The following letter was sent to Canadian MPs on May 1, by the Russian Congress of Canada
In commemoration of the third anniversary of the tragic events in Odessa on May 2, 2014, the Russian Congress of Canada (RCC) remembers those who fell victim to the violence of right-wing Ukrainian radicals and draws attention to the failure of Ukrainian authorities to properly investigate and prosecute the culprits. RCC calls upon the Canadian government to exercise its influence on official Kyiv so that the investigation be brought to a conclusion, the truth be known and justice served in this, one of the darkest pages of recent Ukrainian history.
On May 2, 2014, Odessa became a place of tragedy. Dozens of people died in the outbreak of violence against citizens of the city and surrounding region who did not support the ‘Euromaidan’ regime change in Kyiv ten weeks earlier. Protesters set up a tent camp on Kulikovo Pole square in the centre of Odessa as a place of peaceful gathering. They were collecting signatures for a proposal to conduct an all-Ukrainian referendum on decentralization of Ukraine’s central government powers and recognition of Russian as the second official language of the country. These demands have always been shared by the people of southern and eastern Ukraine, who historically, culturally, and linguistically have been close to Russia. However, successive governments in post-Soviet Union Ukraine have never agreed to these demands.
Kulikovo Pole became the centre of anti-Maidan activists. Odessa city and the region were split over support of Euromaidan, with pro and anti-Euromaidan marches and public rallies taking place throughout February-April 2014. On May 2, hundreds of football ultras, known for their support of right-wing Ukrainian nationalism, arrived to Odessa by buses to attend a match. Members of extremist, paramilitary ‘self-defence’ units of Euromaidan from various Ukrainian cities also arrived to Odessa that day. They joined with local football ultras and paramilitaries to organize a march for unity of Ukraine through the centre of the city. The Anti-Maidan activists organized their groups in central Odessa. The two sides came into conflict and police did little to prevent the violence that erupted. Six people died in clashes, and many more were injured.
By 6:30 pm, nationalist ultras reached the Kulikovo Pole square. They attacked and burned the camp down, using Molotov cocktails, cobblestones and firearms. They beat the Kulikovo camp activists with baseball bats and chains. The activists took refuge in the House of Trade Unions close to the camp. The right-wing radicals encircled the building and set it on fire, trapping activists inside. Some of those inside tried to escape the fires by fleeing to the roof of the building. From there, some were eventually rescued. Others jumped from the windows on the second and third floors. Some of those were then beaten to death by the gathered extremists. Inside, many were burned alive or died from suffocation.
According to official statistics, 42 people died in the fire in the Trade Unions House on May 2. However, the number of victims was most likely over a hundred, according to relatives and witnesses. Many survivors were seriously injured. Some of them were taken to hospitals but did not stay there. Relatives took them away, fearing that they would be killed by extremist vigilantes. Others did not even go to hospitals out of fear of being reported to authorities and arrested. Some of the survivors died of injuries.
The massacre occurred under the eyes of the police who were observing but did not intervene because, police officials later said, they had ‘no orders’ to act. Police superiors were attending an unscheduled meeting which had been called by higher authorities and lasted several hours. The fire brigade, located within 0.5 km from the Trade Unions House, received numerous calls for assistance but it took them 45 minutes to arrive.
Ukrainian authorities launched five separate investigations of the Odessa massacre – by the General Prosecutor, by the Ministry of Interior, by a special Parliamentary Commission, by the Ukrainian Ombudsperson and by the police department in Odessa. None of these investigations have been concluded. Almost all of those who have been arrested in relation to the May 2 events and currently face criminal charges belong to the federalist, anti-Maidan camp. They are all accused under identical charges of “causing mass disorder” instead of being individually charged with specific offenses. None of the right-wing nationalists responsible for the murders at the Trade Union House have been charged. As late as March 24, 2017, the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee was still demanding “further progress in the investigations into the crimes committed during the Euromaidan protests and the violence in Odessa of 2 May 2014, in order to bring to justice those responsible without delay.” (1)
Three years after these tragic events, it is clear that Ukraine’s authorities intentionally impede the progress of investigations. The prosecution has been unable to produce any convincing evidence against the accused federalists and supporters of Ukraine’s friendly relations with Russia. Numerous legal and procedural violations have been observed during the proceedings. On a number of occasions, right-wing extremists broke into courtrooms during proceedings, threatened judges, defense lawyers and families of the defendants and physically assaulted them. In several cases, judges recused themselves from the investigation for fear of nationalist reprisals. Documentary evidence has been tampered with. The investigation has been sabotaged at the highest level of Ukraine’s Ministry of Interior (2).
Ukrainian authorities clearly lack the will to bring the investigations to conclusion for one simple reason – the same people and institutions that bear responsibility for the Odessa tragedy are in charge of investigating it. The International Advisory Panel of the Council of Europe concluded in November 2015 that the Ukrainian government had failed to properly investigate and prosecute those responsible for the violent clashes in Odessa on May 2, 2014. The European experts found that Ukraine’s investigations into the “mass disorders” in the city centre, the fire in the Trade Unions House and the conduct of the State Emergency Service staff in response to the fire lacked institutional and practical independence (3).
The Ukrainian government’s failure to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of the Odessa massacre has cast serious doubts about democracy and the rule of law in post-Euromaidan Ukraine. The current Ukrainian rulers and their ardent supporters in the West, including the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, claim that Ukraine is successfully reforming its law-enforcement agencies and the Prosecutor General’s Office. According to the statement made by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress to the Parliament of Canada’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development on March 23, 2017, “… there are many positive examples of what has changed on the ground (in Ukraine). We are on the path, with the judicial system, with police reform, to fundamentally change the lives of Ukrainian citizens, and provide an example to people in Belarus and Russia of what is a better future….”
How successful are these reforms if none of these agencies proved willing or able to bring mass murderers to justice even three years after the Odessa massacre? Ukrainian society needs to know the truth, which is denied to them by the Ukrainian authorities. Nationalist radicals guilty of killing innocent civilians in cold blood should be held accountable for their actions.
Yet it is unlikely that in today’s Ukraine justice will be served without any external help. As in the case of unidentified sniper killings on Maidan in February 2014, high-ranking officials in Kyiv have proven themselves uninterested in honest and effective investigations of the Odessa Massacre because it might reveal the involvement of current power holders in these killings. Ukraine’s government has denied and covered up the involvement of the extreme right nationalists and their paramilitaries in the escalation of violence on Euromaidan and the persecution of pro-Russian Ukrainians across the country. Meanwhile, hundreds of people who opposed the Euromaidan have been arrested and detained illegally. Far-right thugs routinely intimidate and attack those who dare to publicly voice their disagreements with the Ukrainian ultra-nationalism. The government does nothing to protect the rights of the attacked.
The failure of the Ukrainian authorities to investigate the tragedy of May 2, 2014 in Odessa calls for an immediate action by the Government of Canada. If all members of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet care about the people of Ukraine and want them to live in inter-ethnic peace, there should be no difficulty on the part of our Government to pressure Mr. Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government as a whole to name and prosecute those responsible for the deaths of ordinary Ukrainian citizens in Kyiv and Odessa.
We call upon the Government of Canada to hold the Ukrainian government accountable for bringing to a conclusion the investigation into the Odessa tragedy. Only truth and justice can bring reconciliation and forgiveness.