This report entry covers events in 2021 and does not include our more recent research in Ukraine.
Impunity for torture remained endemic. Gender-based violence remained widespread, although a new law removed legal obstacles to prosecuting military personnel and police for domestic violence. Homophobic attacks by groups advocating discrimination and violence continued. The investigation of attacks against journalists and human rights defenders was slow and often ineffective. A draft law on the security services envisaged additional powers of surveillance without legal safeguards. The crackdown on dissent and human rights defenders in occupied Crimea continued. Violations of international humanitarian law by both sides in eastern Ukraine remained uninvestigated.
The economy made a partial recovery after losses in 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing conflict in the Donbas region. Concerns over corruption persisted: the Pandora Papers, a leaked cache of data on secretive offshore deals, named the current President as a former beneficiary of offshore companies, along with 37 other Ukrainian politicians. In October, parliament replaced the speaker after he opposed the swift passing of legislation to limit the influence of oligarchs. In December, former President Petro Poroshenko was named as a criminal suspect in a state treason case.
Vaccination against Covid-19 was widely and freely available, but the uptake was low, covering only around a fifth of the adult population in government-controlled territory.
In May, parliament adopted changes to the Criminal and Criminal Procedure Codes to align them with international criminal law, extending the definition of aggression, crimes against humanity and other specific war crimes, lifting their statute of limitation and providing for universal jurisdiction. The President did not sign these changes into law by year’s end, however, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court remained unratified.
Government forces and Russia-backed armed groups in Donbas repeatedly traded accusations of ceasefire violations. Russia refused to extend the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission’s mandate at two border crossings it controlled, and repeatedly massed its troops near Ukraine’s border prompting concerns of Russian invasion. The territory of Crimea remained under Russian occupation.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Some progress was reported in prosecutions relating to deaths during the EuroMaydan protests in 2014, including the trial of several titushki (agents working for the police) and of a handful of former police officers (some in absentia). However, justice remained elusive for most victims of police abuses during these events.
Impunity for torture and other ill-treatment in general remained endemic. Investigations into more recent allegations remained slow and often ineffective. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) reported opening 79 new cases of alleged torture and 1,918 of alleged abuse of authority by law enforcement officers, from January to December, resulting in 51 individuals being charged with relevant crimes.
In January, two young men were assaulted in Zhytomyr Region by a mob who accused them of car theft. A police officer arrived at the scene and joined the assailants, subjecting one of the victims to a mock execution with his pistol. In July, prosecutors submitted to court charges of torture against the police officer and three other persons; another police officer was charged with false testimony.
In March, the PGO reported that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) had to date ruled in the applicants’ favour, and against Ukraine, in 115 cases regarding conditions of detention amounting to torture or other ill-treatment, of which 71 under the supervision of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe remained unaddressed; 120 cases were awaiting a decision.
In May, in the case of Debelyy and Others v. Ukraine, the ECtHR found that police in Ukraine had subjected the three applicants – Andrey Debelyy, Roman Korolev, and Oleksandr Rafalsky – to inhuman and degrading treatment.
Gender-based violence and discrimination – particularly against women – and domestic violence remained widespread. Support services for the survivors as well as legislative and policy measures intended to combat domestic violence, although improved in recent years, remained insufficient. No progress was made in ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on combating and preventing violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention).
From January to December, the authorities opened 2,432 criminal investigations into domestic violence, designated 2,176 individuals criminal suspects and submitted 2,136 cases to court. Administrative proceedings were opened against 54,890 individuals for domestic violence from January to June.
In July, a new law was enacted, which removed the legal obstacles that had effectively exempted military personnel and police officers from administrative and criminal prosecution for domestic violence; it also strengthened the provisions underpinning emergency protection orders. The law extended to six months the statute of limitation for domestic violence as an administrative offence, and introduced new penalties including compulsory labour and detention for up to 10 days.
However, an investigation into allegations by Lieutenant Valeria Sikal – who in 2018 was the first Ukrainian ex-servicewoman to report sexual harassment by a commanding officer in the Armed Forces – was ineffective, and further delayed by its referral to the State Investigation Bureau of Khmelnitsky Region where no further investigative activities took place.
LGBTI people’s rights
A draft bill tabled in parliament in May proposed expanding the definition of hate crimes to cover those motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity. However, homophobic attacks by groups advocating discrimination and violence continued throughout the year with the perpetrators rarely held accountable.
