(Kiev) – Ukrainian police assaulted and injured dozens of journalists and medical workers while trying to disperse street fighters and protesters in Kiev from January 19 to 22, 2014. Ukraine’s international partners should press Ukraine to investigate serious human rights violations and prosecute those responsible in accordance with international due process standards.
During its ongoing investigation of the government response to protests in Kiev, Human Rights Watch documented 13 cases in which the police beat journalists or medical workers, shot them with rubber bullets, or injured them with stun grenades. Ukrainian nongovernmental groups documented more than 60 such cases. Available evidence suggests that in many cases police deliberately targeted journalists and medics who were not participating in the protests.
“It is possible to accidentally hit one journalist or medic during violent confrontations, but not dozens,” said Anna Neistat, associate program director at Human Rights Watch, who is in Kiev. “Police faced enormous challenges during the street fighting, but that’s no excuse for deliberately targeting reporters and medics or for not taking precautions to spare them.”
Most of the journalists and medical workers were injured during the violent clashes on Hrushevskogo Street on January 19. Police used tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and water cannons to disperse protesters, some of whom were throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks and were carrying baseball bats and large sticks with pointed ends. Other journalists were injured in confrontations in Kiev in the following days.
In all cases Human Rights Watch documented, journalists said they were wearing a brightly colored vest marked “Press,” or a helmet with the same marking, and were holding video cameras, photo cameras, or tripods.
On January 19, journalists stayed together as a large group away from the direct line of confrontation between the protesters on the one hand and riot police and Interior Ministry troops on the other. Several journalists interviewed independently told Human Rights Watch that police threw more than 20 stun grenades toward the group, injuring at least eight journalists with shrapnel.
Other journalists were hit directly by rubber bullets, some in the face or on their hands as they were holding their equipment. In one case Human Rights Watch documented, the police threw a young female photographer to the ground, hit her on the head, kicked her, and shot her with a rubber bullet at close range as she was trying to escape. Ukrainian groups documented additional cases of such direct attacks.
The paramedics and medical volunteers Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were wearing clothing clearly marked with a red cross. They said that as they rushed in to access and evacuate the wounded, the police made no attempt to hold fire, and some believed the police tried to hit them directly. The medics said that the indiscriminate, and possibly targeted, police fire made it very difficult to assist the injured effectively.
A statement posted on the Interior Ministry’s website on January 23 said that police using a loudspeaker had ordered protesters to disperse several times on January 19, warned them that their violent actions were unlawful, and said that the police would have no choice but to use force [in Ukrainian, “special means”] against them. Such warnings, however, do not relieve the police of their duty to exercise restraint and in no way justify any deliberate attack against journalists or media workers.
Law enforcement agencies have the right and duty to stop violent attacks on police and public buildings, Human Rights Watch said. But in doing so, they are obliged to respect basic human rights standards in the treaties to which they are party, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and those specifically governing the use of force in police operations as embodied in the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
The Basic Principles, requiring restraint and proportionality in the use of force, explicitly call on law enforcement officials to “ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment.” The failure to protect medical personnel, let alone deliberate targeting of medics, violates this principle.
Targeting journalists covering public protest is also incompatible with Ukraine’s human rights obligations, and specifically the requirement to respect the right to freedom of expression, including media freedom.
The Ukrainian authorities should conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the incidents in which the riot police used force against journalists and medical workers, Human Rights Watch said.
Given that the authorities have made little progress in investigating prior incidents of police violence, Ukraine’s international partners should press Ukraine for criminal investigations and prosecutions in accordance with international human rights obligations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, both of which include Ukraine as a member, should urgently consider their role ensuring independent and impartial monitoring and reporting on human rights developments and progress on investigations in Ukraine.
“Journalists and medical workers were performing their professional duties, were unarmed, and posed no danger to the police during the Kiev protests,” Neistat said. “Every instance of violence against them should be fully investigated and those responsible should be punished.”
Attacks on Journalists
A list of attacked and injured journalists maintained by the Institute of Mass Information, a Ukrainian group, contains 60 names. Forty-eight of the journalists listed were injured or attacked in Kiev, and the rest in other cities, including Cherkasy, Dnepropetrovsk, and Zaporozhye. The majority work for Ukrainian media outlets, three are Russian, another three are Belarusian, and one is described as an unidentified foreign journalist. The actual number of attacked journalists could be higher, as Human Rights Watch documented several cases not included in the list.
