KYIV -- Officials in Ukraine say residents in the separatist east may be subject to criminal prosecution for participating in so-called "people's tribunals" that have handed down at least one death sentence.
Separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, who have sought to shore up their authority through widely unrecognized elections on November 2, have also established replacement judicial bodies that allow local citizens to vote on the outcome -- even delivering sentences, like capital punishment, that violate Ukrainian law.
It's a move that has horrified rights activists and irritated authorities in Kyiv, who say that participating in such tribunals is a criminal offense in and of itself.
Anton Herashenko, an adviser to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, says all local citizens who attend such extrajudicial hearings could eventually be tried as accomplices to murder.
"There's an article in the Ukrainian Criminal Code that prohibits self-government," he says. "No one has the right to perform the work of state organs that the organs should perform themselves, in full accordance with the law. Also, if this person really is executed, this becomes a murder case."
Show Of Hands
Several hundred people in Alchevsk, a city in Luhansk region, participated late last month in what separatists described as the "first people's court of Novorossia," a reference to the swathe of Ukrainian territory now under rebel control.
During a 50-minute "trial" conducted by separatist militants, the Alchevsk residents heard cases against two local militants, fighting with the separatists, accused in separate incidents of rape.
Aleksei Mozgovoi, the head of the Prizrak (Ghost) battalion, which currently controls the area and claimed to have investigated the two cases, pronounced both men guilty. He then asked for a show of hands on whether one of the alleged defendants should be "subjected to the highest form of punishment -- death by firing squad."
An online video shows a majority of the crowd raising their hands, drawing despairing cries from the man's mother, who was attending the proceedings.
The second defendant did not receive the death penalty, but was condemned to be sent to the front line to "die with honor."
Capital punishment is banned in Ukraine and has been indefinitely suspended in Russia. But Mozgovoi said his people's court and its sentence were legal according to the principles of martial law and "narodovlastiye," an ardent Soviet-era term meaning "government by the people."
Mozgovoi appeared to vouch for the decision-making authority of the Alchevsk tribunal, telling participants, "The voice of the people is the voice of God. Let it be as you decide."
Suspicion of summary executions by separatist militants has existed for months, particularly following the formal introduction of the death penalty by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) in August.
That document, signed by former DNR head Igor Strelkov, said its guidelines were in accordance with Soviet-era martial law passed during World War II, which permitted capital punishment in the instance of treason and other grave crimes.
Yevhenia Zakrevska, a lawyer representing several former separatist hostages, says she's heard of several instances of summary death sentences being handed down in makeshift tribunals.
"This isn't the killing of someone under any old kind of circumstance," she says. "This is killing someone after an imitation trial based on a total hodgepodge of existing legal norms taken from the Ukrainian Criminal Code and the 1941 decrees on martial law, which naturally provide for executions and military tribunals."
A second lawyer, Ihor Holovan, says Kyiv authorities have been slow to investigate the unauthorized courts, which he says could be used in a criminal case against the separatists and what many believe are their sponsors in Russia.
"Of course, it's not realistic to conduct an investigation there at the moment," he says. "But there are plenty of people who are managing to get out of there who could have something to say."
'Sit At Home, Embroider'
It's not clear, in the Alchevsk case, whether the man sentenced to death has in fact been executed. (The BBC quotes Prizrak battalion members as saying both men are being held in custody and that sentences would be carried out in the "next few weeks.")
Psychologist Olena Lishchynska says that regardless of whether the sentence is carried out, separatists are eager to use such public trials as an opportunity to cement their hold on power.
"By participating in these 'people's tribunals,' people are basically telling the [separatist] authorities that they share their values" -- something that contributes to the separatists' illusion of democratic government, she says. "Anyone who's shocked by this is, to the contrary, intimidated."
To that end, Mozgovoi appeared to use the recent rape trial to deliver an unexpected edict on appropriate female behavior, threatening to arrest women found spending time in restaurants and night clubs.
"You want to stay honest and faithful to your husband. Sit at home, embroider," he said, ignoring audible gasps from the crowd. "Stay at home, bake pies, and celebrate March 8 [International Women's Day]."