In March, four individuals daubed the community centre of the NGO Sphere with mud; in August, the centre’s façade was vandalized with homophobic graffiti.
At least four such attacks took place in May alone. On 27 May, a mob smashed the window of the venue where the KyivPride group had organized a film screening, and threw a flare and a gas canister inside. Police opened a criminal investigation into “hooliganism” but failed to qualify the incident as hate crime.
On 29 May, a mob attacked the community centre of the LGBTI group Insight in the capital, Kyiv. The same day in Odessa, a mob disrupted and ended a feminist lecture by Insight’s leader Olena Shevchenko; elsewhere in the city, seven masked men in black threw stones at the office of the LGBTI association LIGA and damaged one of its CCTV cameras. Police refused to open a criminal investigation into either incident until activists filed a complaint about police inaction.
The six perpetrators of the 2018 attack against human rights defender Vitalina Koval – in which she was doused with red paint causing chemical burns to her eyes – continued to enjoy impunity. In March, a court ruled that the statute of limitation had expired on the charge of “causing minor bodily harm” against two female attackers, and closed the relevant proceedings. A parallel investigation into a hate crime (“violation of citizens’ equality”) was pending but apparently stalled. No charges were ever brought against four male co-attackers.
Freedom of expression
The media were generally free and diverse, although a handful of outlets were selectively targeted by the authorities in connection with their perceived pro-Russian editorial policies, and accused by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) of waging an “information war” against Ukraine.
The National Security and Defence Council (an advisory state body) introduced so-called “personal sanctions” against parliamentarian Taras Kozak, which targeted his commercial assets including three TV channels that were stripped of broadcasting licences. The decision, approved by the President, drew criticism over its extrajudicial nature and arbitrary focus on media enterprises – as well as its application, against a Ukrainian national and his Ukraine-based businesses, of a law intended for sanctioning foreign commercial entities.
Unfounded criminal proceedings against former prisoner of conscience, journalist Vasil Muravitskyi, were ongoing. The risk of imprisonment and physical harm by groups advocating discrimination and violence forced him to leave Ukraine.
In November, the owner of the independent Kyiv Post newspaper suspended its publication with immediate effect. The staff announced that they had thereby been fired for their independent journalism. Commentators alleged that pressure on the owner by the Presidential Administration had led to his decision.
The investigation of attacks – including killings – against journalists and human rights defenders was slow and often ineffective. Court hearings continued in the high-profile case against three persons accused of planting a car bomb that killed Belarusian-Russian-Ukrainian journalist Pavlo Sheremet (Pavel Sharamet) in July 2016. Commentators and journalists raised doubts over the credibility of the investigation. The defendants denied the charges, insisting that they were politically motivated. In January, evidence was published suggesting that the killing had been planned by the Belarusian authorities.
Prominent Belarusian exile Vital Shyshou, head of the Belarusian House in Ukraine, was found hanged in a park in Kyiv on the morning of 3 August. He had previously complained to his colleagues of being followed and threatened with reprisals by Belarusian security services.1 The Ukrainian authorities investigated his death as suspicious, although no outcome was reported by year’s end.
Freedom of assembly
While the right to freedom of peaceful assembly was generally enjoyed without constraint, LGBTI activists and others targeted by violent groups had to rely on the authorities’ willingness to protect peaceful demonstrators during and after their rallies.
On 8 March, violent counter-protesters attacked participants of the International Women’s Day march in Kyiv. After the rally, unidentified individuals pushed and verbally insulted women’s rights activists, and tried to snatch away their posters. The activists complained to the police who refused to open proceedings until lawyers stepped in. A formal investigation was still ongoing at year’s end.
Annual rallies in support of LGBTI rights took place from July to September in several cities, including Kryvyi Rih, Odessa, Kharkiv and Kyiv. They proceeded peacefully under effective protection by the police, despite an ongoing atmosphere of intimidation and homophobic attacks and the risk that individuals leaving the rallies would be assaulted. On 30 July, LGBTI activists held a pride event outside the Presidential Office in Kyiv.
In July, the government approved a national strategy to 2030 to address discrimination against the Roma community. However, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic had a disproportionate effect on this community as many relied on the informal economy for irregular earnings.
