Kidnappings, Mob Violence Threaten Journalists and Activists
(Berlin) – The escalating crisis in Ukraine is putting journalists and political activists at increasing risk of political-motivated violence, such as unlawful detention, abduction and assaults, Human Rights Watch said today. Steps to address the political crisis should include undertakings to end abuses against perceived opponents, the immediate release of all those held unlawfully, and accountability for criminal acts.
In several towns and cities in eastern Ukraine, anti-Kiev forces and their supporters threatened and harassed journalists, political activists, and others they suspect of supporting the authorities in Kiev. The abuses are most acute in Sloviansk, where armed men who seized control of the city have kidnapped more than two dozen people, including journalists, political activists, international military observers, and those they have accused of being “spies.”
“All politically motivated violence against journalists and activists is unacceptable and has to stop,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Ukrainian authorities need to redouble efforts to protect people of all political stripes. International actors with leverage over the parties should press them to end abuses, release those unlawfully held, and ensure those responsible will be held to account.”
A pro-Kiev politician, Vladimir Rybak, was found dead near Sloviansk on April 19, after he was last seen being pushed into a car by masked men. Found with him was the body of a 19-year-old student, Yuriy Propavko, who had been active in the Maidan protest movement. Journalists in several other cities have received serious threats from anonymous sources.
In Kiev members of the pro-Kiev nationalist political party Svoboda attackedthe director of a television station Channel 1, claiming the station’s reporting was pro-Russian. Mobs in Kiev and Kharkiv have attacked political activists on both sides of the political divide.
Human Rights Watch said authorities throughout Ukraine should thoroughly investigate all incidents of abuse and hold perpetrators to account. Russia pledged to help secure the release of the international observers held in Sloviansk and Human Rights Watch urged Moscow also to press pro-Russian militants to release all those they have captured and to halt abuses.
Human Rights Watch also urged the European Union and the United States to press the interim government in Kiev to ensure that efforts to disarm members of paramilitary groups holding illegal weapons include the extreme nationalist paramilitary group Right Sector. The government should hold Right Sector to account for all criminal acts attributable to its members.
Human Rights Watch researchers in eastern Ukraine documented abuses committed by non-state actors in Sloviansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, and Konstantinovka. The situation was most acute in Sloviansk, where on April 25 armed militants kidnapped eight military observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), together with five Ukrainian military escorts. One of the observers was released on April 27 on medical grounds. Others being unlawfully held include Serhiy Lefter, a 24-year old Ukrainian freelance journalist whose last contact with his family or friends was April 15; a computer programmer, Artem Deyneha; a deputy in Sloviansk city council, Vadim Sukhonos; a journalist and Kiev-based Euromaidan activist, Irma Krat.
On April 20, anti-Kiev forces seized control of the Sloviansk television transmitter and forced off the air two local stations, CTV and CTV+, which were replaced with Russian channels. Two days later, armed men stopped and threatened at gunpoint local journalists who wanted to get their equipment from the transmitter building, searched their car and forced them to leave.
On April 16, 10 men, some armed, broke into the dormitory room of Roman Guba, 20, a journalist who is openly pro-united Ukraine in his reporting. They waited for him for an hour and left, taking his identity documents and computer and other equipment. Guba later left Sloviansk for safety reasons.
On April 6, in Kharkiv a large, anti-Kiev mob attacked about 20 people who had participated in a pro-Ukraine unity concert that day. The police had tried to create a security corridor to facilitate the concert participants’ escape, but the anti-Kiev mob reached the participants, beating them for over an hour as they tried to move along the corridor. One of the victims, Viktor Ryabko, lost seven teeth and sustained multiple injuries, including a broken finger, cuts, bruising and internal injuries. On April 14 in Kiev, an angry mob of about 150 attacked Oleg Tsarev, an anti-Kiev presidential candidate, as he was leaving a television studio, pelting him with eggs and screaming, “Kill him!”
Human Rights Watch also received information about other human rights abuses connected to the political conflict. A lawyer for a pro-federation political leader, Pavel Gubarev, told Human Rights Watch that Gubarev was denied access to a lawyer for 16 hours after he was detained in Donetsk and transferred to Kiev overnight on April 6. The lawyer also told Human Rights Watch that she was aware of several cases in which anti-Kiev activists were arrested in Donetsk and transferred to Kiev with what she alleged were due process violations under Ukrainian law, such as not informing the detainees’ relatives about their arrest or whereabouts.
