Upholding the rule of law in Ukraine

11 Apr 24

Viktor Ovsyannikov has been practicing law as a public defender since 2018 with the Free Legal Aid Centre in Kyiv. He characterizes his career choice as "addicting," and one that causes his mother to occasionally "drink buckets of sedatives."

One of his first clients was the disgraced ex-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, accused of treason in absentia. Yanukovych had retained five lawyers, but they left the session in protest. As a consequence, the criminal court asked the Free Legal Aid Center for a state-funded lawyer to protect the defendant’s rights.

Ovsyannikov was posted. He describes the experience: “The [Center] never gives the client's name first. They say you have an appointment for the defense tomorrow at 9 am. 'We'll send you the file and you'll see.' When I saw [that it was the Yanukovych case] my sleep vanished just like that." (Yanukovych was sentenced to a 13-year prison term for high treason, and is now living in exile in Russia.)

Like most Ukrainians, Ovsyannikov recalls with vivid detail the events of his life on February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

'My wife got me out of bed at half past four... On the 25th I wrote an application asking to be mobilised. I was lucky to have enough small arms. They formed a unit of us and put us at checkpoints in Kyiv.'

But soon, he had to return to his professional activities. In March, the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine, the main intelligence agency of Ukraine] started identifying traitors, spies and looters. There were few lawyers in Kyiv at the time. Ovsyannikov started getting calls for cases where a defence counsel was needed at state expense.

Despite martial law, the obligation to have a lawyer remained. He accepted a power of attorney from the Legal Aid Centre and got back to work. "So, one day, I checked out from my checkpoint and left for the detention centre. I visited my client in uniform and said: ‘I'm a lawyer’. I still had a machine gun hanging on my shoulder," he recalls.

Ovsyannikov's first high-profile assignment after the invasion was the case of Vadim Shishimarin. At the age of 21, Shishimarin was found guilty of war crimes for killing an unarmed civilian. He was given a life sentence, in the first verdict of its kind after Russia's invasion. The sergeant from Siberia confessed to killing a 62-year-old civilian. Shishimarin claimed he fired his weapon under pressure from another soldier, as they tried to retreat and escape back into Russia in a stolen car on February 28.

Ovsyannikov appealed the verdict, arguing that undue "societal pressure" weighed on the decision. Thanks to his efforts, the verdict was reduced from life in prison to 15 years. Ovsyannikov explained, "I understood that there was no way he would be acquitted. My colleagues joked that an acquittal could only be pronounced after the Ukrainian flag had been changed to the Russian flag. It was not advisable to drag out the case and send it back to the first instance court."

He paid a price for his advocacy, enduring threats and abuse.

[T]here was a lot of dirt on social media against him. He received phone calls appealing to his conscience, and threats. He says he did not take it seriously: 'If a person wants to do something, they will not flaunt it, but simply do it.'

In his opinion, the majority of citizens in Ukraine still understand the role of the bar and that everyone has the right to defence.