On February 23, Odesa’s Prymorskyi District Court found Serhiy Sternenko guilty on the charges of pro-Russian activist Serhiy Sherbych abduction in 2015. The case expiration made the prosecutors bring Sternenko to court on the charges of robbery claiming that he, accompanied by Ruslan Demchuk, had robbed Sherbych of 300 hryvnas in cash. The appeal bid was due but the both men were taken in custody disregarding the law proceedings.
The ruling faced intense public backlash culminating in the Kyiv rally that left the president’s office spray-painted with loud graffiti calling on justice for Sternenko and other activists. The early April appeal overruled the earlier verdict and put Sternenko and Demchuk under house arrest. On April 16, the court began a hearing on the appeal they filed on Odesa’s Prymorskyi District Court ruling.
Did you expect that the court would find you guilty of robbery? What was your projection of the possible verdict?
The case of Serhiy Sherbyna abduction virtually had no evidence. There were words of the alleged victim, the charges are based on it. If think of the political pressure that the case has, I had expected that, at worst, I would be given the suspended sentence. I hadn’t expected jail and that half my property would be confiscated. At first.. But when they failed to read down a verdict the first time…
It was scheduled for February 19 and then was shifted to February 23?
Yes. Usually they don’t put off announcement of verdicts, but it can happen sometimes. For instance, some of people involved may get ill, or when a judge needs more time for passing judgment. In such cases, the court warns that the case hearing is put off. In my case, it was different. On February 19, it was 7 years after Sherbych with ‘titushki’ were caught at Zvenygorodka – obviously he was not going to Antymaydan [event] to wave flags, on that day I came to the court hearing. There was a secretary in the court room, who said that the verdict was ready, and if everybody [involved] was present, the judge would soon come out to read the verdict. I clearly remember it. We waited for half an hour. And the judge called up the secretary telling that he needed more time, and that reading the verdict was put off for 4 days. The law though says that if the verdict is ready, a judge can not have more time for retiring room.
Did the court secretary explain why the judge needed 4 days more?
No, she didn’t. That’s why; I can say that there was 100% interference in the judge’s authority. According to my sources, the judge came up with the acquittal. There was no evidence to bring charges against me. But later it was re-written. According to my information, the judge was approached by the law-enforcement representatives.
Were they] from Odesa or Kyiv?
rom Kyiv. Plus, the judge could have been in contact with pro-Russian elements. Yet, my conclusion here stems from the words of State Security Council secretary Oleksiy Danylov who was cited saying that there could have been some certain people who ordered verdict on me.
What were the conditions in Odesa detention center? Were there any threats?
The conditions were acceptable, considering it was a prison. Surely, they are not the finest, and I think that we need the penitentiary system reform. To make detention centers’ condition better. People in these centers, they are not convicted. They are [considered] suspects, facing accusations. And in these [detention] centers conditions are worse than in [strict-regime] colonies. As for threats. There weren’t any. Not a trace of it. The detention center administration provided for my security. I think it is because of publicity this case got. Besides, the measures to safeguard me from assassination attempts are still in place.
When I was placed under house arrest, I saw a [social media] post by Shariy alleging that there were some people waiting for me in the detention center. I liked the publication. When he posts photos of either his supporters, or the party members in a detention center, it is a good photo. I, in earnest, wish him to join them there. Besides, that photo meant that the detained had a mobile phone they used to make the photo. It is okay when the detained people try to ‘improve’ the conditions of their confinement – they got hold of a mobile phone and that is fine. I think, after that photo the mobile phone was seized.
Are there any attempts to make a deal with you? For instance, they close the cases against you, and you stop criticizing the government?
No, now there are no such attempts.
Did you get such offers earlier?
It came before they filed the charges against me in the self-defence case. I was approached by the people claiming they were representatives of Prosecutor General’s office. They suggested that I should stop criticize the prosecutors’ office and call for protests. In return, they offered to bring against me imperfect self-defence charges in place of manslaughter charges. The former is a lesser charge. But I said ‘no’. I acted within the law [when] I was attacked. To make a deal with the officials in this situation was wrong, in my view.
Where did you get your news from ? How did you communicate with the outside world?
I had a television in my cell and I could follow the news. Plus, my lawyers came with visits and I could pass correspondence and learn about the news through them. When I was appearing in trial on my self-defence, I managed to make one video.
Did you see the news about the event at Bankova Street [at the President’s office]?
Which one? There were several of those.
The last one, on March 20, when protesters spray-painted the president’s office entrance doors.
