This article was first published in January 2014 by journalists, Adaria Gushtyn and Yegor Martinovich for the Belarusian news site: Our News (nn.by). It is one of three articles by Adaria Gushtyn, Russian language winner of PRI’s first competition for investigative journalism on the death penalty and life imprisonment.
On 26 November, another death sentence was handed down in Belarus: this is the fourth since the beginning of 2013. The case of 53-year old Eduard Lykov, who was convicted of five counts of murder, was only made public after the Court had passed sentence. The authorities only made this information available to the media after human rights campaigners had separately announced details of the case themselves.
The statement put out by the authorities was shocking. It turned out that an innocent man had been imprisoned for two of the murders that Lykov had committed.
Detectives alleged that the wrongfully convicted man had murdered his 38-year old brother while drunk. The paper Sovetskaia Belorussiya joked that: “He had convinced himself that he had killed his own brother, in revenge for his brother killing their mother. He served his time, and then was genuinely amazed to find out that he hadn’t in fact had anything to do with the killings in the first place.”
“Convinced himself”? Read on to find out how and who forced him to “convince himself.”
“Tell us how they beat you”
We caught up with this person who was punished for having done absolutely nothing at all, and then appeared to be “genuinely amazed” about it.
The victim of the mistakes made by the police and the courts is Mikhail Gladkii. After serving his wrongful prison sentence, he returned to where he was born, the village of Kirshi near Zaslavl.
Was he ready to talk about his case?
“Tell everyone about how they beat you, and forced you to sign documents, chained you to the radiator and refused to let you go to the toilet!” Maria is the first to speak: she and Mikhail live together.
Mikhail says nothing for a while, and then thoughtfully turns the conversation to the tragic day in 2002 which split his life into “Before” and “After.”
Boastfulness that cost a life
Mikhail’s brother Viktor had served time in a penal colony with Eduard Lykov. Viktor used to brag to anyone who would listen about the well-heeled life he led on the outside. But when Lykov came to visit his old cell mate, all was not as it had been described. Viktor had actually been bragging about the situation of his brother who lived separately with their mother.
The friends got drunk and began arguing. Mrs Gladkii tried in vain to defend her son. Lykov stabbed the elderly woman eight times, and them murdered his old cell mate with an axe.
The murderer did not leave immediately. He stayed the night in the Gladkii’s house and then stole away from the scene of the crime in the morning.
The day after the violent murders, Mrs Gladkii’s elder son Mikhail called at the house. Mikhail recounts what happened: “I came round when she received her pension to use part of it to go and do her food shopping. I come in – it was about three in the afternoon – Mum’s lying in a pool of blood across the sofa. And next to her there’s my brother …”
It’s not easy for him to say this out loud. As he remembers his mother, his voice falters and his eyes well up with tears.
Mikhail thought that it was Viktor who had killed their mother. He had no idea that Lykov might have been involved.
Viktor’s criminal past
Mrs Gladkii had come to Mikhail on more than one occasion with bruises – Viktor used to beat her, take her money and spend it on drink. After being released from the penal colony, he had never worked anywhere.
Viktor had gone to prison in the past for stealing money and jewellery from Mikhail. Mikhail recounts the story: “Then there was the ring that our father had given my wife. I went to my brother for a week. I said to him ‘Give it back, or at least tell me who you sold it to so I can buy it back.” He just effed and blinded at me. So my wife brought charges against him.
Viktor was then sent to prison for two years.
Viktor’s own wife was not going to wait around for him to return from prison. Immediately he was arrested, she filed for divorce. She stayed with their children in the flat in Zaslavl. When he was released, he moved in with his mother.
When he saw the body of his murdered mother lying there, Mikhail lost control.
“I hit my brother twice out of grief and frustration, even though, by then, he was already dead too.”
“You hit him with your fists?”
“With an axe…”
Later, he says, experts established that his brother had been murdered the day before that.
Mikhail then called the ambulance and the police himself. He was immediately declared a suspect, even though he had an alibi, and other elements of the case against him did not add up.
“The place was knee-deep in blood – but there wasn’t a drop on me.” Mikhail lists each of the weak points of the prosecution’s arguments, one after the other.
The key witness to testify in favour of Mikhail at trial was Maria, the woman he now lives with. On the day the bodies were found, he had been insulating her shed. He left Maria’s to go to his mother’s house but ran back immediately and told her what he had seen.
“He was at my house for the whole day. There’s no way he could have killed them,” Maria explains. But her evidence was ignored by detectives, prosecutors and the judge alike.
There were other witnesses too. One of Mikhail’s neighbours Vasilii said that he had seen Mikhail walking home with someone he didn’t recognise. But not only did they not call Vasilii to give evidence in court; detectives never even interviewed him during the investigation.
