Ukraine 2016/2017

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Ukraine 2016/2017

Sporadic low-scale fighting continued in eastern Ukraine with both sides violating the ceasefire agreement. Both the Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatist forces continued to enjoy impunity for violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, such as torture. Authorities in Ukraine and the self-styled People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk conducted unlawful detention of individuals perceived to support the other side, including for use in prisoner exchanges. The long-awaited State Investigation Bureau, intended to investigate violations by the military and law enforcement officials, was formally established but not operational by the end of the year. Independent media and activists were not allowed to work freely in the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Media perceived as pro-Russian faced harassment in government-controlled territories. The largest-ever Pride march for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in the capital, Kyiv, was supported by the city authorities and effectively protected by the police. In Crimea, the de facto authorities continued their campaign to eliminate pro-Ukrainian dissent. It increasingly relied on Russian anti-extremism and anti-terrorism legislation and criminal prosecution of dozens of people perceived to be disloyal.

Background

Following a two-month political crisis, after several reform-oriented politicians resigned from top government positions alleging widespread corruption, Parliament accepted Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s resignation on 12 April. He was replaced by Volodymyr Hroysman.

Sporadic fighting and exchange of fire between government and Russia-backed separatist forces continued. Gunfire, shelling and unexploded ordnance continued to cause civilian deaths and injuries. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission estimated that there were more than 9,700 conflict-related deaths, of which around 2,000 were civilians, and at least 22,500 conflict-related injuries since the beginning of the conflict in 2014.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) published its preliminary examination of Ukraine on 14 November. It concluded that the “situation within the territory of Crimea and Sevastopol amounts to an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation” and that “information… would suggest the existence of an international armed conflict in the context of armed hostilities in eastern Ukraine”. An amendment to the Constitution was passed in June, postponing the ratification of the Rome Statute of the ICC for an “interim period” of three years.

The Ukrainian authorities continued to heavily restrict the movement of residents of the separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions to government-controlled territory.

The Russian authorities held parliamentary elections in Crimea, which were not internationally recognized.

The conflict-affected economy started to grow slowly: GDP increased by 1%. Prices of basic commodities and services such as heating and water continued to rise, adding to the declining living standards of the majority of the population. Living standards in the separatist-controlled areas continued to deteriorate.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Little progress was made in bringing to justice law enforcement officials responsible for the abusive use of force during EuroMaydan protests in Kyiv in 2013-2014. The investigation was marred by bureaucratic hurdles. On 24 October, the Prosecutor General reduced the staff and the powers of the special department responsible for the EuroMaydan abuses investigations, and created a new unit to investigate only former President Vyktor Yanukovych and his close confidants.

The new State Investigation Bureau was formally created in February to investigate crimes committed by law enforcement officials and the military, but the selection of its head, on an open competition basis, was not completed by the end of the year.1

The UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) suspended its visit to Ukraine on 25 May after the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) denied it access to some of its facilities in eastern Ukraine where secret prisoners were reportedly held as well as tortured and otherwise ill-treated. The SPT resumed and completed its visit in September and produced a report which the Ukrainian authorities did not give their consent to publish.

Enforced disappearance

Lawyer Yuriy Grabovsky went missing on 6 March and was found murdered on 25 March. Before his disappearance, Yuriy Grabovsky complained of intimidation and harassment by the Ukrainian authorities in an attempt to make him withdraw from the case of one of two alleged Russian servicemen who were captured in eastern Ukraine by government forces. During a press conference on 29 March, the Chief Military Prosecutor of Ukraine announced that two suspects had been detained in connection with Yuriy Grabovsky’s murder. At the end of the year, they remained in pre-trial detention and the investigation was ongoing.2

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

Both the Ukrainian authorities and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine engaged in unlawful detentions in the territory under their respective control. Civilians they suspected of sympathizing with the other side were used as currency for prisoner exchanges.3 Those unwanted by the other side remained in detention, often unacknowledged, for months with no legal remedies nor prospect of release.

