Human rights groups accuse both the government and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine of secretly abducting and imprisoning civilians. David Stern in Kyiv looks at why some say this is only part of the story.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Ukraine’s intelligence agencies of illegally holding civilians in “secret” detention centers in eastern Ukraine – a charge Kyiv authorities deny.
At the same time, a prominent Ukrainian human rights activist has said AI and HRW, in their attempt to remain balanced, are themselves guilty to a degree of playing down abuses by the Moscow-supported separatists.
The issue highlights the difficulties of conducting human rights research in Ukraine’s brutal conflict with the rebels, which has cost close to 10,000 lives.
In July, AI and HRW published a joint report, entitled “You Don’t Exist,” in which they described what they said were cases of both Ukrainian officials and separatist forces illegally detaining civilians, sometimes in secret for months at a time.
“The Ukrainian authorities and pro-Kyiv paramilitary groups detained civilians suspected of involvement with or supporting Russia-backed separatists,” the human rights groups wrote. “While the separatist forces have detained civilians suspected of supporting or spying for the Ukrainian government.”
AI and HRW wrote that, on the government side, prisoners were handed over to the country’s security services (known by its Ukrainian initials, SBU).
Often, before they were delivered, the detainees were “beaten, subjected to electric shocks, and threatened with rape, execution, and retaliation against family members.”
The SBU held them in special facilities in Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Izyum, and Mariupol, in the east of the country, the human rights groups said. SBU officials, for their part, say there are no secret facilities and in general prisoners are not mistreated.
Some released in wake of report
Concern has been growing over the deteriorating human rights situation in the Ukrainian conflict. In March, the United Nations published a report detailing numerous abuses, including allegations of secret jails.
Then in May, a delegation from the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture broke off a fact-finding trip to Ukraine, after the SBU blocked them from visiting locations where people were reportedly being held and mistreated.
Ukraine is a signatory to an “optional protocol” to the UN’s Convention against Torture, which requires them to allow inspectors full access to detention centers, even in unannounced visits.
The Ukrainians said they stopped the UN from visiting SBU premises in Mariupol and Kramatorsk, because “a Russian citizen” was among their mission.
However, the recent pressure on Ukrainian officials seems to have produced results.
AI and HRW announced on Sunday that not long after their report was published – and their representatives met with top Ukrainian officials – authorities had released 13 people who were being secretly held the Kharkiv facility.
HRW said the prisoners had black bags put over their heads and were taken to two towns south of Kharkiv. There, they were given a few dollars for “transportation costs,” and were threatened with severe consequences if they discussed their imprisonment with anyone.
These releases were “good news” said Tatyana Lokshina, HRW’s Russia program director.
But she added that officials refused to admit that these people were jailed in the first place, or say that they had been released, or acknowledge there was a problem in general with “enforced disappearances” – the technical term for holding civilians incommunicado in secret locations.
“The Security Service’s continued denial of enforced disappearances fosters a climate of lawlessness and perpetuates impunity for grave human rights violations,” she said.
And, according to AI and HRW, at least five people are still being held in the SBU facility in Kharkiv.
“Enforced disappearances are grave crimes, which are strictly prohibited under international law in all circumstances and may constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity, depending on their context,” HRW wrote.
Other human rights activists say it must be kept in mind that, as bad as the Ukrainians’ conduct is, that by the insurgents is far worse, both in sheer numbers and the severity of the abuses – something that HRW and AI fail to highlight.
They say that the quantity of those abducted and tortured by the separatists possibly numbers in the thousands. Furthermore, even for those prisoners who aren’t tortured, conditions are much worse. And Russian regular forces and mercenaries, they claim, have helped carry out these crimes, and there are concerns that some prisoners have been taken to Russia, where they suffer more abuse.
Many of these accusations are impossible to verify – but this points out another key difference between the separatists and the Ukrainian government: Kyiv allows inspectors access, albeit sometimes limited, to its facilities. What’s more, there are institutions and legal processes in Ukraine that allow for crimes to be registered and investigated and for some form of accountability to take place.
For the UN and human rights agencies, the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are a legal and administrative black hole.
Halya Coinash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, one of Ukraine’s main human rights watchdogs, said HRW and IA provided a “distorted” picture.
After the announcement of the release of 13 prisoners from Ukrainian detention, she wrote, “The media headlines were all exclusively about ‘secret prisons’ and shocking abuse, with it scarcely noted that the reports were appearing due to Ukraine not being impervious to criticism.”
Coinash said the fact that there was “nothing new to report from the Kremlin-backed militant side,” was worthy of a mention in itself.
For her part, Lokshina of HRW accused Coinash of an “extremely incomplete picture.”
“HRW and AI made it very clear in the letter to the military prosecutor and in the accompanying media statement that the organizations welcomed the release of 13 detainees from the Kharkiv SBU facility,” she told DW.
“But five people are still held there unlawfully and the SBU never admitted holding – or releasing – detainees,” she added.