Innocent Man Spends 7 Years In Prison
When the prison guards came to tell Maksym Dmytrenko that he would be released after seven years in prison, he at first didn’t believe them.
“When they came to my cell and told me to get my bag, I asked where they were taking me. For the first five days after jail I was so numb I did not realize what was happening,” Dmytrenko told Kyiv Post by telephone.
The 36-year-old is one of six people wrongly convicted of murders that the so-called “Polohy maniac” Serhiy Tkach later confessed to.
In a catalogue of failures, bureaucratic fumbling and alleged legal violations by law enforcement and prosecutors, Dmytrenko even remained in prison for six years after Tkach confessed in 2005.
The innocent man was finally released on March 22.
The case of Dmytrenko’s needless suffering shines a harsh light on Ukraine’s cruelly dysfunctional law enforcement and judicial systems, which critics say are focused on achieving convictions regardless of evidence.
Dmytrenko’s ordeal began on Sept. 29, 2004, when he was drinking beer in a local bar in Polohy in Zaporizhia Oblast in eastern Ukraine on the
night the body of a girl, Svitlana Starostina, was found nearby. The 17-yearold had been raped and murdered.
The next day, Dmytrenko, who had recently returned from army service after qualifying as a train driver, was arrested along with another man. The second suspect, according to Dmytrenko, had a heart attack after questioning and was taken to hospital. “So there was only me left,” he said. Investigators were determined to force a confession from him by whatever means necessary, he said.
“They do not even have to beat you hard as they have other means. One of them put a gas mask on my face and didn’t let me take it off for days,” Dmytrenko said, speaking quietly as if he was afraid somebody would hear.
“Then they brought me to a prosecutor who asked me if I did it. I said no, which was my big mistake as the police took me back to my cell for more torture until I told the prosecutor that I did it,” he said.
In April 2005, a court sentenced him to 13 years in jail for Starostina’s rape and murder.
Later that year, the “Polohy maniac” Tkach confessed to more than 100 murders of women, including that of Starostina. Anatoliy Shaida, a senior investigator at the general prosecutor’s office, said Tkach gave all the details of each murder, leaving no room for doubt that he was responsible.
Nevertheless, prosecutors at first refused to send Dmytrenko’s case back to investigators, before eventually agreeing in 2008.
Still, Dmytrenko had to wait more than three years to be released.
“The procedure is complicated as years passed since the crime, and it is harder to gather evidence. Also, after the investigation we sent the case to the High Specialized Court of Ukraine which rules on release,” said Larysa Milevich, a spokeswoman for the general prosecutor’s office.
Even after Tkach was sentenced to life in jail in December 2008 on 29 counts of murder, including that of Starostina, Dmytrenko remained in jail.
Dmyternko isn’t the only innocent man to have been wrongly punished for crimes committed by Tkach.
Vitaliy Kaira was jailed for five years, Mykola Demchuk for five years, Yakiv Popovych – then 14 years old – for eight years, Mykola Marusenko for three years and Serhiy Korshun for 15 years. They have all since been released.
Volodymyr Svitlychny, who was detained in 1989 for raping and killing his daughter, hanged himself in his cell before the trial. Tkach was later convicted of the rape and murder.
Prosecutor Shaida said these people were all tortured and forced to confess to crimes they did not commit.
Most of them have gone to court in search of compensation, so far unsuccessful. Dmytrenko is also preparing to sue the state for millions of hryvnias.
But getting compensation is difficult, as one of the released men, Vitaliy Kaira, knows.
Released from prison four years ago, he has been trying to get his Hr 2.5 million compensation since.
“The court says I have to prove I have suffered, which is outrageous,” Kaira said by telephone. “Before prison I was a married man with a little daughter and a job. During my prison term my wife left me and remarried, and I have not been able to find a job since I was released. I have lost five years of my life.”
On April 3, three policemen who tortured Kaira into confessing were found guilty of forging a criminal case, psychological and physical torture and exceeding their authority.
They all received suspended sen- tences of three years and were fired from the police.
An investigation into policemen in Polohy who allegedly tortured Dmytrenko is ongoing.
Human rights activists say Ukrainian the law enforcement and justice systems strive for quantity, not quality in solving crimes. The conviction rate is at least twice as high as in developed nations, according to human rights organizations.
‘Just forge evidence’
“Every policeman has to solve two to five crimes per month. There are cases when policemen were fired for not fulfilling this plan. Also, they have very small basic salaries and receive additional payments if their success rate is good enough,” said Yevhen Zakharov, head of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group. “So often they just forge evidence and get anyone arrested.”
Another problem, critics say, is that courts in Ukraine usually side with prosecutors and rarely find people not guilty of committing serious crimes like murder. According to Kharkiv Human Rights Group, only 100 people were found innocent out of 150,000 cases heard in courts in 2011.
Police deny having any required rate for solving crimes, but admit the success rate is “very high” when it comes to serious crimes.
“In the first three months of 2012, we had 641 murders, 584 of which were solved and 637 people were established as murderers. But this is due to a fact that vast majority of murders happen between friends or family when people drink. So usually it is quite evident who did it,” said Volodymyr Polishchuk, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
Maksym Dmytrenko is recovering from his seven-year ordeal at home with his mother in Polohy. He is about to start a new job and says it seems he is getting his life back on track.
But he doesn’t believe he will get any money in compensation for his suffering.
“You know how it is in this country,” he said. “You never know what will happen next. So I’d better just go on with my life not expecting anything at all for now.”
Kyiv Post staff writer Svitlana Tuchynska can be reached at [email protected]
Maksym Dmytrenko after meeting with the Zaporizhia Oblast governor on March 27 upon his release from prison, where he spent seven years for a murder he did not commit. (UNIAN)
Convicted serial killer Serhiy Tkach in Dnipropetrovsk in 2008. He was found to have murdered women in Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia for 25 years before his arrest in 2005. However, at least six innocent people were convicted of some of the murders...