“Many people in Ukraine, on both sides of the political divide, have deep grievances that derive from human rights abuses, impunity, corruption and distrust in authorities,” said Williamson. “To end the violence the authorities need to address grievances in a manner that is meaningful and based on rule of law.”
In the current environment of politically motivated violence, it is critical that the OSCE and the United Nations continue their independent, impartial, timely and public human rights reporting. Human Rights Watch urged both bodies to provide spot reports focused on human rights developments, and where possible identify those considered responsible for violations.
The “Maidan” uprising in Kiev in February, which led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea prompted mass demonstrations in eastern Ukrainian cities from February through April by both pro- and anti-Kiev protesters. Some of the protests turned violent, with protesters on both sides of the political divide engaging in clashes. By March anti-Kiev protesters attempted to seize government buildings in several cities, including Kharkov and Donetsk, mirroring the seizure of government buildings by pro-Maidan supporters in western Ukraine before Yanukovich’s ouster.
By early March, most anti-Kiev protesters began calling for Ukraine to become a federation and for a referendum on the status of Ukraine’s eastern regions. Starting in mid-April, gunmen and violent mobs took over some government buildings in a series of towns in Ukraine’s Donbass region, including Sloviansk, Luhansk, Kramatorsk, Donetsk, Gorlovka, and others. The degree of control anti-Kiev forces wield in these cities varies greatly, at this writing, but forces who call themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), control most key government buildings and the television transmitter in Sloviansk.
Pro-Kiev supporters are calling for the unity of Ukraine, accountability for corrupt officials and those involved in abuses during “Euromaidan’” protests. The interim authorities in Kiev have expressed support for extensive regional autonomy.
However political rhetoric has grown heated and polarized. Anti-Kiev activists call pro-Kiev supporters “fascists,” due in part to the role the ultranationalist paramilitary group Right Sector and the nationalist party Svoboda played in Yanukovich’s ouster and the more prominent role Svoboda has played in the post-Yanukovich interim government.
In recent days Kiev launched counter-insurgency operations in Sloviansk to disarm the militants with the “People’s Republic of Donetsk.” Human Rights Watch has not been in a position to document whether these operations conformed to international human rights standards.
On April 19, two bodies were found in the Severny Donets river, near Sloviansk. One of the bodies was Vladimir Rybak, a deputy in the Gorlovka City Council, and a former member of the Fatherland party. Rybak had last been seen on April 17 near the Gorlovka City Council. Video footage showed him surrounded by armed men presumed to be anti-Kiev activists who tried to stop him from entering the city administration building to take down the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and replace it with the Ukrainian flag. The video shows him being forcefully led away by a several masked men, and then released in front of the city council building. Rybak’s wife, Elena, told Human Rights Watch that after Rybak went missing, local police opened a criminal investigation into his kidnapping. She said police interviewed a witness who on April 17 saw armed men push Rybak into a car and drive away.
Elena Rybak said that cause of death given in the autopsy report was a deep wound to the chest penetrating the lungs. She also said that an autopsy report revealed that Rybak was drowned when he was still alive. Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, said there were “marks” of torture on Rybak’s hands and face, although he did not elaborate. He also strenuously denied any involvement in Rybak’s death by supporters of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
However on April 24, the newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda published snippets of telephone conversations secretly recorded by Ukraine’s security services, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, that purport to be of a military commander with the anti-Kiev forces who gives an order to seize Rybak, blindfold him, and drive him to a location “as far as possible” from the city. The commander also says to let him know once they arrive so that he can meet them. Another snippet alleges to be a brief follow-up conversation featuring the leader of the armed anti-Kiev forces, Igor Strelkov who asks the self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, Viacheslav Ponomarev, to “figure out what to do with the stiff.”
On April 26 The Kyiv Post published an article stating that the second body had been identified as Yuriy Popravko, a 19-year-old university student and pro-Maidan activist.
Armed men who have taken control of Sloviansk and their supporters have kidnapped at least 12 people, including pro-Kiev activists and journalists, most of whom are believed to still be in captivity.
Some of these cases are described below.
Simon Ostrovsky, a journalist with the online US magazine Vice who published a series of 28 hard-hitting video dispatches on the unrest in Ukraine, was kidnapped by supporters of the armed insurgency in Sloviansk on April 21, and held for three days. In a statement published on Vice’s website, Ostrovsky said that when the armed men seized him at a checkpoint in Sloviansk, they beat him. During the first day and a half, he said, he was held blindfolded, with his hands tied.
