationed atop the Karachun hill, surrounded by Girkin's forces and approximately 2 kilometers from where the group of journalists was located at a ceramic factory on the edge of Slovyansk.

Markiv, a native of the western city of Ternopil, in particular was found guilty of directing mortar fire that led to the May 24, 2014 killing of Italian photojournalist Andrea Rochelli and Russian interpreter Andrei Mironov, who was also known as a rights activist.

A third person, French photographer William Roguelon, was wounded during the shelling.

After the popular Maidan uprising erupted in late November 2013, Markiv left Italy for Kyiv, where he took part in the pro-democracy movement that eventually saw former President Viktor Yanukovych abandon office and flee to Russia in February 2014.

Russia subsequently took over Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and in April of that year helped back a separatist uprising in Ukraine's two easternmost regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

The two October 14 demonstrations came four days after a court in Pavia, the hometown of the deceased Italian, released the explanatory portion of its July ruling.

In the 176-page document, the court said Markiv was given a prison sentence seven years longer than prosecutors had asked for because he had maintained his innocence.

The document's explanation was criticized in an analysis published on October 14 by the Ukrainian Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG).

It concluded that the court failed to justify Markiv's 24-year prison sentence.

KHPG said too much weight was put on the testimonies of Roguelon, and two Italian journalists, Ilaria Morani and Marcello Fauci, who wrote an article for the Milan-based newspaper, Corriere della Sera, in which they cite a phone conversation with Markiv.

In the phone call, he warned the journalists not to approach his position, saying that they were in the middle of a war zone and that his position was considered "strategic."

In the early stages of the war, rag-tag Ukrainian volunteer battalions often fought dressed and equipped with a mixture of camouflage and civilian gear, as did the Kremlin-backed separatists. Civilian vehicles were often used as well.

On the night the journalists and his interpreter were killed, firefights were ongoing in the area and there was no evidence presented that the shelling, which eventually led to their deaths, came from Karachun hill, Oles Horodetskiy, head of the Christian Union of Ukrainians in Italy, told UATV in July.

"There is no evidence that the shooting came from the Ukrainian side, not to mention how Markiv was involved," Horodetskiy said.

The Ukrainian rights group said the court falsely identified Markiv as a captain, citing Morani's testimony, whereas he had a rank-and-file position. The indictment, as cited by Ukrainian media outlet Hromadske, also falsely identified Markiv as a member of "autonomous and unorganized soldiers," or one of the numerous volunteer battalions operating in the Donbas war zone.

During the trial, Markiv's defense argued that the three journalists were working in a war zone without protective armor and were not identified as members of the press.

KHPG noted that the Russian interpreter was pictured wearing camouflage pants.

The defense has a month and a half to appeal the ruling from the date of the explanatory note's publication and a court in Milan would hear the case.

According to the United Nations, some 13,000 people have been killed, a quarter of them civilians, and as many as 30,000 wounded in the war in eastern Ukraine since it broke out in April 2014.

With reporting by Hromadske and UATV
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