According to the Institute of Mass Information, 22 journalists were hit, many of them injured, by stun grenades shrapnel; 21 were shot with rubber bullets; 9 were beaten by the police, and another 6 by alleged pro-government thugs; and 7 were detained. Some were attacked more than once. The lists said that one journalist was hit by a rock thrown by protesters.
Human Rights Watch was able to independently verify and document a number of these cases. In the majority, available evidence strongly suggests that the police deliberately targeted the journalists while they were covering confrontations.
All journalists Human Rights Watch interviewed said they had been wearing vests or helmets clearly marked “Press.” Several said they wore the bright orange vests because the Interior Ministry had issued a directive requiring journalists to wear vests clearly marked “Press” as a protective measure against being attacked during confrontations, as a result of police violence against journalists in 2013.
All the journalists interviewed were also carrying equipment – photo or video cameras and tripods – making it difficult to confuse them with protesters, especially those who were attacking the police.
Anton Berezhnoi, a technician and cameraman for Spilno TV, an independent, Ukrainian live streaming Internet television channel, told Human Rights Watch that on January 19, he was filming the confrontations on Hrushevskogo Street. As the confrontations intensified, with the protesters throwing rocks at the police and police responding with stun grenades, he moved to the sidelines.
Berezhnoi told Human Rights Watch that he was first hit by what appeared to be a stun grenade on the upper arm. A large bruise was still clearly visible at the time of the interview on January 27. He then moved further away from the crowd and set up his camera to film:
I was standing at a distance, in the area where there seemed to be no shooting. Suddenly, I felt that something hit my hand with which I was holding the tripod. The tripod broke, and I felt pain in my hand. Trying to protect the equipment – we don’t have a lot – I then ran away from the scene, and when I took off my glove, my hand was covered in blood.
I wasn’t wearing my orange “press” jacket because we heard that journalists wearing them were being targeted, but I had my helmet on, with the words “Press” and “Spilno TV” written on it. I had my camera on the tripod, and I was standing away from the crowd – there was no way the police could have mistaken me for a protester.
Berezhnoi went to a hospital on the outskirts of Kiev to have his wound treated – he said he was afraid of going to any of the hospitals in the city because the police had arrested some injured people at the hospitals. Berezhnoi’s doctors said that his finger was broken. At the time of the interview, his hand was still in a cast.
Roman Malko, a photographer with Ukrainskiy Tizhden magazine, told Human Rights Watch that at around 7 p.m. on January 20 he was covering the confrontations on Hrushevskogo Street. He was wearing a bright orange vest marked “Press” and a white helmet, and had a long white lens on his camera.
At one point, Malko moved away from the crowd and took a few pictures standing on the left side, away from the line of fire:
I took a few pictures, staying on the same spot for a few minutes – before, I kept changing position all the time, making sure to avoid being shot. Then I lowered the camera to look at the photos, and a second later something my hit me hard in the right eye. Everything went black, but I didn’t fall down. I think they shot me deliberately, most likely, trying to hit the camera.
I ran to a makeshift medical center on the other side of the street, but they said my injury was too severe for them to handle and sent me to another one, where the doctors provided first aid. I didn’t want to go to the hospital because I heard that injured people get arrested at the hospital, but I had no choice. We called an ambulance, but it never came. After waiting for about half an hour, I walked for about a kilometer to a place where some ambulances were parked. They took me to the hospital.
Malko said that at the hospital he received multiple stitches in the eye area. Doctors told him if the rubber bullet had hit just a few millimeters to the right, he would have lost the eye. The doctors also told him that on January 19 and 20, more than 20 people were brought to the hospital with severe eye injuries and recommended that Malko register his injury with the hospital as not related to the protests.
