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War and justice

The Case of Leontyev and Motuzenko: How People Were Abducted and Tortured in Nova Kakhovka

A court in Odesa is examining one of the first cases involving the capture and illegal detention of Ukrainian civilians in the occupied territories. The trial is against the so-called occupation “mayor” of Nova Kakhovka and an “aide to the head of the DPR”. Among the victims are residents of Kherson Region.

The Suvorovsky District Court of Odesa has launched proceedings in the case against Volodymyr Leontyev, who headed the occupation administration of Nova Kakhovka, and Valentyn Motuzenko, “aide to the head of the DPR.” The men stand accused of orchestrating the kidnapping and torture of Kahovka-based journalist Oleh Baturin and the head of the Tavriysk City Military Administration, Mykola Rizak, in the spring of 2022. Liudmyla Vasilyeva, the wife of Dmitry Vasilyev, secretary of the Nova Kakhovka City Council who died a year ago and was held hostage by the Russians for 46 days, is also named as a victim in this case.

Accused Volodymyr Leontyev, appointed by the Russians as the occupation “mayor” of Nova Kakhovka in 2022. Photo by stopcor.org

The indictment alleging “violations of the laws and customs of war” was sent to the court by the Kherson Regional Prosecutor’s Office back in March 2023. However, the judge appointed to examine the case resigned. The case is now being handled by Judge Mykola Shkurenkov. The case will be considered in absentia, as the accused have not appeared at the court summons during the last three hearings.

Victim Oleh Baturin, a journalist, was the first on the witness stand. For over 40 minutes, he described how he was lured to a meeting, abducted, and illegally moved across the occupied territory. According to Baturin, all processes were overseen by Leontyev, about whom the journalist wrote a critical article a few days before his abduction.

Victim Oleh Baturin during the court hearing. Photo by MIHR

After Baturin’s abduction, he was interrogated by a man he believes to be a Russian Federal Security Service officer. He shouted loudly and demanded that Baturin name three Bandera followers, activists, Ukrainian Armed Forces fighters, and organizers of pro-Ukrainian rallies each. The man named well-known activists and only those he knew to be outside Nova Kakhovka. Baturin was regularly beaten and threatened with amputation of limbs.

“Well, Oleh Baturin, have you had fun writing articles? Say goodbye to your journalistic work and your life,” the victim quoted his torturers as saying. According to him, the torture orders were given by Leontyev and Motuzenko. “They gave the order to the armed men around me. It sounded like this: ‘Well, get down to work on him!’ ” Baturin recalls.

Victim Mykola Rizak was the second on the witness stand. He said that Leontyev personally called him, inquired about harvesters owned by a Dnipro-based company Agrotech, and ordered him to come to Nova Kakhovka and provide clarifications. Rizak left his mobile phone at home, warned his wife, and left. In the front office of the city mayor, he saw many armed people with assault rifles dressed in black uniforms. Leontyev was sitting in the mayor’s chair, and next to him stood Motuzenko and four armed men. According to the victim, Motuzenko introduced himself and asked about the harvesters, to which the mayor of Tavriysk replied that the machinery belonged to a private company that was not subordinated to him. After that, Motuzenko addressed the armed men: “We don’t have time, take him.”

Victim Mykola Rizak testifying in court. Photo by MIHR

They put a sack over his head, handcuffed him, and took him to the Nova Kakhovka police department. There, Rizak was chained to a radiator, placed on a chair, and left alone without a word. The man spent three days in this position, without food and almost without water. He lost sensations in the right half of his body and developed a fever.

“After the third day, I could no longer get up from the chair,” Rizak testifies. “A uniformed man, an FSB representative, introduced himself as Vasyl Ivanovych. He ordered to have my handcuffs removed and said: ‘What have you done to him?!’ and ordered that they take me to the hospital urgently.”

Rizak stayed there under a different name, and no medical records naming him were kept. The doctor, whom Rizak knew for 30 years, was forbidden to communicate with him, and an armed invader was always nearby. When the mayor of Tavriysk was in the hospital, his father died from the shock of hearing the bad news about his son, so Rizak was released for the funeral in exchange for a promise that he would return. This was an opportunity to escape the occupation, which the man and several family members successfully used. He is sure that if not for his father’s death, his next stop would have been the pretrial detention center in Simferopol, where the Russians are still holding the mayor of Hola Prystan, abducted at the end of March 2022.

During the court hearing, the victims claimed that at all stages they were accompanied by people armed with assault rifles wearing distinctive Russian uniforms with the Russian flag patch. Most of them covered their faces. At the time of the meeting with Motuzenko in the spring of 2022, none of the victims knew how he looked; he introduced himself as “Ataman Ivanovych.”

Accused Valentyn Motuzenko, aide to the head of the so-called “DPR”, holds the rank of “Major General of the DPR”. Photo by investigator.org.ua

The state-appointed defense lawyer asked at the end of the testimony whether Leontyev and Motuzenko personally tortured any of the victims. They answered no, but it is clear from their testimonies that the abductions and other mistreatment of the victims occurred precisely on the orders of the accused, with Leontyev being the main perpetrator.

Another hearing participant, Liudmyla Vasilyeva, who officially became a victim after her husband’s death, asked the court to examine the case in her absence. She also filed a civil lawsuit seeking compensation for emotional distress in the amount of 1 million hryvnias, but it was rejected due to the statute of limitations. She will be able to file another civil lawsuit after the end of this trial.

Judge Mykola Shkurenkov, who is examining the case of Leontyev and Motuzenko. Photo by MIHR

The case of Leontyev and Motuzenko is one of the first cases involving the abduction and detention of civilians in the occupied territories. Ukrainian investigators interpret this crime as a violation of the laws and customs of war, although MIHR experts are convinced that the systematic policy of persecution of civilians in the occupied territories is a crime against humanity, for which the highest military and political leadership of the Russian Federation is responsible. Unfortunately, Ukrainian legislation is still not harmonized with international humanitarian law, as it lacks the concept of “crime against humanity” and command (or superior) responsibility. However, national judicial precedents are of crucial importance, as sooner or later thousands of similar cases will appear in Ukrainian courts.

The next hearing in the case of Leontyev and Motuzenko will take place on February 8 at 12:00.

Vira Zaporozhets, exclusively for MIHR

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