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Ukraine: Overwhelming new evidence of prisoners being tortured and killed amid conflict

Overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes, including torture and summary killings of prisoners, serve as a stark reminder of the brutal practices being committed on a near-daily basis in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.

The 36-page report - Breaking Bodies: Torture and summary killings in eastern Ukraine - provides compelling evidence of frequent and widespread prisoner abuse by a broad range of captors on both sides of the conflict.

Former prisoners described being beaten until their bones broke, tortured with electric shocks, kicked, stabbed, hung from the ceiling, deprived of sleep for days, threatened with death, denied urgent medical care and subjected to mock executions.

John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International, said:

“In the shadow of eastern Ukraine’s still smouldering conflict, our on-the-ground research shows that accounts of detainee torture are as commonplace as they are shocking. More than 30 former prisoners held by both sides gave us consistent and harrowing accounts of their captors’ abuse.

“Prisoners on both sides have been beaten and subjected to mock executions. We have also documented summary killings of those held by separatist groups. It is a war crime to torture or deliberately kill captives taken during conflict.

“Pro-Kiev and separatist forces alike must put an end to these crimes and ensure that all fighters under their control are aware of the consequences under international law of abusing prisoners amid an armed conflict. The Ukrainian authorities must investigate all allegations of war crimes and other abuses, open files and collect evidence of abuses by separatist forces and bring to justice all those responsible for perpetrating such heinous acts.”

Out of 33 former prisoners interviewed by Amnesty, 32 described severe beatings or other serious abuse being meted out by separatist and pro-Kiev groups. All of them were held captive at some point between July last year and April this year. Amnesty conducted most of the interviews in March, April and May of this year.

Amnesty corroborated the victims’ testimonies against additional evidence, including x-rays of broken bones, hospital records, photographs of bruises and other injuries, scars, and missing teeth. Two of the victims were still nursing their wounds in hospital at the time of their interviews.

Of the former prisoners Amnesty interviewed, 17 had been held by separatists and 16 by pro-Kiev military and law enforcement officials, including the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).

Amnesty has also identified at least three recent incidents where separatist fighters summarily killed at least eight pro-Kiev fighters. This is based on eyewitness testimony, hospital records, evidence posted on social networks and media reports. In an interview with a journalist, one separatist armed group leader openly admitted to killing captive Ukrainian soldiers, which is a war crime.

Most of the worst abuses take place in informal places of detention. This typically occurs during the initial days of captivity, and groups outside the official or de facto chain of command tend to be especially violent and lawless.

The situation on the separatist side is particularly chaotic, with a variety of different groups holding captives in at least a dozen known locations.

On the pro-Kiev side, a report by a former prisoner held by Right Sector, a nationalist militia, was especially disturbing. Using an abandoned youth camp as an ad hoc prison, Right Sector has reportedly held dozens of civilian prisoners as hostages, brutally torturing them and extorting large amounts of money from them and their families. Amnesty has alerted the Ukrainian authorities to these specific allegations but has not received a response.

Amnesty has found that both sides are arbitrarily holding civilians who have not committed any crime, but who sympathize with the opposing side. The organisation spoke to civilians who were detained and beaten merely for having photographs from the EuroMaydan protests on their mobile phones, or for having telephone numbers of separatist contacts.

John Dalhuisen said:

“In some cases, these civilians are detained as currency for prisoner exchanges, but it also may be simply to punish them for their views. This is a disturbing and illegal practice that must be stopped immediately.”

Amnesty is calling on relevant UN agencies and experts to undertake an urgent mission to Ukraine to visit all detention sites for prisoners held in connection with the conflict – including unofficial places of detention. Those that should take part include the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Working Groups on arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, and the Special Rapporteur on torture. 

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