Ola Shatna, a 21-year-old journalist, told Human Rights Watch that on January 22 she was standing on the sidewalk near European Square taking pictures of the riot police unit “Berkut” as its members moved in to disperse the crowd on Hrushevskogo Street. She wore a bright orange vest marked “Press” and a white helmet. She said that four policemen approached her and told her to leave. As she started to move away, however, they attacked her:
I turned around to walk away, and in a split second I found myself knocked to the ground, heard a dull sound, and saw my helmet, broken, on the ground. They must have hit me on the head with a baton, I didn’t even understand what happened, as they started kicking me. They took away my phone and threatened to break my camera.
They said, “Get lost, run and complain to the medical center, tell them you’ve been beaten up.” They were just making fun and insulting me. I managed to get up and started retreating backward, still begging them to return my cell phone. At this point, when I was five or six meters away from them, one of the policemen raised his rifle and shot me with a rubber bullet in the shoulder. The bullet didn’t go through my thick coat, but hit me hard.
Footage by Channel 5 Ukrainian TV, which captured the attack against Shatna on video, confirms her account.
Mstislav Chernov, a photographer who was on an assignment with the Ukrainian Red Cross, told Human Rights Watch that at around 4 p.m. on January 22 he was taking pictures of people on the barricades on Hrushevskogo Street. He said that at one point the confrontation lessened, with the crowd throwing some rocks, and police responded with stun grenades:
I did not expect to be attacked. I was in my orange vest, and things were – comparatively – quiet. I was looking through the camera and did not see a grenade that exploded right next to me. It seemed directed straight at me as it exploded right at my feet and there was nobody else nearby. I saw a flash of light, and for a few seconds [could not see or hear].
Then I saw blood on my pants and ran to a makeshift medical center nearby. The medics there took out one large and lots of small pieces of shrapnel out of my legs. It turned out that there were also pieces of shrapnel in my eyes. To treat my eyes, I went to a hospital in Kharkov fearing that in Kiev the police might arrest me if I sought medical treatment. In Kharkov the doctors helped me, but did not register my case to avoid having to report it to the police.
Human Rights Watch is not able to verify where Chernov was standing in relation to the protesters when he was hit, leaving it unclear whether the stun grenade was more likely deliberately targeted at him or indiscriminately fired in his direction. Either way, his case fits the pattern of police actions in which no effort seems to have been taken to minimize to the greatest extent possible risk of injury or life to protesters and those carrying out professional functions.
At least eight other journalists, most of them from Spilno TV, were also injured by stun grenade shrapnel and rubber bullets while they were standing in a large group of media workers covering the confrontations on January 19 on Hrushevskogo Street, according to five journalists from a group whom Human Rights Watch interviewed separately. Some had serious injuries to their eyes, faces, and legs.
The journalists told Human Rights Watch that almost everyone in the group was wearing an orange vest marked “Press,” and that they were hiding from the main line of confrontation behind a massive billboard. They said the police threw at least 20 grenades in their direction, and that four or five hit their group.
Galina Sadomtseva, a Spilno TV editor, told Human Rights Watch that, as she was talking to one of her crew members around 5 p.m., the police threw a stun grenade that landed and exploded next to their feet. Sadomtseva had serious cuts on her legs that required stitches and minor cuts on her face. At that point she told her cameramen to leave, but some of them stayed behind and continued filming.
She later found out that two had been seriously injured by rubber bullets when police apparently opened fire directly at them. Anatoli Lazarenko had serious arm injuries. Yanek Falkevich, standing next to him, was hit by several bullets in the left eye, chin, and legs.
The January confrontations were not the first time police have attacked journalists covering protests in Ukraine. In December 2013 Human Rights Watch and other organizations documenteda similar pattern of abuses against journalists during the dispersal of protests.
In a December 2 statement, Dunja Mijatović, the representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, expressed concern about police violence against reporters at the demonstrations in Kiev and called on the Ukrainian authorities to investigate the attacks on journalists. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any efforts by the Ukrainian authorities to carry out such investigations.
Attacks on Medical Workers
Many witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch in connection with the protests in Kiev, including protesters, journalists, and medics, said the police either directly targeted medical workers trying to rescue and provide first aid to injured protesters – including those engaged in the violent confrontations – or continued firing indiscriminately during the evacuation efforts. As a result, medical personnel were injured, and the wounded were in some cases deprived of necessary and timely medical assistance.