Kostyantyn Beskorovaynyi returned home on 25 February after his abduction and indirect official acknowledgement of his secret arrest became the subject of international campaigning.4 In July, Ukraine’s Chief Military Prosecutor promised an effective investigation into his allegations of enforced disappearance, torture and 15-months’ secret detention by the SBU, but no tangible outcomes of the investigation were reported by the end of the year.

Dozens more individuals were held secretly on SBU premises in Mariupol, Pokrovsk, Kramatorsk, Izyum and Kharkiv, and possibly elsewhere. Some were eventually exchanged for prisoners held by the separatists. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch received the names of 16 individuals from three separate sources, all independently confirming them as secret prisoners held by the SBU in Kharkiv since 2014 or 2015, and shared the list with the Ukrainian authorities. At least 18 people, including the 16 independently confirmed prisoners, were subsequently secretly released; their detention was never officially acknowledged. Of them, Vyktor Ashykhmyn, Mykola Vakaruk and Dmytro Koroliov decided to speak out and submit official complaints.5

In the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, local “Ministries of State Security” used their powers under local “decrees” to detain individuals arbitrarily for up to 30 days and repeatedly extend this. Igor Kozlovsky (arrested on 27 January), and Volodymyr Fomychev (arrested on 4 January), were both accused of possessing illegal weapons, which they denied, and of “supporting” the “Ukrainian side”. A court in Donetsk sentenced Volodymyr Fomychev to two years in jail on 16 August. Igor Kozlovsky remained in pre-trial detention at the end of the year.

Internally displaced people

The CERD Committee highlighted a number of concerns about difficulties faced by internally displaced people (IDPs) in its 2016 review of Ukraine. These included the linking of social benefits, including pensions, to the status of IDPs and residence in government-controlled areas.

Freedom of expression – journalists

Media outlets perceived as espousing pro-Russian or pro-separatist views, and those particularly critical of the authorities, faced harassment including threats of closure or physical violence. The TV channel Inter was threatened with closure repeatedly by the Interior Minister, and on 4 September around 15 masked men attempted forcefully but unsuccessfully to enter Inter’s premises, accusing it of pro-Russian news coverage. They then threw petrol bombs into the building, starting a fire.

Popular TV presenter Savik Shuster (who holds Italian and Canadian nationality) had his work permit annulled by the Ukrainian Migration Service, in violation of the existing procedure. The Kyiv Appeals Court reinstated the permit on 12 July. Subsequently, criminal proceedings were launched against Savik Shuster’s TV channel 3STV by the tax authorities. On 1 December, Savik Shuster decided to close the channel due to the pressure and lack of funds.

Ruslan Kotsaba, a freelance journalist and blogger from Ivano-Frankivsk, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail on 12 May, for “obstructing legitimate activities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in a special period”. He had been arrested in 2015 after posting a video on YouTube in which he demanded an immediate end to fighting in Donbass and called on Ukrainian men to resist conscription. He was fully acquitted on appeal on 12 July and immediately released.

On 20 July, journalist Pavel Sheremet was killed by a bomb planted in his car in the capital Kyiv. No perpetrators had been identified by the end of the year. The investigation into the killing of journalist Oles Buzina, shot dead by two masked gunmen in 2015, had likewise yielded no results.

Journalists with pro-Ukrainian views or reporting for Ukrainian media outlets were not able to operate openly in separatist-controlled areas and Crimea. A Russian crew from the independent Russian Dozhd TV channel was arrested in Donetsk and deported to Russia by the Ministry of State Security after recording an interview with a former separatist commander.