It looks curious when Verkhovna Rada comes at [you] on your birthday. Though the events that took place at the president’s office come as a logical thing. There is a call for justice, there are protest moods. When the government challenges protesters instead of looking for some dialogue – no matter you like them or not- it radicalizes protests. People are getting tired of injustice. When they take to streets and the state doesn’t react, they will look for ways to be heard by the state. On February 23, when the verdict was announced several thousands came to protest it at Bankova. Police blocked the ways leading to the president’s office. Few days later, another peaceful rally took place, this time bringing together about 10 thousand people, and the state officials were quiet on it. And it made people take to streets again. I think that rally taught Volodymyr Zelensky and his team a lesson. If there are problems, you have to talk about them with the public. The judiciary system in Ukraine is not merely unjust; it poses a threat to the national security. You have to talks with your citizens no matter you like their protests against court [decisions] or not. Otherwise, you will face a surge of protests, because silencing things will get you no good.
Before the start of your trial in Odesa’s Court of Appeals you called on your supporters discouraging them from coming its hearings because of quarantine that restricted access to the courtroom. On the other hand, courts issued rulings placing the most active protestors at the president’s office under house arrest. Does it mean that these arrests prove effective? No more protests coming?
I don’t think that those calls can be interpreted this way. Look, everything has to have its logic. It makes no sense for me to have people coming to Odesa for my appeal hearings. Having journalists there is more than enough as long as the trial gets coverage. Plus, time and vigor of people are not limitless. And this is why I asked them not to come to the trial. Plus, you can’t give the officials another reason to blame us, activists, of exercising pressure on courts. We have never pressed courts and are not planning to do so in future. We want them to be transparent and fair. I think that we have showed it. The officials must do their best to make our judiciary process be in line with that.
Do you know about the Prosecutor General’s statement claiming she was going to provide her personal control over the case investigating assaults on Sternenko?
I am skeptical about it. It gives the impression that is being made for the effect, to give the illusion of balance. Offences against me are under investigation, with everyone being equal before the law. The same trick was used last year. In few weeks before my premeditated murder indictment, the SBU presented the charges against the person who assailed me. The guy had escaped from Ukraine long before. And nothing happened. He was not put on the ‘wanted’ list. The assailant had to face some measure of restraint. But they failed to choose any because the prosecutor didn’t show up at the court hearing. And this is the very same prosecutor who now claims that I am guilty of premeditated murder in the situation of my self-defence. In addition, the SBU has not received the investigation documents on the cases when I was assailed. There is only the 1st and the 3rd cases. The second case was closed by National police last year. I found out about in on April 19.
How come so?
It is a very serious investigation, for real. There is substantive evidence on the police involvement. I saw the case materials and can talk about it. [It cites that] my car was followed, and there was a car owned by Ruslan Forostyak, Odesa’s police advisor, used by my assailants when fleeing the scene. The material evidence of relation to this case was stolen; it was eventually rediscovere at the police [office].
Is it a mobile phone you are talking about?
Yes, it was the assailant’s mobile phone. After Venediktova was made a chief prosecutor, she passed this case where police was entangled, to .. police. In other words, police is investigating involvement of police [officials] attempting to murder me. I accidentally learnt that the case was closed. I wrote several inquiries to National police to find out at what stage the investigation was. They just ignored it.
What do you mean by ‘ignoring’?
Police do not answer my requests. As if I never filed them. For example, in 2018 Illya Kiva came at me with threats in the investigator’s office. Police refused to open a probe. I had the court ruling biding them to do so but they keep ignoring it as well.
Well, in the morning of April 19, I logged into Court Rulings Register, entered the listing number of my case and found several new rulings. It turned out that the judge Oleksiy Sokolov who was allegedly linked to Viktor Medvedchuk, had refused to extend the investigation terms citing two reasons. The first one claimed the investigator filed the late request to the court though, according to the law, it is done within 5 days before the expiration, the latest. The investigator had done so a day before [the expiration date]. The second one said that the investigator failed to explain why there had been no ongoing investigation. Police hadn’t even interrogated the security guard of Forostyak, the assailant’s accomplice. The investigators had known where he was but failed to interrogate him.
Was the assailant interrogated?
They tried but he didn’t want to say anything. I don’t know if Forostyak was interrogated. There were no investigative actions several last months, it is for sure. Venediktova’s statement is all well but the case was closed. No one of those involved in the second attack on me will be held accountable, with the exception of the assailant whom I captured, whose case is now pending.
How many cases are there citing you as a suspect?
None. There are no charges. The first case is abduction that got me 7 years in jail and confiscation of half my properties. The second one is premeditated murder that cites me killing an assailant who tried to kill me. The third one is drug trafficking alleging that I was involved in protection racket for drug-trafficking in Odesa. The last one was launched when I was in custody in relation to the fourth case; it is about Letniy Theater story where i faced charges for disorderly conduct.
