Struggle surrounds Ukraine extradition request

Alexander Pertzov, former coach of the Ukrainian all-star Taekwondo team, who immigrated to Israel in 1999, is wanted for murder in Ukraine.

Alexander Pertzov 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alexander Pertzov 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The extradition of an immigrant from the Ukraine who is wanted for murder in his home country is raising the issue of whether Israel can be sure he will be provided with a fair trial in his former country. On Sunday, Jerusalem District Court Judge Zvi Segal is due to hand down his decision on the state's request to extradite Alexander Pertzov, former coach of the Ukrainian all-star Taekwondo team, who immigrated to Israel in 1999 and performed his military service in an IDF combat unit. "This is the most problematic extradition case we have seen in the past few years," Pertzov's lawyers, David Halevi and Vadim Shub, of the Jerusalem branch of the Public Defender's Office, told The Jerusalem Post last week. But representatives of the International Department of the Justice Ministry, who filed the extradition request, say there is nothing unusual about this case. "We examined it in a very detailed manner," said department head Gal Levertov. Going by statistics, the chances that Pertzov will not be extradited are slim. Over the past 10 years, ever since the High Court of Justice rejected an American request to extradite Samuel Sheinbein and helped trigger a diplomatic crisis between the two countries, the court has not rejected a single extradition request filed by the state. But there are three main reasons, according to Halevi and Shub, why the court should decide otherwise this time. The first involves the allegedly highly problematic evidence that the Ukrainian government has supplied to the Justice Ministry. The second is Ukraine's troubling record on human rights and government corruption. Also at issue is the government's general policy of not questioning the evidence provided by states requesting extradition, even when questions are begging to be asked, as they allegedly are in the Pertzov case. In 2001, the Ukrainian authorities informed Israel that Pertzov was wanted for the murder of a policeman which had taken place four years earlier. The authorities said the allegation arose from testimony by two men who had been with Pertzov on the night he allegedly shot the policeman. According to Halevi and Shub, the Ukrainian authorities did not "provide any explanation of the breakthrough in the investigation or the way they found the witnesses four years after the incident. We know the witnesses were originally interrogated as suspects but we don't know how long they were kept in detention, and whether pressure was applied to make them accuse Pertzov." The authorities also did not explain why they released the witnesses conditionally, even though they claimed they were with Pertzov when he allegedly killed the policeman. During the investigation, Pertzov's lawyers received taped testimony from the two witnesses, Maksim Apter and Igor Viskrevitz, as well as Oleg Shtenko, a friend who provided an alibi for the suspect. Apter said in a taped and filmed statement to the Justice Ministry that police had arrested him in October 2001 after planting a pistol and explosives among his possessions. He said he was held in jail for seven months during which the police tried to pin the policeman's murder first on him, then on Viskrevitz and finally on Pertzov. Viskrevitz charged that he had been a fugitive from justice when he was picked up four years after the killing, and the police used his predicament to blackmail him into fingering Pertzov. Both maintained that Pertzov was innocent in their taped testimony. Halevi and Shub said there was no doubt the testimonies were authentic because the pictures of Apter and Viskrevitz in the tape tallied with still photos the Justice Ministry had of the two witnesses. Meanwhile, Shtenko testified that he had told Ukrainian police that Pertzov had been with him at a Taekwondo practice at the time of the murder. When the Israeli prosecutors asked the Ukrainian authorities about these testimonies, the authorities claimed all three witnesses had disappeared in the meantime. Shtenko then sent a second tape, telling Israeli officials he had not disappeared but that since sending his first testimony, he had been summoned to the Ukrainian prosecution and questioned about his account. The officials had hinted they would link him to the murder if he persisted in providing an alibi for Pertzov, he charged. Halevi and Shub pointed out that according to the Extradition Law, Israel may only extradite a suspect if it believes there is sufficient evidence to try him for the alleged crime in an Israeli court. However, if the only witnesses who claimed Pertzov had killed the policeman had ostensibly disappeared, and there was no other evidence linking Pertzov to the murder, he could not have been tried in Israel. Not only that, but the one witness who had not disappeared would have testified for the defense. In its second argument, Pertzov's attorneys maintained their client would not get a fair trial in Ukraine and faced the prospect of torture and anti-Semitic treatment. Many state and private international organizations have written highly damning reports about the state of human rights in Ukraine, including one by the Council of Europe's European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. "The alleged forms of ill-treatment mainly consisted of punches, kicks and baton blows," the Committee wrote in a report published on June 20. "Allegations were also made about slaps on the ears with open hands, painfully handcuffing (behind the back with one arm over the shoulder,) belt or baseball bat blows. Further, mention was made of a metal weight placed on a part of the body, of asphyxiation using a gas mask and of being beaten while handcuffed, with hands and feet tied or maintained in a hyperextended position, or of a stick being inserted into the anus. In some cases, the severity of the ill-treatment alleged was such that it could be construed as torture." Halevi and Shub also pointed out that Ukraine does not extradite its citizens to Israel and that therefore there was no genuine reciprocity between the two countries. Finally, if Pertzov is extradited, he will have to serve his sentence in Ukraine because he was not an Israeli citizen when he allegedly committed the murder. Levertov explained that Ukraine does not extradite suspects to Israel just as all countries using Continental Law do not, including most European countries. Common Law countries, including Israel, do extradite suspects because otherwise they would have to subpoena all the witnesses in the case, with all the prohibitive cost to the state that this would entail. Secondly, Israel does not have to determine whether the evidence against the suspect is sufficient to warrant putting him on trial here. It is "only" obliged to determine whether there is enough prima facie evidence to justify conducting a legal procedure, a lower requirement threshold. Levertov added that the fact that the witnesses had reversed their testimony was not an unusual occurrence in criminal procedures. The contradictions in testimony should be addressed by the Ukrainian court that tried Pertzov. As for the critical report by the Council of Europe, Levertov said the fact is that Ukraine was still a member of the Council. Had its human rights record been unacceptable, it would either not have been accepted to the Council in the first place or ejected afterwards. Regarding this last argument, Halevi and Shub replied that membership in the Council of Europe was strongly influenced by political considerations. The West wants to keep Ukraine out of the Russian orbit and is therefore willing to bend over backwards regarding the red lines it sets for it.