Amnesty International has gathered graphic and compelling evidence of savage beatings and other torture meted out against activists, protesters and journalists in eastern Ukraine over the last three months.
A new briefing, Abductions and Torture in Eastern Ukraine, details the findings of a research trip to Kyiv and south-eastern Ukraine in recent weeks. It documents allegations of abduction and torture perpetrated by separatist armed groups and pro-Kyiv forces.
“With hundreds abducted over the last three months, the time has come to take stock of what has happened, and stop this abhorrent ongoing practice,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Europe and Central Asia.
“The bulk of the abductions are being perpetrated by armed separatists, with the victims often subjected to stomach-turning beatings and torture. There is also evidence of a smaller number of abuses by pro-Kyiv forces.”
There are no comprehensive or reliable figures on the number of abductions, but the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior has reported nearly 500 cases between April and June 2014. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission for Ukraine has recorded 222 cases of abduction in the last three months.
Amnesty International also met with various ad-hoc self-help groups which have been collating details on the escalating number of abductions. The research team has been provided with a list of more than 100 civilians who have been held captive. Allegations of torture have been made in the majority of cases.
Abductions have taken place across eastern Ukraine, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Those targeted include not only police, the military and local officials, but also journalists, politicians, activists, members of electoral commissions and businesspeople.
“Now that pro-Kyiv forces are re-establishing control over Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and various other places in eastern Ukraine new captives are being released almost daily with an increasing number of disturbing cases emerging. It is time that these are meticulously documented with perpetrators brought to justice with victims awarded compensation,” said Denis Krivosheev.
Targeting of pro-Ukrainian activists
Hanna, a pro-Ukrainian activist, told Amnesty International how she was abducted by armed men in the eastern city of Donetsk on 27 May. She was held for six days before being released in a prisoner exchange. She described to Amnesty International how she was violently interrogated.
“My face was smashed, he punched me in the face with his fist, he was trying to beat me everywhere, I was covering myself with my hands… I was huddled in the corner, curled up in a ball with my hands around my knees. He was angry that I was trying to protect myself. He went out and came back with a knife.”
Hanna showed us the scars on her neck, arms and legs where she was sliced with the blade: there is a stab wound in her knee, her right index finger is still heavily bandaged in a plastic splint.
She also described how her interrogator made her write a separatist slogan on the wall, in her own blood.
Held for ransom
While most abductions appear to have a “political” motivation there is clear evidence that abduction and torture is being used by armed groups to exert fear and control over local populations. People have also being abducted for ransom.
Sasha, a 19-year-old pro-Ukrainian activist, fled to Kyiv after he was abducted by separatists at gunpoint in Luhansk. He said he was beaten repeatedly for 24 hours.
“They beat me with their fists, a chair, anything they could find. They stubbed out cigarettes on my leg and electrocuted me. It went on for so long, I couldn’t feel anything anymore, I just passed out,” he told Amnesty International.
He was finally released after his father paid a US$60,000 ransom.
Abuses by pro-Kyiv forces
While the vast majority of allegations of abduction and torture are levelled against separatist pro-Russian groups, pro-Kyiv forces, including self-defence groups, have also been implicated in the ill-treatment of captives.
Amnesty International’s research team travelled from Kyiv to the south-eastern sea port of Mariupol
which has “changed hands” twice in the last two months.
On 13 June Ukrainian forces took back control of the city from an armed group calling itself the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).
One local government official in Mariupol, who wished to remain anonymous, told Amnesty International how they heard a captive separatist fighter wailing in pain at the hands of pro-Kyiv forces who were seemingly trying to extract information about the separatists.
In a separate case, a 16-year-old boy Vladislav Aleksandrovich was abducted after he posted video footage of earlier law enforcement operations in Mariupol on 25 June 2014.
In a video published after his release on 27 June, Vladislav can be seen sitting behind a masked man in a camouflaged uniform. The man has a hand on Vladislav’s head and is threatening him and “all others” who put Ukraine’s unity in danger with reprisals.
In a subsequent video interview, Vladislav claims that he was tortured, hit with rifle butts in his back, punched and forced to write a “statement to the people of Ukraine”, and shout pro-Ukrainian nationalist slogans.
“In Mariupol police and military were nowhere to be seen during our visit. There was a complete vacuum of authority and security, with fear of reprisals, abduction and torture permeating amongst the people,” said Denis Krivosheev.
“It is reprehensible that we are seeing an escalation in abduction and torture in Ukraine. All those engaged in this armed conflict must immediately and unconditionally release any captives who are still being held unlawfully, and ensure that until their release they are protected from torture and other ill-treatment.”
Amnesty International is calling on the Ukrainian government to create a single and regularly updated register of incidents of reported abductions, and thoroughly and impartially investigate every allegation of abusive use of force, ill-treatment and torture.