Ukraine, Luhansk - The doorsteps of the local court in the eastern city of Luhansk witnessed an unusual scene on Sept. 12.
A dozen people gathered there demanded a fair trial for a 20-year-old foreign student from Nigeria. Opposite them, a group of 5 ultranationalists demanded a death sentence, despite the fact that capital punishment has been abolished in Ukraine.
Olaolu Sunkanmi Femi has spent more than 10 months behind bars in pre-trial detention for allegedly attempting to kill 4 local men with a broken-off bottle neck. If found guilty, he could face life in prison in a case which human rights activists say is a set-up.
On Nov. 5, 2011 Olaolu and his friend were coming to their classmates’ apartment. They saw a group of 6 young locals in the courtyard. The versions of what happened next vary.
Olaolu and his friend’s story seem pretty typical for Ukraine, where racist attacks are far from being exceptional.
“Olaolu says he and his friend were drunk, and were coming to their friend’s apartment. In the yard they were verbally abused by a group of drinking young people who yelled racist slurs about monkeys, Africa and the like. When Olaolu replied angrily, some of the group became aggressive, chased them and beat them up,” says Maksym Butkevych, coordinator of the No Borders human rights center, which is monitoring the case.
His friend fell on the ground, but Olaolu tried to defend himself with the neck of a bottle – all that was left from a broken whiskey bottle he was taking to his friend’s.
The locals’ side of the story is exactly the opposite. Dmytro Lemenchuk says he was attacked by Olaolu for no reason when he was leaving the building. As his friends – Artem Loboda, Vitali Gaman and Inna Pashkova - rushed to the rescue, they were all attacked by Olaolu as well – beaten and cut with the bottle neck.
The prosecutor claims Olaolu was running after each of his victims with the bottleneck and threatening to kill them.
Why would Onaolu do something like this?
“For the reasons of obvious disrespect for the society,” reads the official accusation.
However, during the last court hearing on Sept. 12 Vitali Gaman and Artem Loboda changed the details of their story, and Artem Loboda claimed he did not remember most of what happened that evening.
Olaolu was arrested the next day and accused of attempted murder of 4 people. Since then, he has been in pre-trial detention and missed his final year in Luhansk State University. Since the prosecutor did not assign an English interpreter to the case – a common problem in cases involving foreigners – the hearing was postponed for months, and Olaolu was not able to understand all the details of what was going on.
Aside from the lack of motive for Olaolu to commit the crime and confused details of the alleged victim's testimony, there is another reason for human rights activists to consider the case a setup.
Dmytro Lemenchuk, a key alleged victim in the case, is from a family of policemen, and his mother is an officer in the very police station where the case was investigated.
“She is a major in the criminal investigation department,” said Tatyana Pogukai, spokesperson for the Luhansk police. However, Pogukai does not see the conflict of interest and says “there is no way ordinary policeman could have influenced the investigation.”
Despite the attention of the Nigerian embassy and media, and a statement from Ukrainian ombudsman Valeriya Lutkovska, the Luhansk prosecutor sees nothing suspicious in the case. According to their Sept. 1 statement, none of Olaolu’s victims were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, “while Onaolu was under both.”
This does not match the testimony of Loboda and Gaman who said they were drinking beer that evening.
The prosecutor also claims the victims could not have abused Nigerians for racial reasons since “they lived in the same buildings with foreign students and were on friendly terms with some of them, and never conflicted with them.”
Dr. Aniki Johnson, head of the Nigerian community in Ukraine who visited Luhansk says Olaolu can get a fair investigation and trial only if the public demands it.
“The most he can be accused of is self defense. Instead, he has already spent 10 months in jail and can face a lifetime in prison,” says Dr. Johnson.
Activists and African community members have held protests in several Ukrainian cities and promise more action on Sept.28, the day of the next court hearing.
Related story: Nigerian Student Facing Life Imprisonment in Ukraine