Witnesses said that all doctors, paramedics, nurses, and medical volunteers assisting the injured during protests were wearing clothing unmistakably indicating their role: Ukrainian Red Cross jackets or a white T-shirt worn on top of winter clothes with red cross and “Medical Aid” written in red letters. Many wore white helmets with a red cross as well. As they ran to the scene to evacuate the injured and deliver them to ambulances parked at a distance, they carried stretchers and medical kits.
The witnesses said the medical personnel on the scene of the confrontations appeared to be neutral, assisting both the injured protesters and the police. Two of the medical workers Human Rights Watch interviewed cited two separate episodes in which they assisted members of the Berkut riot police unit injured by the crowd.
Medical workers told Human Rights Watch that the police fire made it challenging for them to assist and evacuate the wounded.
One of the Red Cross paramedics working on Hrushevskogo Street during the night on January 19, 2014, said the police grabbed injured protesters and dragged them into their buses, preventing the medics from providing assistance. Witnesses said that Red Cross paramedics managed to convince the police to release the severely wounded, mainly those who could not move or had serious head injuries. But the police did not release those with less serious injuries and did not allow the paramedics to provide them with first aid.
Vasil (not his real name), a paramedic with the Ukrainian Red Cross, told Human Rights Watch that a group of about 10 medics reached Hrushevskogo Street on the night of January 19 to assist and evacuate the wounded:
We were all wearing official Red Cross clothing – bright red jackets with glow-in-the-dark crosses, red helmets, [and we had] red medical kits and stretchers. We moved in groups and it was impossible not to see who we were.
At some point, together with a partner, we ran toward a protester who fell on the ground face down. I kneeled toward him to turn him and access the injuries, with my back to the police. At that moment, two [rubber] bullets hit me on the back, one after the other, right on the cross emblem. The impact was hard. I fell on the protester, my breath knocked out. I managed to get up but could not carry the guy and asked for support. I still have a large bruise on my back.
Another paramedic, who also asked to remain anonymous, also said that on January 19 at around 9 p.m., his brigade was rescuing the wounded from the confrontations on Hrushevskogo Street. At some point, their group of five, all wearing red jackets, helmets, and carrying stretchers and a radio, was crossing the street to pick up an injured protester who had fallen to the ground. The paramedic said he heard a loud explosion and immediately felt his left arm going numb and heat on his hip:
I was scared to even look at my arm. We were just evacuating a guy whose hand was blown off by a grenade explosion. But then I continued to work and realized that my hand was still functional; apparently, I was hit by a blast wave.
One of the medical volunteers, Taras (not his real name), told Human Rights Watch that on January 19 they were helping to carry the injured protesters to an ambulance parked 500 meters away:
We were carrying an injured guy away on stretchers. A stun grenade exploded next to us, [we put the stretcher down] and I tried to cover the face of our patient with my hands. At that point, another grenade hit, and injured both of my hands. I took off my gloves and saw that both of my hands were covered in blood. The shrapnel hit my head as well, but I was wearing a helmet and it didn’t go through.
I personally heard people begging the Berkut to let the medics through and to avoid hitting them.…
At the time of the interview on January 28, Taras’s hands were still in bandages – he said he had multiple burns, cuts, and bruises.
Several witnesses – two medical volunteers and a volunteer guard – also described to Human Rights Watch an attack on a makeshift medical center set up on Hrushevskogo Street to assist those wounded in confrontations.
The witnesses said that in the afternoon of January 22, as the police were pushing the crowd down Hrushevskogo Street, some of the crowd tried to seek shelter in the medical center. The center was clearly marked by two large white banners with red crosses hanging on the wall near the entrance. Members of the Berkut riot police unit, clearly identifiable by their uniforms, started shooting and throwing grenades at the doors of the center, and, once the glass on the doors was broken, threw several grenades inside.
The volunteer guards managed to lead the injured and the medical personal out through the back doors (they said they were prepared for this possibility), and nobody was injured. However, a group of about 20 policemen ransacked the medical center and destroyed its medical resources and instruments.
Human Rights Watch has also documented the case of a 22-year-old medical volunteer, Oleksandra Khailak, whom the police detained as she was boarding the train when they saw her volunteer medical service pass. They later dumped her in a forest.