The right to health was compromised by a significant shortage of PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic; families of health workers who died faced bureaucratic obstacles to compensation. Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, particularly in police custody, continued. Security service officials responsible for secret detention and torture in eastern Ukraine from 2014 to 2016 continued to enjoy complete impunity. Attacks by groups advocating discrimination against activists and marginalized minorities continued, often with total impunity. Intimidation and violence against journalists were regularly reported. Domestic violence remained widespread; access to support services was negatively affected by strict COVID-19 measures. Both sides in the conflict in eastern Ukraine imposed travel restrictions, impacting the socioeconomic rights of local people. In occupied Crimea, the crackdown on dissent and human rights defenders continued.
COVID-19 restrictions were introduced in March but failed to effectively prevent its spread. This was exacerbated by a lack of PPE and sufficient testing, which in turn put strain on the health care system.
Local elections in October, marked by low turnout, showed falling ratings for mainstream parties in favour of local parties and political activists. Voting did not take place in many locations in eastern Ukraine, including some under government control, ostensibly due to security concerns.
A major reform of the Prosecutor General’s Office began, with 55% of prosecutors dismissed following reappraisals, but stalled after its head was sacked. His replacement left another key agency in the criminal justice system, the State Investigations Bureau which she had headed, without permanent leadership.
In September, the government made human rights a compulsory element in the school curriculum for pupils aged 11 to 15, effective from 2022.
The ceasefire between government forces and Russia-backed armed groups in eastern Ukraine largely held, bar minor flare-ups in March and May. The territory of Crimea remained under Russian occupation.
Right to health
A significant shortage of PPE for medical workers, which continued until the end of the year, and insufficient testing for COVID-19 was reported by the Health Ministry. By mid-December, over 51,731 medical workers were reported to be infected with COVID-19, out of a total of 1,055,047 confirmed and a further 1,214,362 “suspected cases”. According to the Minister of Social Policy, over 300 medical workers had died by 19 December but only 53 deaths were recognized as work-related by a special commission. Their families had been promised state compensation but according to media reports, by 12 November, only 21 had received full and 22 partial compensation, due to onerous bureaucracy and the necessity of proving that the deceased contracted COVID-19 at work.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, particularly of detainees in police custody, were regularly reported. The final figures for 2020 published by the Prosecutor General’s Office indicated that it registered 129 alleged torture cases, pressed charges in 59 cases and closed proceedings in 52 cases.
On 23 May, a man was taken to Kaharlyk District police station in Kyiv region as a criminal suspect along with his wife as a witness. Their allegations that they were tortured and the woman repeatedly raped, were widely reported in the media. In May, two police officers from Kaharlyk were detained by the State Investigation Bureau and remanded as criminal suspects. Other alleged survivors of torture in Kaharlyk came forward. Five police officers from Kaharlyk were subsequently charged with unlawful deprivation of liberty and torture. The Minister of the Interior refused to resign, but promised additional measures for torture prevention, including better registration and monitoring systems.
No justice, truth or reparation was attained for any of the victims of enforced disappearance, secret detention and torture and other ill-treatment of civilians by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) from 2014 to 2016, and not a single suspected perpetrator was prosecuted. The new head of the SBU noted in June that the agency currently had no secret prisons, but said nothing of such practices in the past, and denied torture. The four-year-old investigation into this practice was handed over by the Military Prosecutor’s Office to the State Investigation Bureau in December 2019, but by year’s end, had yielded no tangible results.
Members of groups advocating discrimination (commonly described in Ukraine as far-right groups) continued to target civil society activists, political opponents, journalists and members of marginalized groups with harassment, intimidation and violence – often with total impunity.
On 12 June, members of the Feminist Workshop NGO attempted to take down posters with discriminatory messages in the capital Kyiv and were attacked by some 15 men from a far-right group. The assailants pushed and verbally demeaned the activists, hit one of them in the face and threatened further violence. An eyewitness called the police, but none arrived within 45 minutes. The activists filed a report with the police and an investigation was launched, but no progress was reported by the end of the year.
On 30 August, LGBTI activists in Odessa were unable to form a human chain of solidarity at their intended location because it was occupied by counter-demonstrators. The police insisted that LGBTI activists move to another location, but reportedly offered no protection when the counter-protesters followed and attacked them. Activists were pelted with eggs, sprayed with tear gas, and assaulted; several sustained burns and other injuries. Police arrested 16 alleged assailants.
Discrimination against Roma persisted. The pandemic further affected their livelihoods as the informal economy, on which many of them rely, contracted. Those lacking official identification could not access social benefits, pensions, or health care.
No progress was reported in the investigation into the violent attack against an informal Roma settlement in Lysa Hora park in Kyiv in April 2018, despite the public nature of the attack and early identification of the alleged perpetrators from publicly available video footage of the incident.
A Roma family camping in the Lysa Hora vicinity described how they were violently attacked on 29 April by two men who entered their makeshift tent in the early hours of the morning. They pepper-sprayed inside the tent and beat the young Roma man with a wooden board. When his wife asked them to stop and told them that she was pregnant they verbally abused her and shouted, “Someone like you should only be raped”. The tent was burnt, together with the family’s possessions and documents. On 2 May, police opened a criminal investigation, but no outcome had been reported by year’s end.
Freedom of expression
Media remained pluralistic and largely free, although harassment of outlets in connection with their editorial policies, and intimidation and violence against journalists, were regularly reported.
In July, journalist Katerina Sergatskova, the co-founder of the web-based media outlet Zaborona, was targeted in a smear campaign by a popular blogger, who criticized her work and published details of her personal life along with a photo of her young son. Comments by his readers also contained Katerina Sergatskova’s home address and further photos; she also received death threats and abusive messages. Katerina Sergatskova reported these to the police, but no action was taken until she won a court case complaining about police inaction. In the meantime, she had left Kyiv for her personal safety.
