The Dubious Case and the Odd Extradition That Led to an Israeli's Murder Conviction in Ukraine

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A screengab of Alexander Pertsov in court in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. Credit: Screengrab of TSN television

In the autumn of 1999, Alexander Pertsov immigrated to Israel. He was 24, a European taekwondo champion and coach of Ukraine’s national team in that sport. He lived in Ashkelon, did his army service in the armored corps and then taught taekwondo to children for a living.

But in 2007, he was arrested due to an extradition request from Ukraine, where he was suspected of killing a policeman.

The policeman was killed in Dnipropetrovsk in 1997. The case remained unsolved until 2001, when Ukrainian police arrested two suspects in an armed robbery. Under questioning, they said they had been with Pertsov on the day of the murder.

Their story sounded like something out of a thriller: Their boss at the company where they worked had ordered them to tail one of the firm’s shareholders. So, one November day, they and Pertsov conducted a stakeout at a wooden shack in the courtyard of a building in Dnipropetrovsk.

Meanwhile, two patrolmen had been called to a robbery at another building on the same street. They approached the three men and asked to see their ID cards. When they said they weren’t carrying any ID, the patrolmen moved to search them.

One of the three fled, with a patrolman in pursuit. When the officer returned, he found his colleague lying there dead. The two suspects said Pertsov had shot the policeman and fled.

The murder weapon was never found. Pertsov said he had never worked at that company and knew only one of the two witnesses against him, the one who had studied taekwondo.

It’s not clear why the two confessed to their involvement in the 4-year-old murder; maybe they were hoping for a lighter sentence in another case. In fact, they were never indicted — for either the armed robbery or the murder.

Alexander Pertsov posing at the Western Wall back when he did his military service. Credit: Courtesy

The slain patrolman’s partner positively identified one of the two men in a lineup. He was less certain about the other and didn’t identify a picture of Pertsov at all. Pertsov’s public defender from Jerusalem, Vadim Shub, said the patrolman didn’t even identify the other two until after he was told they had confessed.

Still, based on this evidence, Israel arrested Pertsov and asked the courts to approve his extradition to Ukraine in 2007.

Immediately after his arrest, the two witnesses against him sent tapes to Pertsov’s family in Ukraine; they said they had falsely accused him due to torture by the Ukrainian police. But neither the tapes nor the testimony of other witnesses, who said Pertsov was at the gym where he worked at the time of the murder, convinced Israel’s prosecutors or courts to drop the extradition case.

Torture of suspects

The Foreign Ministry’s opposition to extraditing Pertsov didn’t help either, nor did the efforts of politicians like then-Shas chief Eli Yishai. Shub’s argument was similarly to no avail, that Israel had never before extradited anyone to Ukraine because its legal system was plagued by “the torture of suspects and even their death, shameful detention conditions and rising anti-Semitism.”

Jerusalem District Court Judge Zvi Segal approved the extradition. “The State of Israel would never have entered an extradition relationship with a corrupt country,” he said.

Shub appealed to the Supreme Court, where he again presented evidence that Kiev had violated its commitments to other countries that extradited suspects to Ukraine. He also noted that another Israeli suspected of murder in Ukraine had been tried in Israel.

But the prosecution insisted it was obligated to extradite Pertsov under a European treaty it had signed and warned that failing to do so would damage Israel’s legal cooperation with other countries.

A Supreme Court panel headed by Justice Elyakim Rubinstein voiced doubts about the evidence and said it would be better to try Pertsov in Israel despite the evidentiary problems this presented. But it ultimately approved the extradition, saying the case must be clarified in court.

It added three conditions: Pertsov must be allowed to serve his sentence in Israel if convicted, he must be entitled to consular visits, and he must be given kosher food.

As for Pertsov’s well-being in a Ukrainian jail, Rubinstein admitted that the picture wasn’t “very encouraging, especially regarding reports of police violence against witnesses and suspects, and that Israel has no past experience with extradition to Ukraine.”

Nevertheless, he wrote, the three conditions struck “an appropriate balance between concern for Pertsov’s welfare and the essential goals of the institution of extradition.”

Then-Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman approved the extradition after the Ukrainian government pledged to honor the Supreme Court’s conditions, and two subsequent petitions to the High Court of Justice against his decision were rejected. In one petition, Shub argued that no signatory of the European treaty in question — Ukraine included — had ever agreed to extradite one of its citizens, so there was no reason for Israel to do so.

After a three-year legal battle during which Pertsov was held in an Israeli jail, he was extradited to Ukraine in July 2010. Only afterward did the Israeli authorities discover that Ukraine had concealed a crucial bit of evidence from them.

Back in 1999, before Pertsov was ever mentioned as a suspect, the patrolman who remained alive identified three other people as the ones present in the shack at the scene of the murder and fingered one of them as the killer. Two of those three confessed to the murder.

Cop changes his story

The day after arriving in Ukraine, Pertsov was brought to court. The patrolman who had failed to identify his picture was present and failed again to identify him in person.

Given the weakness of the evidence, the judge ordered Pertsov released on bail. The local Jewish community posted the bond for him.

In his decision, the judge noted that none of the witnesses actually saw Pertsov shoot or even draw a gun, nor was there solid evidence that he was even at the scene. The judge also cited contradictions between the witnesses’ testimony and their reenactment of the crime.

Soon afterward, the Ukrainian prosecutor announced that the case against Pertsov would be closed. But two weeks later, another prosecutor overruled that decision and submitted a new indictment.

This time, too, the judge deemed the evidence insufficient and said further investigation was needed. But there was no new investigation.

Instead, the patrolman who had failed to identify Pertsov’s picture 11 years earlier and then failed to identify him in court changed his story and said he recognized Pertsov. A new indictment was submitted and Pertsov was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison. The court chose to believe the witnesses’ original testimony to the police rather than the tapes in which they recanted their confession.

Early this year, Pertsov’s second appeal against his conviction was rejected. Ever since, he has been awaiting his return to Israel to serve his sentence there, as stipulated by the Israeli Supreme Court.

But the Ukrainians are refusing to return him, saying he must first pay the family of the murdered policeman $50,000 in compensation. This has embarrassed the Israeli prosecution’s international affairs department, which was responsible for obtaining the Ukrainian guarantee that the Supreme Court’s conditions would be honored. The department has been trying vainly for months to get Ukraine to keep its promise.

The State Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment for this article. Shub, who is still in contact with Pertsov, has told Haaretz the entire fiasco was predictable.

“Even during the extradition process in Israel, we warned that the evidence in Mr. Pertsov’s case raised a more-than-serious suspicion that an innocent man had been incriminated,” he said. “We said there was no possibility that he would get a fair trial in Ukraine.”

According to Shub, his team pointed out that even though the Ukrainian authorities made commitments, there was no way to ensure they would keep their promise.

“We believe that a thorough, in-depth investigation of our claims back at the extradition stage would have led to a different conclusion and spared Pertsov the pain and suffering he has been caused,” Shub added. “This is a clear case of false extradition that led to a false conviction.”

Shub said he hoped Pertsov would be allowed to return soon. He also hoped that “this case will lead to more caution by the state authorities with regard to extraditing its citizens.”

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