Kherson: Displaced Justice During Russian Occupation
Judge describes how the court system continued to operate, even after officials were forced to flee for fear of retribution.
Kherson was the only regional centre that Russia has managed to capture during its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, controlling the city of 300,000 people from March 1 until Ukrainian troops liberated it in early November.
In the first days of the full-scale war, the Kherson city court continued to function, before its jurisdiction was transferred to district courts in Kryvyi Rih and later Odesa.
Judge Dmytro Hontar, chairman of the Kherson city court, told IWPR’s Iryna Domashchenko about the pressures the justice system faced during the occupation.
IWPR: What happened when the full-scale invasion began?
Dmytro Hontar: On February 24, we all went to work and continued to perform our duties. We made decisions that were necessary at that time: we extended terms of detention, resolved issues with document circulation and issued personal files to employees because we did not know what the future would hold for us. In fact, the last day we worked was Monday, February 28. Then we decided on the issue of extending the terms of detention.
If those persons who were under arrest were to be released, the city would also be overloaded with crimes and this would lead to an even greater collapse. Therefore, we decided to go to work and continued to perform our duties [until February 28].
Did you have any instructions on steps the Kherson city court and judges should take in the event of war?
By March 1, the city was already occupied. I had no guidance on how to proceed in this situation. The recommendations came several weeks after the events of February 24, [when] we were advised to leave if possible, to take our mantles, badges and cases with us. Before that, we acted at our own discretion. We tried to eliminate electronic media with internal document circulation or move them to safe places, because we understood that there could be certain consequences for entering the system. The electronic versions of the cases themselves are in the D-3 system in the cloud storage. The main thing is that it cannot be accessed with a password.
How many cases were pending in court on February 24?
Given the specialisation, each working judge had approximately thousands of civil cases pending. And if the judge considered criminal proceedings, then there were about 500 cases per judge. Twenty judges worked in the Kherson city court, three judges exercised the authority of investigative judges. We can roughly talk about more than 10,000 cases in court proceedings at that time.
How was the suspension of court work resolved?
On March 6, by the decision of the chairman of the supreme court, a decision was made to change jurisdiction to the Saksaganskyi district court [in Kryvyi Rih city in the Dnipro region]. That is, all Kherson cases under jurisdiction were redirected there. And already on March 7, at a meeting of judges, a decision was made to suspend the activities of the Kherson city court. We understood that we could not exercise our powers. I understand that later it became obvious that the Saksaganskyi district court could not take on the great number of cases; we were statistically among the ten busiest courts in Ukraine when the Kherson city court exercised its powers.
In fact, those cases that remained in the Kherson city court in paper form were not transferred to Kryvyi Rih or Odesa, because it was technically impossible.
How did the transfer process to territory controlled by Ukraine work?
Everyone understood that the activity of the court had stopped, the city was already occupied, and roadblocks were set up. I understood that the city was becoming more and more dangerous for me and my family. Acquaintances called me and said that there was an opportunity to go to Mykolaiv. At that time, not everyone shared my opinion that it was necessary to leave, even my colleagues pointed out that it was necessary to stay for patriotic reasons, to somehow protect Kherson. It's patriotic, but we're not the military. All the more so since clarifications had already arrived from the higher authorities on how to act and, if possible, leave.
At first, staying in the city was justified, but then it became dangerous. Therefore I left for Mykolaiv, and then to friends in western Ukraine. It was the middle of March. Subsequently… the Supreme Court clarified that suspended judges must apply for secondment by a certain date and a list of areas where they can be employed was also provided. I have been in the Shevchenkivskyi court [in Kyiv] since July. I'm lucky, I actually do the same job - my specialisation here is the same as in the Kherson city court: I work as an investigative judge.
In which courts were war crimes recorded on the territory of the Kherson Region considered?
It can be Kyiv, Odesa and Kryvyi Rih - it depends on where the body investigating the case is registered and actually located, [including] the security service of Ukraine and national police investigators.
I am currently considering cases concerning Kherson, for example, regarding treason. I have not yet had Kherson cases regarding violations of the laws and customs of war, but cases under this article from other regions of Ukraine have been considered.