At an April 23 news conference, attended by Human Rights Watch, held before Ostrovsky was released, Vyacheslav Ponomarev said that Ostrovsky had been captured because his reporting was “inaccurate” and that he was being held “in order to prevent him from continuing this.” A spokesperson for Ponomarev, Stella Khoraeva, tweeted that Ostrovsky was suspected of being a “spy” for Right Sector.
At the news conference, Ponomarev also made threats to journalists about engaging in “biased” reporting. In the context of Ostrovsky’s kidnapping, Ponomarev’s threats unmistakably implied that this could include being unlawfully deprived of their liberty by anti-Kiev forces.
Serhiy Lefter is a 24-year old Ukrainian freelance journalist who is collaborating with the Open Dialogue Foundation, a monitoring group that has observers on the ground in several Ukrainian cities. Andrey Valchishin, a coordinator with Open Dialogue Foundation, told Human Rights Watch that Lefter arrived in Sloviansk on April 14. Prior to that, Lefter also visited Kramatrosk, Donetsk and Kharkiv. His last contact was with a relative on the evening of April 15. After that his cell phone stopped working.
A Ukrainian activist who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons told Valchishin that on the evening of April 15 he witnessed Lefter being led away on foot by a group of armed men wearing balaclavas. According to the activist, the men tied Lefter’s arms behind his back and were threatening him, saying, among other things: “We will send you to monitor things in different regions in pieces.” The activist told Valchishin he saw the men taking Lefter into the city administration building.
A Moscow Times reporter who asked not to be named told Human Rights Watch that on April 15, while he was covering events in Sloviansk he was briefly held by the supporters of the armed uprising who brought him to the city administration building to check his documents. While there, he saw a young man tied to a chair in the corridor of the second floor. When the reporter asked his captors who the man was, they told him he was a journalist. After the reporter was released, Open Dialogue Foundation showed him a photograph of Lefter, which the reporter recognized as the same man who he saw in the city administration building.
In an article posted on April 25, after his release, Simon Ostrovsky said Lefter was among the captives he had gotten to know in the SBU holding facility.
Human Rights Watch is not aware of any reports that anyone has been able to meet with Lefter since he was captured.
Anti-Kiev forces have also held the elected mayor of Sloviansk, Nelli Shtepa, captive at various stages since the armed takeover of the city. Although the “people’s mayor” claimed at a news conference on April 17 that Shtepa voluntarily resigned, and although LifeNews, a pro-Kremlin news channel, published a video interview in which she praised Russia’s annexation of Crimea, at least two people have said that they saw her in the city administration building and that she said she was being held against her will.
In an article published on April 22 by the online news outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda Ukraine, journalist Evgenia Supricheva wrote that while Ponomarev was giving her a tour of the city administration building several days before, she saw Shtepa being led, at gunpoint, to the toilet and she alledgedly shouted: “I didn’t [resign], they’ve arrested me!” When Supricheva sent a text message to her editor saying that the mayor was screaming and trying to escape her captors, Ponomaryev ordered that Supricheva be “arrested.” She spent a night at the SBU and was freed the next morning.
Another journalist told Human Rights Watch he saw Shtepa in one of the buildings held by the gunmen several days after the incident Supricheva described, and that she said again that she was being held against her will.
At his April 23 news conference, Ponomarev referred to the people they were holding both as “prisoners” and “prisoners of war” although in legal terms, neither label is correct and the paramilitaries do not have legal authority to detain or arrest anyone.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed “Vasil,” who is involved in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR). He said that he was kidnapped and held by DNR activists who suspected him of spying for Right Sector after he enquired several times about kidnapped journalists. They held him overnight and questioned him.
Assaults, Arson, and Threats
Roman Guba,20, is a fourth-year literature student at Donetsk Pedagogical University, in Sloviansk, and a journalist with SlovInfo, an online news site. He described himself to Human Rights Watch as openly pro-united Ukraine in his reporting. On the evening of April 16, armed men, some of them masked, broke into Guba’s dormitory room. Guba told Human Rights Watch that he was at the dormitory that night, but was visiting a friend in another room. The concierge later told Guba that a group of approximately 10 men, some of them armed with automatic weapons, entered the dormitory at around 10 p.m., one of them through the window on the second floor. The men demanded the concierge give them Guba’s room key. When they did not find Guba in his room, they took his identity documents, including his passport and student identification, laptop, electronic reader, audio recorder, and 1,000 grivnas (US$ 87)
Guba’s neighbor told him that the men then went through the dormitory room to room, looking for him. Guba managed to hide in a room with the lights off. The men eventually left, and told the concierge to tell Guba to come and collect his documents and equipment at the local SBU office, which had been taken over by DNR supporters.