The trial of a man and two women suspected of direct involvement in the killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet in July 2016 began in September with all three claiming their innocence. Meanwhile, an investigation into who ordered the killing was ongoing in separate proceedings, with no outcome reported by year’s end.
Domestic violence remained widespread, under-reported, and often ineffectively addressed. Legal and institutional initiatives of recent years intended to address domestic violence were often poorly implemented, if at all. Police were reluctant to issue emergency protective orders, and unwilling or unable to enforce them. Military personnel and police officers remained among those exempt from provisions under the Administrative Code which punish domestic violence. In practice, this can mean that they also avoid prosecution for domestic violence as a criminal offence, as the law is often interpreted as requiring two previous convictions under the Administrative Code to meet the threshold of “systematic” abuse needed for a criminal prosecution.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine continued to amplify such systemic flaws and erode the institutional response to systems of protection.1 A woman from Donetsk region reported to police in 2019 at least five instances of violence by her husband, a military serviceman, but the police were unable to apply any administrative measures. In 2020, criminal proceedings were started against the man and a restraining order issued, but no disciplinary or other measures were taken by his senior officers while the investigation was ongoing.
In May, a petition signed by 25,000 people was delivered to President Volodymyr Zelensky calling for ratification of the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty against violence against women and domestic violence. In September, the President signed a decree, “on urgent measures for prevention and combating domestic violence”, which obliged the government to develop a state programme lasting until 2025, including measures to improve inter-agency co-ordination, further legislative amendments, and the adoption of rehabilitation programmes for offenders. However, the decree made no mention of the Istanbul Convention, and no steps towards its ratification were taken during the year.
Access to support services for survivors of domestic violence was affected by strict COVID-19 quarantine measures. The government-funded free legal aid offices switched to providing only remote consultations for survivors. This precluded help to survivors who remained in premises with their abuser and could not discuss their situation. Access to shelters was further complicated as it was conditional on the survivor first undergoing a medical examination. Survivors from locations with no shelters could not travel elsewhere when all public transport, including buses and trains, was cancelled from March to May.
Progress was manifestly stalled in the investigation into the allegations by Lieutenant Valeria Sikal, the first Ukrainian ex-servicewoman who reported sexual harassment by a commanding officer in the Armed Forces in 2018. The Military Prosecutor of Rivne Garrison repeatedly returned the case file to the investigation to rectify purported irregularities, including for investigative activities that had already been undertaken. The case did not reach court by the year’s end, nor was the officer indicted.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people
On 30 April, a 19-year-old transgender person from Zhytomyr was badly beaten, sexually assaulted and robbed by a group of youths who then tried to take them hostage and demanded money from their father before police were called. A criminal investigation was opened but the transphobic hate motive of the crime was ignored by the police. Meanwhile, no restraining measures were applied against the suspects.
In May, three alternative draft laws were tabled in Parliament to introduce sexual orientation and gender identity as specific hate crime grounds in the Criminal Code. These initiatives provoked criticism from religious and other groups, and none were put to a vote.
LGBTI people subjected to hate crimes were reluctant to report them, lacking confidence in the police and for fear of further reprisals. Where reported, such crimes were seldom if ever effectively investigated or qualified as such, with the perpetrators facing minor or no charges.
Territories in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists remained beyond the reach of many civil society and humanitarian actors. Suppression of all forms of dissent persisted, including through arrest, interrogation and torture and other ill-treatment by the de facto authorities, and imprisonment in often inhumane conditions. Independent information from these territories was increasingly sparse, its scarcity exacerbated by severe pandemic-related travel restrictions.
Freedom of movement
Both sides in the conflict imposed restrictions on travel across the contact line, often appearing as reciprocal measures. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine reported that the number of crossings in both directions dropped from a monthly average of one million to tens of thousands by October. Families were separated and numerous livelihoods affected. Older people who should receive pensions from areas of Ukraine under government control, those in need of substantive health care including HIV-positive people, and other marginalized groups, were most affected by the lack of access to government-controlled territories.
Travel restrictions were somewhat eased in June. Restrictions applied by the de facto authorities in Donetsk appeared arbitrary. They restricted travel to certain days without explanation and travel was subject to advance application for permission, which in numerous reported cases was rejected, also without explanation.
A severe crackdown on human rights work and all dissent continued, as did restrictions on the media. Enforced disappearances from 2014, at the start of Russian occupation of the territory, were not investigated.
The occupying Russian authorities continued to target human rights defenders, including members of Crimean Solidarity, a grassroots self-help group of ethnic Crimean Tatars. Dozens of its members faced politically motivated criminal proceedings, mostly on allegations of purported membership of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamist movement banned as “terrorist” in Russia but legal in Ukraine. Arbitrary intrusive house searches, unofficial interrogation by Russian security forces, and intimidation were also widely used as reprisals against ethnic Crimean Tatars.
In March, members of Russian law enforcement agencies visited the homes of several Crimean Solidarity members, including its current co-ordinator Mustafa Seydaliyev, and human rights defender Abdureshit Dzhepparov, and served them with an official written warning against taking part in future “unsanctioned actions” (any protest or commemorative events). The previous co-ordinator of Crimean Solidarity, prisoner of conscience Server Mustafayev, was convicted on 16 September under terrorism-related charges alongside his seven co-defendants and sentenced to 14 years in prison by a military court in Rostov-on-Don, in Russia.
Persecution of religious minorities continued. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses from Crimea, Serhii Filatov and Artem Herasymov, were convicted in separate trials for exercising their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. They were each sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, in March and June respectively.