Defence without a lawyer
After Mikhail had been arrested, he was psychiatrically assessed in Novinki. “They took an xray of my ribcage there too, as the police had already let rip on me with their rifle butts.”
We ask him again to be sure:
“So the police beat you after your arrest?”
“I don’t know.”
Mikhail recounts several times how the psychiatric tests were done. “The only thing I can remember about everything that happened in Novinki is how I was sitting in front of a plate of pasta. Maybe they slipped something into my water? In any case, when they took me away from there, I couldn’t have cared less what they were going to do to me next.“
He spent six months in solitary confinement at Volodarsk.
“I’m not crazy – I’m not!”
It’s no surprise that the court case was brief.
“Did you confess to everything they accused you of?”
“After what happened in Novinki, I was ready to confess to anything … I’d seen how the mad people were treated there, and I was worried that they’d declare me mad too.”
“Is that why you confessed and pleaded guilty?”
“Yes, that’s why.”
Mikhail starts his sentence three times, but can’t continue. Then he catches his breath. “But I’m not crazy – I’m not!”
A Borough Court in Minsk sentenced Mikhail to eight years in prison. The prosecution argued for an additional year in prison. Mikhail had his sentence reduced for good behaviour. He served out five years in prison and just over 18 months in a penal work programme – he was fined a quarter of his salary throughout the 18 months.
My wife waited for me and died
Mikhail does not say much about his time in prison: “I kept strong. No-one could twist me around their little finger… I went to work, I completed three education courses.”
He began serving out his sentence in a high security jail in Ivatsevichi, and then moved to a medium security facility at Bobruisk.
When Mikhail was in prison, his wife lived with Maria. His wife had a heart condition. She had had a heart attack when she was 35 and then a stroke. Three months after Mikhail was released from prison, she died. Mikhail sold his large house and moved in with his neighbour Maria. “What was I going to do rattling round on my own with 100 square metres of space there?”
Maria adds: “When his wife was dying, she said to me – ‘Don’t leave my husband in the lurch. I’m worried about him, worried he might hang himself.’ And I haven’t left him in the lurch. We’ve always been good friends.”
A new life
Even before he did his military service, Mikhail had finished college in Minsk and qualified as a mechanic specialising in power lines for lighting systems. He then worked for 20 years in the timber sorting factory in Zaslavl. He had no criminal record before 2003.
When he was released, he went back to work.
Two years after Mikhail had been released, the authorities informed him that he was innocent of the crimes he had gone to prison for. He found out when the trial of Eduard Lykov had already begun. Mikhail attended Lykov’s trial, his head bowed, saying almost nothing.
“On 26 November, the court condemned Lykov to death,” we tell Mikhail, who did not go to the last day of the trial.
“What do you mean ‘to death’ – we don’t have the death penalty in Belarus,” he says with with surprise.
Mikhail had been convinced that Lykov had received a life sentence.
Legally, Mikhail has the right to compensation for moral damages, the physical suffering he underwent, for loss of earnings during his imprisonment, and the training courses he was excluded from at work. His director at work calculates that for loss of earnings alone during his time in prison, he is entitled to more than 310 million roubles [about £4.6 million].
How to receive compensation
According to lawyer Pavel Sapelko, there are no general rules governing the level at which compensation for moral damages should be set. Courts come to individual decisions based on the merits of the case. If Mikhail wanted to ensure that members of the police and court systems were held responsible for the mistaken decisions they made which led to his wrongful imprisonment, he would have to lodge a complaint at the State Investigative Committee itself.
Sapelko notes that by no means every citizen who is wrongfully arrested or convicted in Belarus goes to court to enforce their rights. “Some are worried that their cases might be reopened and a further decision made against them; others are simply not prepared to run the gauntlet of either the civil or criminal courts for a second time, ” he says.
Will Mikhail lodge papers at court to apply for compensation?
“Definitely,” comes the answer. “Because it was an unjust punishment.”
The five murders of Eduard Lykov
2002: Village of Kirshi, Minsk District. Stabs the mother of his former cell mate and then kills the cell mate himself with an axe.
2004: Village of Novaya Gozha, Grodnenskii District. Kills the friend of the woman he is living with, and buries his body in the woods.
2011: Village of Novaya Gozha, Grodnenskii District. Beats his house mate with a metal dumb-bell and then strangles her.
2011: Village of Zhdanovichi, Minsk District. Beats a drinking partner to death with a metal tube.
All the murders were committed while Lykov was drunk.
In addition, Lykov was convicted several times for theft, robbery, violent disorder and non-payment of child support. From the time of his first killing, it took nine years to see him convicted of murder. During that time, he served a number of short sentences for other offences.