Before the armed takeover of Sloviansk, during at least one anti-Kiev demonstration, one of the protesters singled out Guba, who was reporting on the event, calling him a “provocateur.” Several other protesters started pushing him and ultimately pulled him away from the protest. He was not physically harmed.
On April 20, anti-Kiev forces seized control of the Sloviansk’s television transmitter and forced off the air two local television stations, CTV and CTV+. Two days later, several of the stations’ journalists tried to access their office, but were stopped and threatened by armed men. A reporter with one of those stations, who asked not to be identified, told Human Rights Watch that when the journalists drove up to the office, they were met by men in camouflage, some in masks, who searched their car and then forced them to leave at gunpoint.
Anti-Kiev forces have also physically assaulted many journalists who are not known to them or whom they suspect of “biased” reporting. For example, on April 12, a journalist came to the city police department building to report on the seizure of the building by armed men. A small group of armed men assaulted Oleg Zontov, editor of SlovInfo, an internet news website that also has a weekly print publication, Novosti Sloviansk. Zontov, who was also an elected member of Sloviansk’s city council and is openly critical of the anti-Kiev armed uprising, told Human Rights Watch that a team of armed men in masks “jumped” at him from the building as he approached it with other journalists, singling him out. They tried to forcibly take him to the police station but were stopped by other local journalist. “They recognized me,” Zontov said. “I’m known locally as a journalist and as an opposition deputy.” Another journalist who witnessed the incident and whom Human Rights Watch spoke with separately corroborated the incident. Zontov told Human Rights Watch that that although SlovInfo continues to operate, the weekly newspaper suspended operations two weeks ago because it was too dangerous to continue to try to publish.
“Dmitri” (pseudonym) is the owner of a small printing press who also ran a weekly independent newspaper. He decided to stop publishing the paper after armed men supporting the uprising took up positions in the building where the printing press is located. Dmitri told Human Rights Watch that a group of about 20 men, some armed, some wearing camouflage, broke into the building on either April 15 or 16. When Dmitri insisted it was his property, the assailants replied, “When the Badera-ites come you’ll end up publishing a fascist newspaper.” The armed men remained in the building for a few days, and then left.
On April 24, armed men returned to the printing press, saying they were confiscating it and that they would compensate Dmitri.
Unidentified supporters of the anti-Kiev uprising in Kramatorsk warned the editors of Novosti Kramatorsk, an independent weekly, about the need to be “objective” in their reporting. A journalist with the newspaper told Human Rights Watch that several days after armed men seized the city administration and other buildings, unidentified callers contacted the newspaper’s leadership, warning that the paper must be “be objective” – for example they should not refer to the armed anti-Kiev forces as “separatists” – or face “problems.” The paper continues to publish, although two of its journalists made clear to Human Rights Watch they did not feel safe.
Just after midnight on April 12, an unknown assailant set fire to a car of Alexei Matsuka, editor of the Donbass News, a pro-Kiev newspaper. The car was parked near Matsuka’s house in Donetsk. Matsuka’s neighbors put the fire out and called the police. Donbass News released a CCTV recording that showed a man pouring a liquid onto the car, setting it on fire, and running away. Before the arson attack, Matsuka had received numerous, anonymous threats through social media and phone calls.
On April 23, unknown assailants threw two Molotov cocktails into the office of Province, a privately funded newspaper in Konstantinovka, a town about 60 kilometers from Donetsk. One room was burned out and a computer damaged. The paper had previously received repeated threats.
Vladimir Berezin, a Province journalist, said the paper, registered in 1999, is known for its critical stance towards the authorities and its anti-corruption stance. Berezin said the paper tried to cover the Maidan events “objectively and report both sides of the story. But when things started happening in the east, the Donetsk Republic people started threatening journalists in the region, including us.”
Berezin said that during a public gathering on March 22, a leader of the local anti-Kiev movement suggested that Province’s office should be “burned to the ground,” and that in the last few weeks, someone wrote on the office door “Right Sector recruits here.” Their office also received threatening phone calls telling them to stop publishing, most recently on April 22. Berezin said the paper has filed a report with the police.
