On February 23rd a young Ukrainian political activist named Serhei Sternenko was sentenced to seven years in prison. Sternenko was charged with participating in the kidnapping and torture of one Serhei Sherbych, director of the Odessa branch of pro-Russian political party “Rodina”, in April of 2015.
The judge’s sentence was met with shouts of “Shame!” from onlookers in the courtroom.
Before the trial began Sternenko made a statement to his supporters, “If today’s ruling is illegal, then it will be the beginning of the end for these people. There are hundreds of you here today. They don’t understand, that if they trample on human rights and make such political sentences, that instead of hundreds there will be thousands, tens of thousands, and if need be, hundreds of thousands.”
A Political Sentence
Sternenko and his supporters state that his trial and sentence are politically motivated, initiated by powerful politicians to silence him and others who speak out against the government. Sternenko accuses Andriy Portnov, former head deputy to the office of President Yanukovych, for taking part in the case against him. Portnov returned to Ukraine after Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidency.
Viktor Yanukovych is the former Ukrainian President whose rejection of the Ukrainian-European Association Agreement sparked the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, in which pro-European Ukrainians took to the streets in the capitol, demanding Yanukovych step down. Following months of bloody protests that resulted in the deaths of over 100 individuals, Yanukovych fled the country and a new government was formed.
The fact that Andriy Portnov, who formerly served in pro-Russian President Yanukovych’s administration, was allowed to return to Ukraine when the new President Zelensky came to power ads fuel to the rumors that Zelensky is secretly a pro-Russian actor.
Not all Ukrainians support Zelensky as president, and despite his landslide victory with over 70% of the popular vote in 2019, his popularity is waning. The past two years have shown that he is at best inexperienced and at worst corrupt. The former comedian turned politician’s long-time connections with oligarch Igor Kolomoisky have worrisome implications. Kolomoisky is a former politician and owner of one of the largest Ukainian Banks, PrivatBank. PrivatBank collapsed in 2016, with Kolomoisky being accused of embezzlement and fraud, only to be bailed out by the Ukrainian government at $5.5 billion.
On a related note, on March 5th President Biden’s new administration went after Kolomoisky, placing sanctions against him and his family members.
Uproar Against a Corrupt Justice System
Sternenko’s sentence on February 23rd had people out in the streets protesting its injustice. In Kyiv, along Khrestschatyk street and in front of the president’s office, protesters gathered to voice their discontent. The police barricaded several streets in order to isolate the president’s office from the crowd. Skirmishes between police and protesters erupted and several people were wounded and more arrested.
The second round of protests on the 27th was much more peaceful. This time, police limited themselves to guarding the president’s office and didn’t put up barricades. Thousands of protesters closed off several main streets in their march to support Sternenko. Demonstrators held signs with such slogans as, “Send Venediktova (head prosecutor) to retirement”, “Free Sternenko”, “We won’t be frightened”, and “Spring has come, they planted the wrong ones (imprisoned the wrong people) ”.
The protesters have several demands including Sternenko’s release, a stop to the political prosecution of Ukrainian political activists and volunteers, and a restructuring of the justice system, beginning with the Ukrainian High Court.
Although these protests did generate a lot of public attention and debate, there are few signs that the protesters’ demands will be met. The latest protests took place on March 9th, where Sternenko’s supporters joined with others to protest new judicial appointments to the Ukrainian High Court. These latest protests were barely covered in national news sources and had a much smaller turnout than the previous ones.
In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see if these protests continue and if Sternenko’s case will inspire further criticism of the corrupt Ukrainian justice system.
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