The star witness

The two Ukrainians accused of torturing and killing Russian servicemen Chechnya in 1994-5 will be tried by a jury in Grozny, according to Russian press reports. It appears that one was kidnapped in Ukraine and the other seized on a brief visit to Russia; that both were treated improperly, likely tortured, in Russian jails; and that the investigators/torturers wanted the detainees to sign “confessions” implicating certain Ukrainian politicians, including PM Yatsenyuk.

It is difficult for a defense lawyer to get any evidence suppressed or struck from the record in a Russian court. Prosecutors are very good at exploiting this institutional defect of the Russian justice system — a flaw it shares, to some degree, with other inquisitorial systems. Normally, any document a defendant is forced to sign under duress, at a precinct or in jail, makes its way to the dossier and trumps the defendants’ live testimony. But for jury trials, which are rare in Russia, the rules, both written and unwritten, may be different.

If pre-trial “confessions” are not allowed, some evidentiary backup would be in order, even before a Grozny jury. What about a co-conspirator? Enter Alexander Malofeyev. A Ukrainian citizen, he used to live in Crimea and had several convictions for burglary. Then he moved to Russia, to Novosibirsk, where his mother lived, and was convicted there in 2009 of taking part in a robbery that ended in two deaths (more specifically, according to Kommersant, two women had their throats cut). Malofeyev received a 23-year term.

Some five years into the sentence, he decided to confess his Chechen escapades to Russian investigators. Now, he’s up for a fast-track trial, a familiar scheme that will help prosecutors to confer the status of a “judicial truth” on Malofeyev’s memoirs smearing the two Ukrainian defendants and a few other Ukrainians. The fruit of his recovered memory would be incorporated into the judgment of the fast-track court, in order to be read – as prior findings of fact – to the jurors in the upcoming trial. Malofeyev may also have to take the stand in person, but cross-examination is unpredictable, in contrast to a prefabricated ruling.

Kommersant reports some gory details of Alexander Muzychko‘s alleged crimes as recounted by Malofeyev. Muzychko (a.k.a. Sashko Bily) is conveniently dead, killed in a shootout with Ukrainian cops in March 2014. He may have been a vicious gangster posing as a freedom fighter, so stories of him breaking the fingers and piercing the eyeballs of captured Russian officers would sound somewhat plausible. According to Kommersant, Malofeyev has also implicated Dmytro Yarosh and Oleh Tyahnybok, the nationalist politicians/paramilitaries who have been the Russian media’s favorite bugbears since the Maidan uprising and whose importance to Ukrainian politics has been blown out of proportion by Russian propaganda. Them, and Arseny Yatsenyuk. But I suspect that the Yatsenyuk part is going to end up vague and noncommittal, open to interpretation depending on political currents.

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