Torture and secret detention in Ukraine - new report

Both the Ukrainian government and the Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine are holding civilians in prolonged arbitrary, and sometimes secret detention and torturing them, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said in a joint report released today (Thursday 21 July).

The report “‘You Don’t Exist.’ Arbitrary Detentions, Enforced Disappearances, and Torture in Eastern Ukraine,” is based on interviews with 40 victims of abuses, their family members, witnesses, victims’ lawyers, and other sources.

Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International, said:

“Torture and secret detention are not historical – or unknown – practices in Ukraine. They are taking place right now, on both sides of the conflict. Those countries providing support – to whatever side - know this perfectly well. They must not continue to turn a blind-eye to these abhorrent abuses.

“The allegations of secret detention by Ukraine are compelling and serious, and they merit thorough investigation. The Ukrainian government must come clean on this; and those countries lending international support should be forthright in their calls for an end to such practices.”

Tanya Lokshina, Senior Researcher for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said:

“People in eastern Ukraine who are being seized and hidden away by the warring sides are at the mercy of their captors. It is never legal or justified to seize people off the streets, cut them off from contact with family and lawyers, and beat and abuse them.

“The vacuum of the rule of law in separatist-controlled areas deprives people who have been detained of their rights and basically leaves them helpless.”

Enforced Disappearances, Torture

The Ukrainian authorities and pro-Kiev paramilitary groups have detained civilians suspected of involvement with or supporting Russian-backed separatists, while the separatist forces have detained civilians suspected of supporting or spying for the Ukrainian government, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch found. 

In one case, “Vadim,” 39, was detained and tortured first by one side, then the other. In April last year, armed men seized him at a checkpoint controlled by Ukrainian forces, pulled a bag over his head, and questioned him about his alleged connections with Russia-backed separatists. Vadim spent more than six weeks in captivity, most of the time in a facility apparently run by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) personnel. His interrogators tortured him with electric shocks, burned him with cigarettes, and beat him, demanding that he confess to working for Russia-backed separatists.

After they finally released him, Vadim returned to Donetsk and was immediately detained by the local de facto authorities, who suspected him of having been recruited by Ukraine’s Security Service during his time in captivity. He spent more than two months in incommunicado detention in an unofficial prison in central Donetsk, where his captors also beat and ill-treated him.

Torturing detainees is always prohibited and always a crime, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty said. Ukraine’s leadership and the de facto separatist authorities should both ensure that all forces under their control are aware of this and make it clear that ill-treatment of detainees won’t be tolerated.  

In some cases, the detentions constituted enforced disappearances because the authorities refused to acknowledge that the person was being detained or refused to provide their relatives with any information on their whereabouts or fate. Most of those detained suffered torture or other forms of ill-treatment. Several who had been injured in detention were denied medical attention.

In almost all of the 18 cases investigated, the release of the civilian detainees was at some point discussed by the side holding them in the context of prisoner exchanges. This gives rise to serious concern that both sides may be detaining civilians to have “currency” for potential exchanges of prisoners, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. Such detentions could constitute hostage taking, which is a war crime.

Secret Detention Facilities of Ukraine’s Security Service

In three of the cases of enforced disappearance in government-controlled territory, the people who had been detained said the Security Service held them in detention for periods ranging from 6 weeks to 15 months. One person was released in a prisoner exchange, and the other two were eventually released without trial.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch found that unlawful, unacknowledged detentions have taken place in the SBU’s premises in Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Izyum, and Mariupol. A June 2016 UN report also noted the SBU compound in Kharkiv as an alleged place of unofficial detention.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have received information from a range of sources, including recently released detainees, that as many as 16 people may remain in secret detention in the SBU’s compound in Kharkiv. In a letter to Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, the SBU denied operating any detention facilities other than their only official temporary detention center in Kiev and denied having any information regarding the alleged Security Service abuses the groups documented.

Arbitrary detention in areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists

In the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, local security services, which operate without any checks and balances, have arbitrarily detained civilians and in some cases tortured them. Residents of Donetsk and Luhansk described respective de facto state security ministries as the most powerful and the most feared organisations in these areas.

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