Right to speedy trial, presumption of innocence trampled
Less than 1 percent of all criminal trials result in acquittals
American citizen Robert T. Fletcher III spent more than six years in pre-trial incarceration before a judge released him on bail in February. He has already spent 15 more months in jail than the minimum sentence for the crimes he’s merely accused of committing. “This is kidnapping. The laws are set up to torture everyone,” Fletcher, 51, told the Kyiv Post outside the Kyiv Desnyansky District Court on June 9 where he is being tried on charges of serious financial crimes – allegations that he denies. Fletcher is suspected of embezzling more than $10 million from 226 victims.
A trial judge did not schedule a court appearance with Fletcher, an Oregon native, for four years and five months – nearly three years beyond the limit for pretrial investigations under the previous criminal code, the one in force when he was charged.
Short pretrial detention and speedy trials are pillars of any normal justice system, longtime human rights activist Yevhen Zakharov told the Kyiv Post, if presumption of innocence – another pillar – is to be taken seriously. “What if a person is innocent yet spends seven years in pretrial detention,” Zakharov told the Kyiv Post. “Under the old procedural criminal code (upgraded in November 2012), at any given time there were more than a dozen people sitting in detention centers for at least seven years.”
Languishing in jail for long periods ruins lives – professional, personal and financial. A speedy trial is important for justice. Over time, memories fade about what happened and evidence gets lost. Once a suspect is charged in Ukraine, they face a 99.7 percent chance of being convicted, Zakharov added. “This happens partly despite the lack of evidence, falsified forensics and coerced witness testimonies,” he said.
Judges who do not want to convict but who also don’t want to come into conflict with prosecutors had often sent cases back for further investigation, leaving the accused longer in prison. A report by Penal Reform International, a non-profit group, found that the longer a suspect is incarcerated before trial, the higher the risk of a confession or statement being coerced by torture or ill-treatment.”
That’s what happens to many in Ukraine, Alla Bozhok, Fletcher’s defense attorney, told the Kyiv Post.
“I’ve seen innocent people plea bargain, get a reduced sentence and acknowledge a crime just to rejoin their families, instead of fighting to prove their innocence” she said.
Under new criminal procedures, authorities have up to nine months to conduct pretrial investigations. Once the time expires, judges can’t send the case for further investigation. They must rule on the case, Zakharov said. If an acquittal, the person must be freed. Other legal changes allow for more suspects to be released on bail or placed under house arrest. Fewer people are being held in pretrial incarceration. There were some 40,000 people in pretrial detention when the old criminal procedures were changed on Nov. 11, 2012.
As of May 1, there were 16,255 people in pretrial detention, or 23 percent of the prison population, according to the State Penitentiary Service.
“The changes are more humane, it’s a considerable improvement,” said Zakharov.
Still, the acquittal rate for crimes hasn’t changed and hovers at 0.3 percent, he added.
Meanwhile, Fletcher’s trial drags on because many victims are difficult to find after so many years, with some having registered addresses in Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbas. He is confident of his acquittal and has lost more than 30 kilograms since his arrest on Nov. 23, 2008.
“I’m the victim, my businesses were taken away from me,” Fletcher said. When asked to describe Ukraine’s criminal justice system, he said: “It’s not broken, it doesn’t work.”
He is back to being a business coach, delivering trainings on “sales, marketing, advertising…the internet business” at the Soviet-era Tourist Hotel near the Livoberezhna subway station, he said.
Although the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission fined him $5 million for securities fraud in August 2008, Fletcher said he’s learned from his mistakes.
“If you notice, all the rich Ukrainians, they got nothing in their names, it’s all either in their relatives’ names or proxies,” he said.
The website that offers registration for the “free introductory Robert Fletcher millionaire course,” frtrs.com, doesn’t say to whom the site belongs.
Whether he’s guilty or not, American Robert Fletcher — who is suspected of conning many Ukrainians out of their savings — is only now getting his day in court. He was arrested and jailed in 2008, but only got released on bail earlier this year. His case illustrates the low regard in Ukraine for two pillars of a fair and functioning judicial system: The right to a speedy trial and the right to the presumption of innocence. “You’ve been in jail more than six years! You must have been convicted of somethingbad!” “No, I am just waiting a pre-trial court hearingon my bail request.”
American Robert Fletcher (right) gives one of his “Secrets of Millionaires” training seminars on Feb. 21, 2008 in Kyiv, nine months before police arrested him outside an exposition center late at night on Nov. 23, 2008 on suspicion of largescale fraud of over $10 million. (UNIAN)