Investigate Involvement of Self-Defense Units, Special Forces in ‘Disappearances’
(Berlin) – Armed groups in Crimea abducted two political activists, held them for 11 days in secret detention along with several other detainees, ill-treated both, and badly tortured one of them. The activists gave Human Rights Watch detailed accounts of what happened to them in captivity.
Local authorities in Crimea should fully investigate the abduction of the two men, Andriy Schekun and Anatoly Kovalsky, Schekun’s allegations of torture, and other arbitrary detentions by armed groups, Human Rights Watch said. The investigation should include the alleged involvement of officers from Berkut, the Ukrainian riot police force, which was dissolved by Ukraine’s Minister of Interior in February 2014 but remains active in Crimea. Russia, as an occupying power in Crimea, should ensure that the investigation is effective, that all forces under its control cooperate fully with the investigation, and that anyone responsible for human rights violations is held to account.
“These horrendous arbitrary detentions and the allegation of torture in Crimea urgently demand a thorough investigation,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “For weeks irregular armed units have been allowed to run amok on the Crimean peninsula without any apparent legal authority or accountability, and it’s led to insecurity, arbitrary detentions, abductions, and torture.”
The Crimean authorities and Russia as an occupying power should immediately safeguard respect for the law, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure that no armed individuals or groups are allowed to operate outside of the existing legal framework and that members of any special forces operating on Crimean territory comply with international human rights and humanitarian law.
Kovalsky and Schekun told Human Rights Watch in separate interviews that on March 9 a group of men in camouflage detained them at the Simferopol train station. The men held them for 11 days, interrogated and beat them, and on March 20 handed them over to Ukrainian military officers at the Chongar checkpoint, on Crimea’s northern administrative border. Kovalsky and Schekun said their captors claimed they were members of Crimea’s “self-defense” units.
Schekun also alleged that on two separate occasions a group of men in civilian clothing, whom he believed to be Russian security service agents, interrogated him and subjected him to electric shock torture.
On March 11 the head of the Crimean Council of Ministers, Sergei Aksenov, said publicly that Schekun and Kovalsky had been detained by Crimean “special forces” for their alleged involvement in “subversive activities” and would remain in custody until the March 16 referendum. He did not reveal the men’s whereabouts or specify who detained them.
“Local police claim to have no coordination with or control over these armed units that commit serious crimes with complete impunity,” Williamson said. “Whether these armed units, and those working with them, answer to Crimean authorities, to Moscow, or both, they are acting illegally, and the authorities need to call an immediate halt to their abuses.”
One of the men’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch that both men are well known activists who organized pro-Euromaidan protests in Crimea and had received anonymous threats before.
“These people did not charge us with any crime, did not ask us to sign any paperwork,” Kovalsky told Human Rights Watch. “And yet they interrogated and tormented us. Were we POWs? Criminals? Hostages? I still don’t understand.”
When the “self-defense” forces handed Schekun and Kovalsky over to the Ukrainian military on March 20, the forces did not return the activists’ documents, which included passports, driver’s licenses, and Kovalsky’s pensioner card. The armed men had also taken Schekun’s laptop and did not return it. They also took 3,000 UAH (approximately US$290) in cash from Kovalsky and 6,000 UAH (approximately $570) from Schekun.
Human Rights Watch documented the involvement of “self-defense” units in the abductions in Crimea of at least four other activists from the Euromaidan movement. The Euromaidan movement organized protracted mass protests in Kiev, which led to President Viktor Yanukovich’s ouster. All have been released, local human rights groups and media reported. Local media freedom groups report that at least nine people, including six military officers and three activists, remain missing and allege that self-defense units and/or paramilitary forces were involved.
Ukrainian human rights groups have reported that the units have also been involved in violently dispersing demonstrations, unlawfully searching people and vehicles, especially at Crimea’s administrative borders, and harassing ordinary citizens.
Under international human rights law, binding on both Ukraine and Russia, authorities are obligated to investigate and prosecute allegations of serious human rights violations. The European Court of Human Rights, acting under the European Convention on Human Rights, has expressly called on both Ukraine and Russia to refrain from any measures that would breach the rights of the civilian population, including putting their life and health at risk, and to comply with their obligations under the Convention, in particular with respect to the right to life and the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment.
