Ukraine: Uphold Fair Trial Rights of Anti-Corruption Activist, Serhiy Sternenko
On 23 February 2021, anti-corruption activist and coordinator of NGO Nebayduzhi, Serhiy Sternenko, was sentenced to 7 years and 3 months in prison and saw half of his property confiscated following what many believe was a politically-motivated investigation and court case dating back to 2015.
Serhiy Sternenko has ardently fought against corruption in Ukraine, most recently by campaigning against illegal construction projects and exposing corruption including around allegations against the Odesa mayor, Hennadiy Trukhanov, and his associates. Sternenko’s efforts have also included opposing pro-Russian separatist actions in Odesa in 2014-2015 and calling for the cancellation of the concerts of a number of Russian celebrities who have been vocally supportive of the illegal annexation of Crimea and conflict-affected Donbas.
With the verdict of 23 February, Sternenko was convicted for the alleged abduction of a local Odesa functionary, Serhiy Shcherbych, and for the alleged theft of UAH 300 (at the time, the equivalent of less than 15 EUR) from him in 2015 — both accusations Sternenko denies. Despite the expiration of the statute of limitations for the alleged abduction, the judge’s ruling convicted Sternenko of both charges, a clear infringement of both the criminal code and of Sternenko’s fair trial rights.
While the prison sentence imposed on Sternenko was solely based on the theft charge – correctly taking into account the inapplicability of the charge of adduction, yet not clearing Sternenko’s criminal record of that charge – there is real concern about its proportionality. For example, while the murderers of another activist from Kherson, Kateryna Handziuk, received sentences from 3 to 6 years, Sternenko’s sentencing to more than 7 years imprisonment leads credence to the belief of many that the entire proceedings were politically motivated, and are meant to send a chilling message to any and all who oppose corruption in Ukraine.
The Netherlands Helsinki Committee and ZMINA Human Rights Centre remain concerned about the verdict and sentencing, and call on the Ukrainian authorities to ensure that Sternenko’s fair trials are respected throughout the appeal process (begun on 5 March 2021), and to seek proportionate alternatives to his current terms of detention.
Some observers view this case as yet another example of a systemic crisis occurring among the Ukrainian judiciary and law enforcement which must be urgently addressed with much-needed reform. For example, the Public Council of Integrity had previously concluded that the judge assigned to Sternenko’s case has not met the criteria of integrity and professional ethics, which raises questions about his impartiality.
The unusual personal involvement of the Prosecutor General, Iryna Venediktova, and the Minister of Interior Affairs, Arsen Avakov, directly in the case has also been called into question – not least by Viktor Trepak, who served as a deputy to the previous Prosecutor General, and has stated that Ms. Venediktova’s insistence upon bringing charges against Sternenko, is extremely concerning.
In protest of the trial outcome, people took the streets in Kyiv directly following the verdict in solidarity with Sternenko. However, resulting clashes between the peaceful protestors and the police led to several injuries as the police employed disproportionate force, including tear gas and smoke bombs. Moreover, at least 24 people were unlawfully detained, although they were subsequently released later that day.
But that did not stop the outcry: on 27 February, more than 10.000 people took part in a peaceful protest, co-organised by ZMINA Human Rights Center and five other organisations, and on 20 March, more than 1.000 people gathered before the President’s Office, to protest Stenenko’s conviction. While a handful of attendees vandalized the building with paint or broke windows during the protest on 20 March, such acts of hooliganism are now being used to falsely frame peaceful protestors who were not involved in those actions, such as environmental activist, Roman Ratushny.
Serhiy Sternenko is currently involved in several criminal proceedings and court cases, including the above mentioned and three stemming from physical attacks against him in 2018. In February 2018, Sternenko was beaten and stabbed; in May 2018 he was shot in the neck with a rubber bullet; and later in May 2018 during the attack Sternenko fatally wounded one of his two assailants.
At no point in the aftermath of these attacks, did the police investigate those who might have ordered these attacks nor did they provide Sternenko with security despite his repeated requests. The assailants have only been charged with hooliganism involving a weapon or another object with the aim of causing bodily injuries. Thus far, in none of the cases were the perpetrators of the attacks held accountable.
Sternenko has repeatedly stated that the attacks and subsequent mishandling of the investigation involved both current and former police officers from the Odesa region, and he believes that the attacks were ordered as a result of his investigations into, and revelations of, alleged corruption by Odesa Mayor, Hennadiy Trukhanov, and his associates.
In June 2020, with little consideration of the circumstances of self-defense in the face of the attack, Sternenko was declared a suspect and charged with murder and the possession of an illegal weapon, and sentenced to house arrest. In August 2020, Sternenko was attacked again – this time in front of the courthouse where his trial was taking place – by two assailants who doused him with unknown liquids.