Ukraine: falling from a trolleybus is not a war crime. Or is it?

'It’s not Europe. It’s a bit different… it’s a war here'. This is what a commander of the Aidar volunteer battalion told Amnesty earlier this year. War, or any full blown armed conflict as Ukraine is experiencing despite the recent cease-fire, alters people’s lives profoundly. You only have to read the diaries by the Ukranian writer Andrey Kurkov  about the onset of the current situation in Ukraine, to understand this.

War-like situations also alter the way in which both sides portray the actions of the other. 'War crimes' can become a powerful propaganda weapon. Unfortunately, it looks like this is also happening in Russia and Ukraine.  Ukrainians have accused Russia or pro-Russian rebels of committing war crimes. Russian media recently reported on 'mass graves'.

An Amnesty delegation visited the area on 26 September, shortly after the discovery of the graves. They found strong evidence implicating Kiev-controlled forces in extrajudicial executions of four men. Not quite the 400 bodies the Russian foreign minister had reported on at an earlier press conference.

We’ve also collected evidence of the killing of two men held by separatist fighters on 22 July in Severodonetsk. Other claims have been misleading. A video showing two Ukrainian officers being shot by a firing squad turned out to be a fake – as later confirmed by one of the officers in the video.

War crimes are not only misreported, they are also mis-recorded.

An example: Yevgeny Ivanovich Ostapenko, a 41-year-old worker in UkrTelekom, was admitted to hospital on 15 August with extensive injuries to his skull and subsequently died. According to the official records, he fell from a trolleybus. That explanation seems perfectly logical, had not a medical worker seen ligature marks around the man’s wrists. In other words: his hands had been bound prior to his death. This happened after the region came under Kiev’s control. When pro-Russian separatists controlled the same area, victims of beatings told hospital staff they “fell into the garage pit”.

Medical staff are obliged by law to inform the police of injuries caused by violence. Fear of reprisals from the perpetrators makes medical workers and civilians afraid to speak out. And they will remain afraid until they know that they are safely protected by the police. And it is not clear when that will happen. Ukrainians elected a new parliament on 26 October, but the conflict has not gone away.

Summary killings are never justified – they violate our right to life, and the right to a fair trial. There is clear evidence that both sides have committed them. Every case should be investigated and those responsible should be brought to justice. That is precisely what Amnesty is asking both sides to do. Telling the truth is the first indispensable step. As a Russian proverb says, you cannot hide a needle in a sack – the truth will always be discovered.

Pauline Uyterwijk-Crosfield is our country coordinator for Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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