Under international humanitarian law on occupation, an occupying power has an obligation to ensure public order and safety as far as possible while respecting, unless absolutely prevented from doing so, the occupied country’s laws in force. As the occupying party, Russia is ultimately responsible for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed by local authorities or proxy forces operating where it has effective control.
“All responsible for these crimes must be held fully accountable, regardless of who they are,” Williamson said. “This is essential for respect of human rights, the security of the civilians in Crimea, and for preventing similar abuses in the future.”
Kovalsky and Schekun told Human Rights Watch that their captors first took them to a police station at the Simferopol train station and stood by the exit, while a policeman on duty took away their passports and made a note in the registry. Schekun said:
They told the police they were waiting for their “superiors” to arrive. I made a quick phone call to a friend to tell them where we were and then two more people came and told the police, “We are going to take them now.” I tried to resist, said they were acting unlawfully, and that I was not going anywhere with them. The “self-defense” men took me to the stairwell, one of them hit me on the face and my lip started bleeding heavily. I fell on my knees and the policeman said, “Just take them away. Don’t do it here.”
The “self-defense” guys then took us to a car parked outside, took our phones, tied our hands behind our backs using transparent tape, and blindfolded us by wrapping tape around our heads.
The abductors brought Schekun and Kovalsky to an unknown location where they remained for 11 days. The members of the “self-defense” units who guarded them were armed with assault weapons and repeatedly threatened and questioned the men about their alleged ties with the Euromaidan Ukrainian protest movement, Kovalsky said:
They stripped us and tore off crosses we had around our necks. First it was just me and Andriy and then they started bringing more [detainees] in. There was nothing but interrogations and beatings every day. They did not beat me much, maybe because I am from Crimea or because I am 64, but they did torture and beat others. I was blindfolded for most of the time but could hear people moan in pain and several times I heard gunshots.
There was this guy with us, Maxim, whom they brought in at one point. He was only 20, originally from Odessa, and he was at Maidan in Kiev. “Self-defense” guys interrogated him several times. This one man, whom everyone called “Dan,” fired at him and at Andriy [Schekun] from a traumatic [nonlethal] weapon. In the end, we really lost any hope to get out of there alive.”
Schekun told Human Rights Watch that on two occasions a group of men interrogated him and subjected him to electric shock. He believed the men were from Russian security services because the guards referred to them as “Russian investigators.” Schekun said:
First time around four men questioned me, one threatened me with a knife, promised to “cut my liver out” if I didn’t answer their questions. They were not from “self-defense” and not Berkut. We called them “specialists” because they acted like professionals. They stripped me, beat and kicked me, and asked, “What do you know about [the ultranationalist paramilitary group] Right Sector? Do you know [Right Sector leader Dmytro] Yarosh?”
They put me in a chair, attached something to my neck and hands and gave me an electric shock. They wanted me to give them names and contact details of all members of the Right Sector that I knew and to tell them who financed Maidan.
The second time they also beat me and gave me electric shocks, although this time I was fully dressed. They also beat and kicked me and hit me on my back with something hot. And they kept asking same questions over and over.
Kovalsky and Schekun also told Human Rights Watch that at about 10 p.m. on March 16, about six Berkut riot police officers came in and threatened to kill the men in revenge for attacks on the police officers’ colleagues during the Maidan protests in Kiev. Kovalsky and Schekun knew they were from Berkut because the guards had told them Berkut would come to “visit” them, and because the men themselves said they were from Berkut. Schekun said:
Berkut came to celebrate the outcome of the referendum, and our guards left us alone with them. That was truly scary. All night long they drank vodka and threatened us. They tormented Maxim until 4 a.m., because they knew he was active at Maidan in Kiev. They questioned him and forced him to wake up every time he drifted off to sleep. They also beat him very badly.
Schekun also said that on March 17, men from a self-defense group shot at his legs and arms from traumatic weapons “for entertainment.” Traumatic weapons are nonlethal, or less lethal, firearms that can be used in self-defense. After he was released, medics at a hospital extracted two small metal pellets from his hand.