Ukraine conflict: Summary justice in rebel east

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Media captionPeople in the court were asked to give their verdict

A show of hands was what it took to decide the fate of two alleged rapists in Ukraine's rebel east.

Residents of Alchevsk, a city in the Luhansk region, had been urged to attend the "First People's Court" on 25 October.

The separatist "Prizrak" battalion (ghost), which controls the area, said it had conducted its own investigation into the alleged crimes and invited everyone to condemn the suspects.

Speaking on the phone from Alchevsk, a fighter using the nom de guerre Smuggler told me he was present at the "trial", and he was proud of it.

"I believe criminals and scumbags should be erased from the face of the Earth," he said.

"We all believe that," a comrade could be heard in the background.

"I've met their victims," said Smuggler. "They are devastated. We live under emergency laws, we have a lot of crime, we have no proper courts at the moment, so our people create 'people's justice'. I hope after this election we will have proper authorities, laws and courts."

Tanay Cholkhanov, a journalist sympathetic to the rebels who was embedded with the battalion at the time, attended the so-called trial and said it was a "complete farce".

"Most people who were there did not understand what was happening. It was tragic," he said.

Image caption The mother of a man sentenced to death had to be restrained after the sentence was passed

The battalion's video of the trial, posted online at the weekend, shows some 340 people present, in a town whose pre-war population stood at more than 100,000.

The video shows the battalion commander, Alexei Mozgovoi, using the opportunity to issue a warning to all residents.

"Too many women go to restaurants," he said. "What kind of example do they show to their children? From now on, we will arrest all women we find in restaurants and cafes."

Incredulous gasps are heard from the audience.

The video shows how both suspects were presumed guilty on the basis of evidence presented by battalion investigators.

One was spared the death penalty and condemned to being sent to the front line, to "redeem himself and die with honour".

Image caption Sentencing was determined by a show of hands

The other was sentenced to death by firing squad, despite desperate pleas from his mother, present in the audience.

By a large majority, the suspect is sentenced to death. "Good people, spare him," the man's mother screams. "Blame me, I am the one to blame!"

The battalion confirmed to the BBC that both convicts were currently held in custody and the sentences were to be carried out in the next few weeks.

The "Prizrak" battalion is reported to number some 1,500 men and controls an area with a population of 10,000 civilians.

"They intimidate these civilians, says Tanay Cholkhanov, who believes Commander Mozgovoi should be brought to justice.

But in the areas of eastern Ukraine now run by rebels, justice lies in the hands of those in power.

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