By Thomas Peter and Dan Peleschuk
DONETSK REGION, Ukraine (Reuters) – Olha Konoplenko’s eastern Ukrainian city is occupied by Russian forces, but that hasn’t stopped her from trying to uphold the law remotely as a judge.
Residents who fled Bakhmut, captured last May after months of fierce fighting, still rely on her and other exiled colleagues for key rulings.
“There’s no city, but there are still its people,” said Konoplenko, whose Artemivsk City District court now operates in a town farther from the front line of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
She requested its exact location not be disclosed for security reasons.
Working in the war-torn east, parts of which have been occupied by Russian proxy forces since 2014, was never easy for local judges. Moscow’s February 2022 invasion raised the stakes further.
Konoplenko, 39, and other colleagues in the Donbas region preside under the regular threat of air strikes. Their hearings, to which defendants and plaintiffs dial in remotely, are often cut short by power outages.
During a visit by Reuters to Konoplenko’s court, clerks were sitting in front of dark screens, leafing through documents as they waited for electricity to return.
The next day, a hearing was punctuated by the sound of explosions from a Russian strike.
Local courts face the extra burden of handling war crimes litigation and trying alleged collaborators. They also hear cases from people seeking compensation for their ruined homes.
That’s in addition to settling family matters, labour disputes and other typical cases, said Konoplenko, who fled Bakhmut while pregnant and said she was motivated by a sense of service.
“Who’s supposed to help people obtain alimony? Who’s supposed to help people obtain property rights?,” she said.
On her daily commute, Konoplenko walks past buildings with windows shattered by strikes. At weekends, she travels to see her son, nearly two years old, who lives with relatives several hours’ drive away.
Residents say they have more faith in courts here than elsewhere in Ukraine. A legacy of corruption has made the country’s judicial system one of the least trusted public institutions.
“Just look around – there’s a war here, we’re surviving, but out there, people are hiding out and making money,” said Oleksandr, a 24-year-old service member, on a visit to Konoplenko’s courthouse.
BUSIER THAN BEFORE
Vasylyna Liubchyk, head of another Donetsk region court, said her colleagues were busier now than they were before the war because many locals had returned.
Liubchyk also did not disclose the location of her court, which has always been in Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Four judges are expected to handle nearly 4,000 registered cases of administrative and criminal offences, she said. Drunk driving accidents, in particular, have increased during war time.
Ukraine is conducting a nationwide hiring spree to address the deficit of judges, but Liubchyk and other officials have said that attracting applicants in eastern Ukraine is difficult.
Despite the dangers of practising so close to the war, Konoplenko said she and her colleagues had got used to many of them.
“We’re tired of being scared,” she said.
(Reporting by Thomas Peter, Vitalii Hnidyi, Oleksii Orlov in the Donetsk region and Dan Peleschuk in Kyiv; Writing by Dan Peleschuk; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Ed Osmond)