In Crimea, independent journalists were unable to work openly. Journalists from mainland Ukraine were denied access and turned back at the de facto border. Local journalists and bloggers critical of the Russian occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea risked prosecution, and few dared to express their views. Mykola Semena, a veteran journalist, was investigated under “extremism” charges (facing up to seven years’ imprisonment if convicted) and placed under travel restrictions. He had published an article online under a pseudonym in which he supported the “blockade” of Crimea by pro-Ukrainian activists as a necessary measure for the peninsula to be “returned back” to Ukraine. He was officially designated as a “supporter of extremism”, and his bank account was frozen. At the end of the year, the investigation into his case was ongoing.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

On 19 March, a court in Lviv, western Ukraine, banned the holding of the LGBTI Festival of Equality in the street due to public safety concerns. The organizers moved the event indoors, but on 20 March the venue was attacked by a group of masked right-wing activists. No injuries were reported but the organizers were forced to cancel the event.

An LGBTI Pride march, supported by the Kyiv authorities and heavily protected by police, was held in central Kyiv on 12 June. With around 2,000 participants, it became the largest-ever event of its kind in Ukraine.6

Crimea

None of the enforced disappearances that followed the Russian occupation were effectively investigated. Ervin Ibragimov, member of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, was forcibly disappeared near his home in Bakhchisaray, central Crimea, on 24 May. Available video footage from a security camera shows uniformed men forcing Ervin Ibragimov into a minivan and driving him away. An investigation was opened, but no progress had been made at the end of the year.7

Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, already heavily restricted, were further reduced. Some of the independent media that had been forced to relocate to mainland Ukraine in earlier years had access to their websites blocked by the de facto authorities in Crimea. On 7 March, the mayor of Crimean capital Simferopol banned all public assemblies except those organized by the authorities.

Ethnic Crimean Tatars continued to bear the brunt of the de facto authorities’ campaign to eliminate all remaining vestiges of pro-Ukrainian dissent.8 The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, a body elected at an informal assembly, Kurultai, to represent the community, was suspended on 18 April and banned by a court as “extremist” on 26 April. Its banning was upheld by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation on 29 September.9

The trial continued of the Mejlis’ deputy leader, Ahtem Chiygoz, on trumped-up charges of organizing “mass disturbances” on 26 February 2014 in Simferopol (a predominantly peaceful rally on the eve of the Russian occupation, marked by some clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators). Held in a pre-trial detention centre in the vicinity of the court building, he was only allowed to attend his court hearings via a video link, purportedly because of the “danger” he would pose. Ahtem Chiygoz remained one of several prisoners of conscience in Crimea. Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhi also continued to be held in pre-trial detention for allegedly participating in the same “mass disturbances” on 26 February 2014.

The Russian authorities used allegations of possession of “extremist literature” and of membership of the Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir as a pretext for house searches of ethnic Crimean Tatars (predominantly Muslims) and arrests. At least 19 men were arrested as alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Of them, four men from Sevastopol were put on trial in a military court in Russia, in violation of international humanitarian law governing occupied territories, and sentenced to between five and seven years in prison. During the trial, nearly all prosecution witnesses tried to retract their earlier statements, claiming that these had been forcibly extracted under threat of criminal prosecution by members of the Russian security service.

  1. Ukraine: Two years after Euromaydan  The prospect for justice is threatened (EUR 50/3516/2016)
  2. Ukraine: Further information  Body of missing lawyer has been found (EUR 50/3734/2016)
  3. You don't exist: Arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and torture in eastern Ukraine (EUR 50/4455/2016)
  4. Ukraine: Authorities must disclose missing mans fate: Kostyantyn Beskorovaynyi (EUR 50/3275/2016)
  5. Five men in secret detention in Ukraine (EUR 50/4728/2016)
  6. Ukraine: Kyiv Pride  A genuine celebration of human rights (EUR 50/4258/2016)
  7. Ukraine: Crimean Tatar activist forcibly disappeared – Ervin Ibragimov (EUR 50/4121/2016)
  8. Ukraine: Crimea in the Dark  The silencing of dissent (EUR 50/5330/2016)
  9. Ukraine: Crimea  Proposed closure of the Mejlis marks culmination of repressive measures against the Crimean Tatar community (EUR 50/3655/2016)

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