Human Rights in Ukraine
32-year-old Czech national Martin Kantor has been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for fighting on the side of the Russian and pro-Russian Donbas militants. The trial before the Prague Municipal Court was in absentia, but is important both as a clear deterrent to others, and because Kantor was found guilty on 1 June 2021 of terrorism and involvement in a terrorist organization. This is not the first trial of pro-Russian Czech fighters and judging by the recent arrest of five other individuals on terrorist charges, is unlikely to be the last. In the case brought by Ukraine against Russia at the European Court of Justice on violations of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, Russia’s lawyers have tried to deny Ukraine’s position that the self-proclaimed and Russian-controlled ‘Donetsk and Luhansk republics’ are terrorist formations. This is a position that court trials in the United Kingdom and Czech Republic, and the Estonian authorities are unequivocally rejecting.
The sentence against Kantor is not yet final and can be appealed. The accused’s lawyer had demanded his acquittal and claimed that the charges had not been proven. It is unclear whether this is a state-appointed lawyer, since Kantor’s whereabouts appear to be unknown.
According to the indictment, Kantor travelled to Donbas in 2015, via Rostov-on-Don in Russia. In Donbas, he is believed to have had training and become a sniper for the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [LPR]. He took part in the fighting, and was promoted by the militants to the rank of ‘sergeant’. Prosecutor Martin Bily, who asked for the 20-year sentence, explained that Kantor had been a member of a ‘reconnaissance and sabotage unit’ and had himself laid mines and grenade traps.
The prosecution had pointed to correspondence between Kantor and friends in which he had described his activities in Donbas. The court also heard testimony from experts and Kantor’s (presumably former) friends, who said that he had spoken of wanting to take part in the fighting on the side of the pro-Russian militants and had boasted of his successes in the militant ‘army’. One friend said that they had been in contact in 2016, but that he had received an email saying that Kantor was dead.
This is the second substantial sentence against Czech nationals over the last six months on terrorism charges for their role in Donbas. On 21 December 2020, Oldřich Grund was sentenced by the Ústí nad Labem Regional Court in absentia to 15 years. Grund is believed to have been fighting in the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ since 2014 and to have received an award for what the militants claimed was ‘bravery’. First as ‘commander’ of a combat vehicle and then as a ‘lieutenant colonel’ of
an armed tank unit, he fought against the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Sloviansk, Ilovaisk and in several other places.
Legislation was introduced in the Czech Republic in January 2017, which envisages up to 20-year sentences. If both sentences come into force, then both Grund and Kantor will face arrest in any EU or other democratic country, with extradition to the Czech Republic.
Czech courts have not up till now taken such a strong stand when the men in question are in the Czech Republic. In early December 2020, the High Court of Appeal in Prague changed a suspended sentence to a real three-year term of imprisonment for Pavel Kafka, who fought on the side of ‘DPR’ militants of Russia’s proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ in 2015-2016.
The prosecution had demanded a 12-year sentence against the 27-year-old on terrorism charges, however in July 2020, a court in České Budějovice convicted him of taking part in an organized criminal gang and passed a three-year suspended sentence, with a five-year probation term. This was challenged by both the public prosecutor and by Kafka himself, but the only change was to the severity of the sentence, not the charges.
The public prosecutor in the Czech Republic had previously brought terrorism charges against a former soldier Erik Eštu over his involvement in the fighting in Donbas. In May 2019, Eštu received a three-year suspended sentence for involvement in a criminal organized gang with terrorist intentions, and was stripped of his military rank. The suspended sentence was, however, reduced by a year at appeal stage, with the High Court of Appeal in Prague seemingly objecting to the imprecise legal qualification. Neither court had been willing to recognize his actions as terrorist.
The arrest of five people on 22 April this year may suggest that a change is taking place. Detectives from the National Centre against Organized Crime charged all five individuals, as well as a legal entity, with terrorism in what was described as a major crackdown on members of pro-Russian militant formations in eastern Ukraine. The organization and individuals are accused of terrorist acts, of involvement in a terrorist organization, of financing terrorism, and of supporting and promoting terrorism. The suspects are, reportedly, members of the paramilitary organization ‘Czechoslavian Soldiers in Reserve for Peace. They include the head of the organization, Ivan Kratochvil, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Czech Army, who regularly appears on the Russian propaganda Sputnik website. The website Manipulátoři believes that the organization is linked to Russia’s FSB [security service]. It seems the organization itself is suspected of raising money to send other fighters to Donbas. Another individual is believed to be Přemysl Ivan Hadrava, an Orthodox priest with pronounced pro-Russian views.
Several European countries have been prosecuting their citizens / residents for involvement in the fighting on the side of the militants in eastern Europe, although the actual charges vary greatly.
On 29 March 2019, a court in Riga sentenced 29-year-old Artem Skripnik to five years’ imprisonment and then a further two years’ parole for his role in the fighting in Donbas. The prosecution had asserted that Skripnik, a resident of Daugavpils with non-citizen status in Latvia, had both taken part in the fighting in Luhansk during the Spring of 2015, and had trained other fighters to use weapons. He thus “actively took part in an armed conflict directed against Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” The Prosecutor General’s Office noted that Skripnik’s actions were in breach of international law and the UN Charter.
Skripnik’s sentence came a month after a regional court in Germany sentenced 48-year-old Sergei Kiselev to 2 years’ imprisonment for training to fight in the war in Donbas, with the evidence of his active part in fighting against Ukraine currently being studied by Germany’s Prosecutor General. The German authorities were alerted to Kiselev’s activities after his uncle, Dmitry Kiselev, head of the state news agency Russia Today, gave an interview saying that his nephew had fought in Donbas. In the face of undeniable photo evidence, Kiselev’s lawyer had admitted that his client had been in Donbas and had borne arms. He claimed, however, that this had been for good motives and that he had been concerned for the security of the Russian people and had not killed anybody.
British citizen Benjamin Stimson also claimed to have been in Donbas “to drive an ambulance” and had never killed anybody. His trial and five and a half-year sentence are particularly important as the court in Manchester in July 2017 convicted Stimson under the UK Terrorism Act for taking part in the fighting in Donbas on the side of the Russian and Russian-backed militants.
The only country known to be taking an entirely different approach and effectively prosecuting only those Russians or Ukrainians who defended Ukraine against the militants is Russia. While claiming to have nothing to do with the conflict in Donbas and that all Russians whose presence cannot be denied are there as ‘volunteers’, Russia has not once brought charges against former militants and has protected one, Vadim Pogodin, who is facing a life sentence in Ukraine for the torture and killing of 16-year-old schoolboy Stepan Chubenko. In contrast, it has imprisoned several Russians who supported Ukraine under Russia’s generally ignored prohibition of mercenary activities (although there was no evidence that the person had been a mercenary) or on ‘extremism’ charges.