Russia denies Kiev's 'terrorism' claims at UN court

Jan HENNOP
A woman walks past a destroyed car in Donetsk on February 9, 2017. Ukraine's case in The Hague accuses Russia of breaking a treaty by supporting pro-Russia rebels

Russia hit back Tuesday at claims it is "sponsoring terrorism" in war-torn eastern Ukraine, dismissing as "neither factual nor legal" Kiev's contention that it is breaking its treaties by supporting pro-Moscow rebels.

"The Russian Federation complies fully with its obligations under (the) treaties that are now relied upon by Ukraine," to bring a case before the UN's top International Court of Justice, Moscow's representative said.

"We see neither a legal nor factual basis" for the measures asked for by Ukraine, Roman Kolodkin, legal director at Russia's foreign ministry, told the court in The Hague.

Ukraine on Monday urged the ICJ to order emergency measures to bring stability to its eastern regions. It said its claim against Moscow was based on the international convention for the suppression of the financing of terrorism and the convention of elimination of all forms of racial discrimination.

But Kolodkin said these were issues "clearly beyond the court's jurisdiction."

Nearly three years of conflict have claimed about 10,000 lives in eastern Ukraine -- and led to Russia's seizure of Ukraine's southern peninsula of Crimea in 2014 -- pushing ties between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.

Ukraine lodged its case at the ICJ in mid-January, saying it had protested for several years against Moscow's alleged financing of pro-Russian separatist rebels battling Ukrainian government forces.

Kiev has asked the court -- which rules in disputes between countries -- to order Moscow to stop funnelling money, arms and people into eastern Ukraine.

- 'Misleading the court' -

But Ilya Rogachev, another Russian representative, told the 16 judges hearing the case that Kiev "is misleading the court."

Ukraine "is involved in an armed conflict being waged by its authorities and its armed forces including irregular battalions against the people of the eastern Ukraine," Rogachev said.

"Stigmatising those as terrorists and sponsors of terrorism could have serious consequences" in future peace talks, he warned.

"Ukraine's own evidence, which shows that it is at least equally engaged in indiscriminate shelling, places a very important question mark next to the characterisation that Ukraine alone places on these acts as acts of terrorism," added one of Russia's lawyers, Samuel Wordsworth.

Ukraine also accuses Moscow of discriminating against non-Russian minorities in Crimea.

But Russia's representatives said they "disagreed" with Kiev's claims, including that Crimea was part of Ukraine.

"The people of Crimea were not consulted" when the peninsula was handed to Ukraine in 1954, at a time when both Moscow and Kiev were part of the Soviet Union, while "the majority of its people wants to be part of the Russian Federation," Rogachev said.

- Fruitless talks -

Ukraine now wants the Kremlin to pay compensation to civilians caught up in the conflict, including the victims of Malaysia Airways flight MH17, shot down in 2014 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.

Russia's representatives said the country was cooperating in an ongoing investigation into the fate of MH17.

But it "expressed disagreement" with the findings of the Dutch Safety Board and a joint international investigation team, which said the plane was struck by a Russian-made BUK missile fired from rebel-held territory.

A small group of victims' relatives gathered outside the scenic Peace Palace in The Hague where the ICJ is housed, waving placards saying "Justice for MH17."

"There is still no justice and not one country is taking responsibility for what happened," said Thomas Schansman, who lost his 18-year-old son Quinn in the disaster.

"We have been waiting for almost three years now," he told AFP.

Rare talks between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over the last month proved "fruitless", the Ukrainian presidency has said.

The hearings come after a surge in the violence which killed 35 people in early February, centred around the government-held town of Avdiivka near the rebel bastion of Donetsk.

The ICJ was set up in 1945. While UN member nations are bound to abide by the tribunal's decisions, the court's ruling is unlikely to have much concrete effect on the ground, experts said.