Ukraine: Clashes and abductions ahead of disputed Crimea vote

International human rights monitors must immediately be deployed across Ukraine following reports of increasing violence and disappearances ahead of Sunday’s impromptu referendum that could lead to the secession of the southern Crimea region, said Amnesty International. 

“Parts of the country are on edge and spilling over into violence. With the referendum scheduled in two days’ time, there is no time to lose,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Director.

“Amidst heightened tensions in the country and the now fatal violence between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian groups, the need for a strong human rights monitoring mission with unimpeded access to all parts of Ukraine, including Crimea, is critical.” 

Amnesty International’s call comes after at least one protester was killed amid violent clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters in the eastern city of Donetsk and news of further disappearances of activists in Crimea itself. 

Ukraine’s southern-most region has been increasingly cut off from the outside world after Russia seized effective military control of the peninsula two weeks ago. 

Disappeared activists in Crimea

Three activists disappeared on the night of 13 March in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. On 14 March, Amnesty International spoke with the father of AutoMaydan activist, Oleksiy Gritsenko, who disappeared together with fellow activists, Natalya Lukyanchenko and Sergiy Suprun. The three activists had been in the region since last week. 

Oleksiy Gritsenko’s father confirmed to Amnesty International that there has been no contact with any of them since 11pm on 13 March, following a call from Natalya Lukyanchenko to fellow activists to say that that their car was being chased by vehicles and shots had been fired at them. 

Two of the activists’ mobile phones have been traced to the vicinity of Simferapol’s military commissariat, which is being guarded by military officers in unmarked uniforms. The officers deny that they are holding them. The activists’ car is also missing. 

Amnesty International is calling on the Crimean authorities to immediately locate Oleksiy Gritsenko, Natalya Lukyanchenko and Sergiy Suprun and secure their immediate and unconditional release. 

“Reports of the harassment and intimidation of activists and journalists by the de facto military forces operating in Crimea are an extremely worrying development where human rights abuses are already rife,” said John Dalhuisen. 

“We reiterate our calls for both the Crimean authorities and those in de facto military control of the region to allow people to peacefully exercise their human rights without the threat of intimidation or violence.” 

Lawlessness and mob violence

While the eyes of the world are on Crimea, human rights violations continue to take place elsewhere in Ukraine. Amnesty International is also concerned that police are failing in their duty to adequately protect those peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

On Thursday night, at least one protester was killed and many more wounded when violence erupted between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters in the eastern industrial city of Donetsk. 

Only days earlier, an Amnesty International delegate had been in Donetsk to observe another demonstration and noted that unless significant improvements were made to policing, there was a risk of future casualties. 

A participant at Thursday’s rally told Amnesty International: “I don’t think the police were ready or willing to protect us. After most of the participants left, we were attacked.” 

Video footage taken in Donetsk on Thursday night shows how a police cordon initially separated the opposing groups until a group of men armed with sticks, metal tubes and knives were allowed to break the cordon and attack the pro-Ukrainian protesters. 

Amnesty International’s contact reported that police told those being attacked to board a police bus, which essentially made them easy targets, as the bus had no driver and was blocked by two cars. 

“Windows [on the bus] were broken and many of us were injured. There were a couple of dozen policemen near the bus, and hundreds further away, not intervening. The attackers were yelling ‘get on your knees, on your knees!’ I saw one of the activists lying on the ground and bleeding. Three police officers were standing nearby looking at him, and doing nothing for a very long time.”

“What began as a peaceful protest in Donetsk last night turned into the worst violence since the Maydan clashes brought a change of government in Kyiv. As tensions remain high, police must respect and protect the right of all groups to protest peacefully,” said John Dalhuisen.