NEW YORK (AP) — Anger over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned bloody in a Brooklyn karaoke bar, with one Ukrainian patron stabbing another Ukrainian man in the face and neck after wrongly insisting the man was Russian, authorities said.
Prosecutors are pursuing hate crime charges because of his mistaken belief about the victim’s nationality.
Oleg Sulyma, 31, is accused of slashing a fellow Ukrainian immigrant with two broken beer bottles after hearing him speaking Russian and demanding proof of his ethnicity, including asking him to say a hard-to-pronounce Ukrainian word.
“I will show you what a real Ukrainian is!” Sulyma said just before attacking, according to prosecutors.
Sulyma pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges including attempted murder and assault as a hate crime in connection with the April 25 attack, which took place at the Signature Restaurant and Falada Lounge in Sheepshead Bay. The neighborhood is home to many people with ties to Russia and Ukraine.
A message seeking comment was left with Sulyma’s lawyer.
At a previous court appearance, lawyer Arthur Gershfeld described the clash as a “disputed argument between people” and said Sulyma is the one who “bore the brunt of it.”
Gershfeld alleged Meleshkov, 36, and his friends fought Sulyma, resulting in a collapsed lung and requiring multiple stitches to his lip and eye. Meleshkov told The New York Post he took Sulyma to the ground and sat on him after Sulyma stabbed him.
Under New York state law, prosecutors can charge a person with a hate crime if there‘s evidence they were motivated to act because of what they believed or perceived to be true about a person’s heritage or background, even if they’re really members of the same group and those beliefs or perceptions are incorrect.
According to prosecutors, Sulyma confronted Meleshkov and two of his friends around 3:45 a.m., just before closing time, because they were speaking Russian.
“You look Russian,” he said according to prosecutors, and demanded they prove they were actually Ukrainian. He continued insisting they were Russian, even when they said otherwise.
“We switched to Ukrainian in order to calm him down, but it was getting him more and more agitated and he started asking us to translate words to prove that we’re Ukrainian,” Meleshkov told the Post.
Meleshkov told the Post that Sulyma asked him and his friends to pronounce the name of a type of Ukrainian bread, “Palianytsia,” because Russians typically have trouble saying it correctly.
According to Meleshkov, the assailant told him: “If you get it wrong, I’ll have my way with you.”
Sulyma then smashed two beer bottles against a table, said “I’m going to cut you,” and used the jagged edges to stab Meleshkov on the left side of his neck and the right side of his face, prosecutors said.
Sulyma continued to hurl insults at Meleshkov and call him Russian after police arrived, prosecutors said.
Meleshkov, a truck driver, said he was born and raised in Eastern Ukraine, where many people speak Russian, and that his mother is Russian. He moved to Brooklyn in 2015. Sulyma, a construction worker, has lived in Brooklyn for more than a decade.
“This defendant allegedly attempted to murder an innocent Ukrainian man who he believed to be Russian in a hateful and violent rage,” Brooklyn District Attorney Gonzalez said in a written statement.
“Brooklyn’s diversity makes our borough so vibrant, and hate-motivated violence will never be tolerated here,” Gonzalez added.