On March 18, a group of five people, including members of the nationalist party Svoboda stormed the office of Channel 1’s acting president and forced him to sign a letter of resignation. In a video of the incident posted to YouTube, the group’s leader, Igor Miroshnychenko, said he was from the Ukrainian parliament’s Committee on Freedom of Speech and Information and forced Oleksandr Panteleymonov to resign because the station had broadcast live from Moscow President Vladimir Putin’s signing of documents annexing Crimea. The assailants manhandled Panteleymonov, forced him into a chair, pushed him, and hit him several times.
On March 19, Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arsenii Yatsenyuk, condemned the assault. In early April, the prosecutor’s office started a criminal investigation into the incident.
On the evening of April 14, an angry mob in Kiev attacked Oleg Tsarev, a presidential candidate who during Euromaidan protests had called on the Kiev authorities to use force against protesters. The mob surrounded him as he was leaving the ICTV studio after participating in a talk show. Human Rights Watch viewed a video of the attack which shows a group of at least 100 people surrounding Tsarev as he exited the building and screaming: “Away!” and “Kill him!” The video shows Tsarev being eventually put in an ambulance and driven away. On April 16, Kiev authorities initiated a criminal investigation case against Tsarev on suspicion of separatism. It is unclear whether the authorities are conducting an investigation into the attack against Tsarev.
On April 6, after a pro-unity concert and rally held in one Kharkiv’s main squares ended without incident, a large anti-Kiev crowd attacked several dozen of the concert organizers and participants. Police had created a security corridor to facilitate the activists’ escape, but the crowd swarmed the corridor, beating the activists as they tried to make their way through for more than an hour. Several of the concert organizers and participants sustained injuries.
Two participants – Vasil Ryabko, a musician, and Taras Shevchenko, a Kharkiv Euromaidan activist – told Human Rights Watch that they were among about 20 people who stayed behind to pack up the equipment when the concert ended at 3 p.m. A group of about 70 men with Russian flags stood by, shouting threats and calling the concert participants “Right Sector fascists.” Police escorted the concert group away from the square down a main street. Anti-Kiev protesters, some of them masked, followed them, shouting and throwing coins and small pieces of pavement.
When the pro-Kiev group reached another street, they saw that it was blocked off by a group of anti-Kiev protesters shouting: “More of us are coming here, you are all finished.” Shevchenko asked a police officer to escort the group to the metro through a back street that was not yet blocked by protesters, but the officer refused.
The group then continued to the next street, which protesters had also blocked. Ryabko and Shevchenko said that at that point the crowd had become very large and that some had knives and homemade explosives. Shevchenko again approached the same police officer asking him to call for reinforcements. Shevchenko said, that the officer responded, “You knew what you signed up for when you attended [the concert]” and “Why should I care?”
The protesters started throwing pieces of pavement, earth, metal bolts and self-made explosive devices at them. Ryabko was hit on the face with a large piece of pavement. The protesters then started grabbing people from Ryabko’s group and beating them. Ryabko was dragged into the crowd, pushed to the ground, and beaten and kicked until a policeman rescued him. He lost seven teeth and sustained multiple injuries, including a broken finger, cuts and bruises as well as internal injuries such as bruised kidneys. Most of the external injuries were still visible when Human Rights Watch spoke with him in Kharkiv on April 10.
The police brought a van and escorted the group into it. Immediately after, the anti-Kiev crowd punctured the van’s tires and started rocking it, smashing the windows, shouting and threatening to burn it. The police told Ryabko’s people to leave the van. Ryabko said:
We told the police that we would rather burn inside the van than face this crowd that police obviously had no control over. But the police opened the doors anyway and formed a corridor to get us out to a different van. The second van stood at the end of the street, 600-700 meters away, but it took us an hour and half to walk through. All the while we were hit and yelled at. The police sometimes would hit us on the back of the legs to make us kneel. I just tried to hide my hands, I am a guitar player, my hands are my bread.
Human Rights Watch viewed a video that shows the activist moving very slowly as the mob pushed and shoved the police, trying to break through, and hitting the group.
Both men told Human Rights Watch that some of the police officers who formed the corridor hit them with batons and called them “fascists.” Ryabko said that one officer hit him on the face.
Human Rights Watch has no information whether any of those involved in the assaults described above against Ryabko and Shevchenko have been detained or charged with any offence.