Is it the case investigating the assault on Dmytro Golovin, Odesa’s Police Chief Officer?
No, it is about the event at Letniy Theatre in Odesa in 2017 the Odesa city hall led by mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov granted housing development permits that would see a new development project in place of the theater cite, which was unlawful. It was the project by Volodymyr Galanternyk, the developer and close business partner of Trukhanov.
Did they want to build a shopping center in place of Letnyi Theater?
33,000 sq.m. big. People came to protest. It produced no effect. During the second protest police provoked clashes. I was live-streaming the event, but they detained me on charges of me inciting riot. I was taken into custody with the bail set at 600,000 hryvnas, and later released on bail with the money provided by Maksym Stepanov, the regional state administration head at the time. In few days, we lodged the appeal and the money was returned to Stepanov. At about the time, when I was in custody for few days, they opened the case on my drug-trafficking. As for the evidence. There are only words of some drug dealer citing another one who allegedly claimed that I had been involved in protection racket. At the same time, both of them, when interrogated, said that they didn’t know me personally. By the way, the Letnyi Theater case charges were reclassified as disorderly conduct.
Were there any victims in the Letnyi Theater case?
No. There is only Mr.Golovin claiming that I had kicked him in a knee, though he suffered no bodily harm. Here is another interesting fact. Oleksandr Isaykul, who attacked me, was charged on Art.296 of Criminal Code that is cited as disorderly conduct that employed an earlier produced item to inflict bodily harm. In other words, he wanted to mime or kill me. And he is not looked for. Meanwhile, the protesters at Bankova were indicted on the same grounds meaning that the state compares an attempt to murder an activist to spraying graffiti at the President’s office entrance. How can we call it justice?
Can you give more detail on drug trafficking charges?
I made a special video for my Youtube channel about it.
Did “Pravyi Sector” and you trash the drug-selling business cites in Odessa in 2014?
It wasn’t just me and ‘Pravyi Sector’. There were different organization there [doing so]. We got to shut down four drug-selling businesses. At the moment, you could find stores in Odesa that would openly sell synthetic drugs. Anyone could buy them and sellers bore no responsibility. At first, there were other groups that got to shut down such places. We came to help. I remember my friend telling me a story about his 11 years old brother who got to buy a small packet of drugs for 200 hryvnas. Finally, the Ministry of Internal Affairs responded [to complaints] and the drug got listed among the prohibited substances. The drug dealers were convicted and landed in jail. Some time later, when I was in custody after the Letnyi Theater events, those guys were approached by police telling them ‘Sternenko must by punished.’
What are your relations with Stepanov?
There are no relations. The last time I talked to him was in 2017, when he was regional state administration head.
And how about the self-defence case?
The case is in court, we have examined the written evidence, and the prosecutors are supposed to call their witnesses. I have no idea who it could be. Witnesses are people that can provide important evidence. But nobody will be able to claim that I attacked the assailant.
Weren’t there any witnesses?
Several people saw the assault at me. First of all, it was my girlfriend Natalya. There were also two neighbors from my housing. But the things they bring up against me…
“Caught up with the person and murdered him”?
Yes, it is their claim. Yet there is no evidence of it because it didn’t happen. After the prosecutors call their witnesses, we will call ours, then we will look into written evidence, and then cross-examination. I think that the ruling is coming by the end of the year.
What are your expectations [on the possible verdict]?
If there is no political pressure coming, though it sounds as a joke here in Ukraine, I will be acquitted. And this is not my position as a defendant. It is the position of former Prosecutor General Deputy Viktor Trepak, who made statements about the pressure from Venediktova in this case. This is the position of the prosecutor who produced a 13 pages long written statement reasoning why my actions were not criminal. After that statement my case was passed to another prosecutor, who soon ‘saw’ my criminal offence. The first prosecutor didn’t even come to testify in Shevchenkivsky court on Veneditkova’s pressure when the court was initially deciding on the preventive measure in the self-defence case. This story really has no precedent. I lodged two complaints on this case with the European Court of Human Rights. I think we will win both. In the case of Sherbych abduction we are also filing a complaint to European Court of Human Rigths, once the appeal case here is settled.
Speaking about the abduction story. Do you know Sherbych?
Well, we might have met each other before the ‘abduction’. About the time, dates when the abduction allegedly took place. I was the head of Odesa’s ‘Pravyi Sector’ and had meetings with different people for different reasons. And, honeslty, didn’t really remember much about Sherbych. Plus, they came with the charges in half a year later, searched the place, stole money, put a bag over my head and took to the Odesa OCCB office. Okay, if they had come with the charges few days later after the alleged ‘abduction’, I would have been able to tell where I was at the time of the events. Soon we will have new hearings and I will tell more on this case there. Now it would be premature to talk about it.