Past attacks against Roma were not effectively investigated, including the destruction of a campsite and physical violence against Roma at Lysa Hora park in Kyiv in August 2018. In August, the Prosecutor General’s Office informed Amnesty International that it had overruled a decision to halt the investigation, but no further progress was reported.
Right to privacy
A draft law on reform of the SBU was approved at its first reading. While addressing some of the long-standing issues of concern – for instance, removing its investigative function by 2025 – the bill confirmed the agency’s wide powers of arrest, detention and interrogation of individuals, and the use of lethal force, without introducing new and more effective accountability mechanisms. The bill also gave the SBU additional powers of surveillance, including intercepting and storing public and private communications and information from individuals and organizations, without due legal safeguards to prevent abuse and ensure the right to privacy. It also granted the power to block online resources extrajudicially in some cases.
Repression of dissent
The de facto authorities continued a crackdown on free expression and all vestiges of dissent. Free media were suppressed, and those working for them faced severe reprisals.
Freelance reporter Vladyslav Yesypenko was arrested on 10 March by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), on allegations of spying and carrying ammunition. On 18 March, a Russian state TV channel in Crimea broadcast an “admission” by him that he had shared his media footage with Ukrainian intelligence services. He was denied access to an independent lawyer for 27 days, until a remand court hearing where Vladyslav Yesypenko alleged that a grenade had been planted by his captors in his car and that he had been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment to extract his “confession” on video.
According to human rights monitors, access to at least 27 online media was completely blocked in Crimea, along with access to the websites of organizations arbitrarily banned as “extremist” in Russia. These included the Mejlis (representative assembly) of the Crimean Tatar People and the Jehovah’s Witnesses; any association with them was a criminal offence.
In April, a court fined Bekir Mamutov, activist and editor-in-chief of the Crimean Tatar-language newspaper Qirim, for “abusing media freedom” under the Russian Code of Administrative Offences. He had published the UN Secretary-General’s 2020 report on the situation regarding human rights in Crimea, which mentioned the Mejlis, but failed to insert the mandatory disclaimer under Russian law that the organization was deemed “extremist” in Russia.
Other remaining critical voices in Crimea were also prosecuted and jailed. In September, Nariman Dzhelyal, a Crimean Tatar rights activist and previously the most senior member of the banned Mejlis remaining in Crimea, was arbitrarily detained in connection with purported damage to a gas pipeline.
Crimean Tatar human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience, Emir-Usein Kuku and Server Mustafayev, remained behind bars in Russia, as did dozens of other victims of politically motivated prosecutions by the de facto Crimean authorities – often in inhuman and degrading conditions.
Not a single case of enforced disappearance from 2014 – the start of the Russian occupation of the territory – was effectively investigated. The fate and whereabouts of those forcibly disappeared remained unknown.
Repression of dissent and restrictions on civil society persisted in the territories of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed armed groups. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (UNMMU) reported an absence of the necessary services and support for survivors of domestic violence, and noted the personal risks, including of arrest and prosecution, faced by activists defending the rights of women. The UNMMU also reported arbitrary arrests and prolonged incommunicado detention, and ongoing unlawful imprisonment, of women and men by the de facto authorities. It was denied access to places of detention in non-government controlled territories despite “the widespread and credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment in a number of facilities”. The UNMMU also reported at least nine new cases of arbitrary arrest of civilians by SBU officers.
Numerous previously reported violations of international humanitarian law by both sides to the conflict remained uninvestigated.
No progress was made in attaining justice for victims of enforced disappearance, torture and unlawful detention by the SBU in eastern Ukraine from 2014 to 2016, and the practice of using secret prisons continued to be officially denied. An ongoing investigation still failed to identify a single alleged perpetrator.
Right to health
The continuing lack of independent information from and access to the territories controlled by armed groups in Donbas hampered attempts to control Covid-19 infections. The Ukrainian government made free vaccination available to visitors from across the conflict line, including through vaccination centres at crossing checkpoints. However, the de facto authorities continued to impose arbitrary restrictions on travel into government-controlled territories. They also recognized and relied exclusively on Russian-supplied vaccines, deliveries of which were reportedly greatly insufficient. A spike in patients requiring intensive care in September reportedly overwhelmed the local medical facilities, which also suffered from a profound shortage of medical personnel and supplies.