Delayed trial halted in mass confusion
Despite three attempts in as many months, the government has been unable to start the trial of 19 Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian Self Defense (UNA-UNSO) members accused of organizing anti-presidential rallies last spring. Courtrooms too small to accommodate participants and spectators, proceedings disrupted by the defendants and the liquidation of the district court where the trial is to be held, have all contributed to the legal quagmire.
“Everything I have seen here, the organizing of the whole process, has made me feel horrible,” said Yury Vasylenko, a judge observing the case. “It is impossible to hold a court case with people sitting on top of each other.”
Due to the trial’s high profile, few political observers expected the UNA-UNSO proceedings to go smoothly, but no one expected things to go quite so badly. From the beginning, the case has been beset with problems.
In the eight months since UNA-UNSO members were arrested, Ukraine’s court system has crumbled. A new criminal code, which became effective in September, changed the statute under which the defendants were charged, will be tried and could be sentenced. Then in October, President Leonid Kuchma ordered the reorganization of Kyiv’s court system, prompting the sudden closure of the city’s district courts. The presidential decree pared the number of courts from 14 to 10, resulting in the liquidation of the Starokyivsky court where the trial was to be held. The trial was postponed indefinitely.
Tetyana Montyan, a lawyer representing several of the defendants, said she believes the disruptions are part of a larger government plan to crush UNA-UNSO by keeping their leaders behind bars.
“It is a 100 percent political case,” Montyan said.
UNA-UNSO members were arrested March 9 during a day of clashes with police at anti-Kuchma rallies. Some were arrested in the morning, others were taken into custody later in the day after hurling eggs, rocks and insults at police.
UNA-UNSO leader Andry Shkil has been charged with organizing the disturbances.
The trial was originally set to start in late summer but never got underway because the courtroom was too small to accommodate the defendants, their attorneys, family members and the media. The judge, Ivan Volik resumed hearing the case Nov. 22, though his demands for a larger room went unanswered.
The courtroom was packed. UNA-UNSO Press Secretary Tetyana Chornovil said she could enter the room only after much maneuvering. People stood shoulder-to-shoulder, she said, and in the crush reporters pushed close to the metal cage holding the defendants. Members of the press thrust cameras and microphones into the cage, jockeying alongside women who pressed red and white carnations against bars and leaned in close to kiss imprisoned boyfriends.
Conditions inside the barred dock were chaotic as well, as the accused clambered over each other to speak to the media, family members and lawyers. In search of a better view, journalists stood on upturned benches.
After less than 10 minutes in the unruly courtroom, Judge Volik left. Court was adjourned without resolution.
The performance was repeated on Nov. 27. A two-week recess was ordered so that a larger venue could be reserved.
Meanwhile, UNA-UNSO, well known for its political theatrics, has been staging its own sideshow to the proceedings.
Three days before the Nov. 22 session, the group’s political counselor, Eduard Kovalenko, announced the election of a new party leader to replace Shkil. That election has divided the fractious organization. That division became loudly apparent as Kovalenko and Shkil loyalist Chornovil verbally battled outside the courthouse.
Katya CENGEL (“KYIV POST”)