How long have you known Ruslan Demchuk?
Since 2014, when he joined ‘Pravyi Sector’.
There were allegations claming that you failed to clearly state what you were doing on the day of Sherbych’s abduction
Yes, I didn’t tell where I had been back then. You could ask yourself where you were on April 25, 2015 at 19:30. Will you be able to remember? This is the principle of ‘rotten herring’ implying that you can put blame for Sherbych’s abduction on virtually anyone. And the person would have to convince others for a long time that he is not guilty. To prove one’s guilt is a prosecutor’s duty. But the latter never tried to do so because it is just impossible.
Did you kidnap Sherbych?
Why would I need it? Just for 300 hryvnas? It is what they claim in court. It is absurd to kidnpan a pro-Russian ‘titushka’ to rob him of 300 hryvnas.
In court they also talked about your hostile attitude to the ‘Rodina’ party and Sherbych was the member of that party.
The court claims it to be the aggravation But ‘Rodina’ is not a pro-Russian party, it is Russian party. Its members are fighting against Ukraine in the occupied Donbas. Vadym Savenko, the former Odesa regional council representative, is now heading one of the so-called DNR battalions. Ihor Markov, the leader of this party is now residing in Moscow and argues that Ukraine must be destroyed. Naturally, I will say negative things about it. Much like about the Communist party or Party of Regions, and other pro-Russian structures. If the court sees is as aggravation, it is okay, I can cite more of such aggravating circumstances. And I am proud that my negative attitude to pro-Russian political forces is taken in court as aggravation.
Did you have any conflicts with Sherbych?
No, I didn’t.
Are you in touch with Andriy Antonenko?
He is in custody and it is hard to do so. While I was in Kyiv, now I am under house arrest in Odesa, I tried to come to the court hearings, mentioned him in my videos and called on people to come to the events in his support. I believe that Andriy was put in jail unlawfully and there is no evidence of his guilt. In my case aggravation comes from my disliking of pro-Russian forces, in Andriy’s situation they cite his service in the military forces as aggravation. It is absurd. Following this logic you can send to jail anyone serving in police, National Guards or the military.
Antonenko is political prisoner. He was made a scapegoat in Pavlo Sheremet case at that briefing Arsen Avakov and Volodymyr Zelensky attended. Release of Antonenko would mean that the minister and president were in wrong coming to that briefing. This is why politicians, state officials can’t comment on criminal cases. This way they put pressure on courts. There are substantial practices of European Court of Human Rights on this issue. Court officials and investigation will pay no attention to evidence when ministers and president come commenting on the case. The former will care for how their decision is going to be judged. I think when the European Court of Human Rights looks into Andriy’s case, Ukraine will lose it. And ‘Riff’ will get a huge compensation for this case sees 100% political pressure. And it’s not necessarily about Avakov or Zelensky calling judges by phone. The fact itself of them attending that briefing is pressure.
Did Zelesky really offer you an official post?
When and how did it happen? What kind of a post? Zelensky has never denied this.
Yulya Mednel, his press secretary, did though she wasn’t present at that meeting. There was Andriy Bohdan, the SBU head Ivan Bakanov, and Zelensky. There were some other officials, I can’t remember their names. There were, at least, eight witnesses to that talk though, except for Masi Nayem, I can’t give their names because it wasn’t a public meeting for them, it would be improper on my part to tell. It was on the eve of the parliamentary elections. And Zelensky asked me there if I had security. And then said something like this: “Maybe we should not waste money on the security? Will you go to Odesa to head the SBU? You will help the country. You are fighting against Russia, aren’t you?” I was confused and failed to give the answer right there. Zelensky suggested that Bakanov should to talk it over with me, I promised to consider it. But it never went beyond that. I don’t want to work in the SBU.
Did you watch Arsen Avakov’s interview? The one where he complains about him ‘suffering’ from activists?
If the Internal Minister says that he suffers because of his post, nothing can hold him from resigning. He is not doing us a service. I am confident that Ukraine has very many people who can manage his duties better and cheaper. If the minister is suffering from us, maybe he should quit. Why is he torturing himself?
Have you got any plans of going into politics?
Now I definitely haven’t got any. I am 26, I want to live a normal life. And they are regularly trying to drag me into politics. Plus, I have to defend myself in these idiotic criminal cases. I want to finish the university and get a degree in international law and lead a quiet life, to produce my blog. What will come of it, we will see. I have had proposals to run for parliament and to join Zelensky’s party list of candidates. Yet I don’t want to. I am too young, I lack competencies. And to run for parliament just in the name of it, well, now you can see how it works in our Verkhovna Rada.