No justice for eastern Ukraine’s victims of torture

Alexandra showed me her fingernails and sighed in despair, “See, they don’t grow. I used to have long nails, but they broke them to the roots.” Her damaged fingers are among the many injuries reminding her of the time she spent in detention.

As the war raged in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatist forces and Ukrainian army, 55-year-old Alexandra stayed in her home village of Pervomayskoe, just 20 kilometres from Donetsk, the capital of the so-called DNR (the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic). When Ukrainian forces took the village back from the separatists, she organized the residents to protest the placement of heavy artillery there, fearing that it would attract retaliatory fire from Donetsk.

Despite the chaos of the war, she tried to keep up with her professional duties, she said. As an employee of the state gas company, she continued to maintain records of gas usage by having residents send their account numbers and usage data to her mobile phone.

Alexandra explained that it was because of these numbers found on her phone that the members of the Ukrainian volunteer battalions operating in the area stormed her house and dragged her away, accusing her of being a radio operator and a spotter for separatist forces. They held her blindfolded and handcuffed in one of their unofficial detention facilities, where they tried to beat a confession out of her: they beat her on the head with a rubber hammer, threw her against the walls, and broke her nose, jaw, and cheek bone. They gave her almost no food, didn’t let her go to the toilet, and held her for two weeks on a bare concrete floor.

A record of Alexandra’s medical examination, done after she was released, reads like an endless encyclopaedia of injuries and ailments: it is difficult to believe that someone’s body could suffer all of these and still function.

After the Ukrainian authorities and the separatists began exchanging detainees as part of the Minsk peace process agreements, the true scale of abuses committed by both sides during the conflict has started to come to light.

Anna Neistat, Senior Director of Research at Amnesty International

As horrible as it sounds, Alexandra’s story of captivity and torture is far from unique. After the Ukrainian authorities and the separatists began exchanging detainees as part of the Minsk peace process agreements, the true scale of abuses committed by both sides during the conflict has started to come to light.

During a trip to Donetsk region last week, together with colleagues from Human Rights Watch, and during our previous field research in eastern Ukraine, we interviewed many former detainees, most of them civilians.

Now some of them are trying to seek justice for the abuses they suffered, but the process is not easy. On the territories controlled by the Ukrainian forces the same volunteer battalions that committed the abuses are now running the show, having been formally incorporated into various military and law enforcement structures. Few lawyers dare to take the cases of these victims, fearing retaliation from the authorities who are quick to label anyone challenging them a traitor. And the victims themselves are scared to pursue the cases: despite the formal exchanges, many of them are still on the official wanted list, and almost all have relatives who stayed behind and would be in danger if they speak out or file complaints.

Alexandra told me that after a Russian media outlet published her story, local authorities in her home village visited her elderly parents trying to find her whereabouts, and the commandant’s office summoned her sister, and forced her to write a statement that Alexandra has no complaints about her treatment.

Some of the people we spoke to, including Alexandra, are preparing applications to the European Court of Human Rights. However, under the Court’s rules, before an application is admitted the applicant must attempt to seek justice at home. This is hardly an option for those who cannot cross into government-controlled Ukraine for fear of reprisals and further abuse.

Since the beginning of conflict in eastern Ukraine in spring 2014, the Ukrainian Office of the Military Prosecutor has received scores of complaints and reports alleging abuses by members of these volunteer battalions, but prosecutions in such cases, particularly for such grave crimes as illegal detentions and torture, are hardly ever in the news.

The prospect of bringing to account perpetrators of grave human rights abuses from among the separatists are even weaker. While the DNR and the other self-proclaimed entity, LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic), have established law enforcement structures and courts, we are not aware of any cases pursued against members of the pro-Russian separatist forces. Even if cases were brought in these courts, however, given the unrecognised status of both entities and the environment in which these courts operate, the value of such cases in terms of their legality would be, at best, questionable. Ukrainian prosecutors routinely open cases against perpetrators of abuses from among the separatists – but have no practical way of pursuing them, unless the members of the separatist forces would choose to come to the other side and hand themselves in.

Yet the legal and security challenges that prevent people on both sides from getting redress for the harm they have suffered and pursuing accountability are not the only sign that a resolution to the conflict, which left thousands killed and injured and hundreds of thousands displaced, is far from sight.

According to different estimates, dozens, if not hundreds, of people remain in unacknowledged and unlawful detention on both sides. The numbers cited by the Ukrainian authorities and self-proclaimed authorities in Donetsk are difficult to verify, and both sides might have a vested interest in inflating them, given the possibility of further exchanges. However, we received reliable information – including from those recently released from detention – which suggests that the problem is real and requires immediate resolution. For example, witnesses gave us the names of dozens of people on both sides held without any due process, access to lawyers, and sometimes even without contact with the outside world. We are requesting clarifications from the authorities on both sides, and demanding the release of all those unlawfully detained.

In the DNR, such unlawful detention is formalized: the “Ministry of State Security” (MGB) claims to be operating under a decree issued by the separatist authorities which allows it to keep detainees for up to 30 days in “administrative” detention with no procedural guarantees. We met relatives of those who spent much longer than a month in MGB cellars. Some of them have been simply handed a notice that their “detention” was extended by a “court”, when in reality they never left their cells.

…what makes reconciliation even harder to achieve is the ongoing lawlessness combined with impunity for past atrocities.

Anna Neistat

Commentators worried about the fragility of the ceasefire in Ukraine usually refer to the sounds of shelling and shooting which can be heard almost every night in the east. But what makes reconciliation even harder to achieve is the ongoing lawlessness combined with impunity for past atrocities, and denial of justice to the ordinary citizens who bore the brunt of the war.

NOTE: This op-ed originally appeared in Newsweek