Monitoring trial in the case of Leonid Kozhara (court hearings of March 26-27)

March 26-27, court hearings were held in the Shevchenkovsky court of Kiev to select a measure of restraint to former Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara, who is suspected of the murder of Sergey Staritsky (former head of the Ukrainian television station “Inter”).

The course of the pre-trial investigation. The preliminary version of the police was suicide. According to investigators, the shot was fired at the suspect’s house with a pistol registered on him. Further, as agreed with the prosecutor’s office, the criminal proceedings were re-qualified from suicide to intentional murder – part 1 of article 115 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine. On March 25, L. Kozhara was given a notice of suspicion of intentional murder of S. Staritsky.

In connection with the introduction of quarantine on the territory of Ukraine, ISHR observers monitored court hearing using the official online broadcast on the judicial authority’s website.

At the beginning of the trial, the suspect’s lawyers petitioned for the hearing to be held behind closed doors, since the case has a significant public outcry, and information that should not be distributed throughout the country will be announced during the hearing. Prosecutors supported the defense. The court partially granted the request and decided to conduct a closed-door interrogation of witnesses. Before hearing the prosecution’s request for a measure of restraint in the form of detention, the defense of L. Kozhara provided the court with information that could positively characterize the suspect, namely, the lawyers listed all the professional merits of their client, told about his family and parents who are on his care, and also noted that immediately after the death of S. Staritsky their client canceled all his working trips abroad, tried in every possible way to facilitate the investigation of the case, and also notified pre-trial investigation of his whereabouts.

In addition, lawyers noted that the wife of the victim tried to file an application for a criminal offense, which described the mechanism of the crime, but the investigators refused to accept it. The rhetoric of the defense was to show their client in the best possible light and to apply for a measure of restraint against him in the form of a personal obligation. After the lawyers spoke, the prosecution read out its request for a measure of restraint in the form of detention. The prosecutor substantiated the need to apply an exceptional measure of restraint with the following risks:

  1. Risk of hiding from pre-trial investigation bodies and the court. Prosecutors justified that by the fact that L. Kozhara is suspected of committing a particularly serious crime, which means that it is likely that he will try to avoid punishment by any means. ISHR experts have repeatedly emphasized that the gravity of the alleged crime and the severity of the possible punishment alone cannot justify the risk of escape. The prosecution should also refer to other evidence that could confirm the existence of the above risk. The ECtHR has taken a similar position in many of its decisions. So, in the case of “Panchenko v. Russia”, paragraph 106, the ECtHR emphasized that the risk of escape should not be assessed only on the basis of the severity of the punishment that may follow. It should be determined taking into account a number of other relevant factors that can either confirm that there is a danger of escape, or show that it is too small and there is no need for pre-trial detention.
  2. Risk of unlawful pressure on victims and witnesses. In order to justify this risk, prosecutors requested the interrogation of one of the victims, since the latter wanted to talk about attempts of pressure on him from the suspect. It should be noted that the court did not grant this motion.
  3. The risk in other ways impedes the pre-trial investigation. The prosecutors justified this risk by the fact that the suspect committed acts to conceal the allegedly committed crime, initiating the appearance of committing suicide by the victims. Note that the prosecution did not provide evidence for this, although the danger that the suspect would interfere with the proper conduct of the pre-trial investigation cannot be assessed abstractly but must be supported by factual evidence (“Bekchiev v. Moldova”, para. 59).

The suspect’s lawyers noted that they consider the suspicion unfounded and the risks referred to by the prosecutor unconfirmed. In addition, the defense claimed that their client could only hold the weapon but could not shoot. Arguing their words, the lawyers referred to 4 examinations, confirming, in their opinion, that Leonid Kozhara did not shoot a pistol.

The court granted the prosecution’s petition, having decided to detain the suspect in the courtroom, nevertheless establishing the possibility of release on bail in the amount of about 14.1 million hryvnias, although the prosecutor’s office requested the arrest of the ex-minister without bail.

If Leonid Kozhara makes a bail, then he will be obliged not to leave the place of residence, to appear at the request of the prosecutor or investigator, and to surrender documents for traveling abroad.

Experts from the International Society for Human Rights will continue to monitor this trial.