(Donetsk) – Self-proclaimed authorities in eastern Ukraine should immediately release people held in captivity and put an end to abductions by armed men acting on their behalf. The fate of dozens of captives remains unknown, and those released whom Human Rights Watch interviewed reported severe beatings in captivity.
“Armed men affiliated with anti-Kiev forces have been snatching up activists, journalists, and local officials,” said Anna Neistat, associate program director at Human Rights Watch. “Some who’ve been released are bruised and injured, while the fate of dozens of others is not known.”
On May 4, 2014, anti-Kiev forces abducted six men, three of them town council members, from the town of Novogradovka. They were released the following day. All had been severely beaten, and some were seriously injured.
Human Rights Watch also documented the abduction on May 1 of Artem Popyk and on April 29 of Yaroslav Malanchuk, members of the local election commission in Konstantinovka. Their fate and whereabouts remain unknown.
On May 3, anti-Kiev forces in Sloviansk released unharmed seven military observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and their Ukrainian escorts.
Human rights law is fully applicable to all of Ukraine, including areas under the effective control of self-proclaimed authorities. Everyone involved has the responsibility to respect human rights, and the authorities claiming to exercise power in the territory need to ensure that forces under their control do not abuse human rights. The Ukrainian authorities, including the police, should take all possible measures to fulfill their obligations to protect people from abuse by all armed groups and to punish anyone who commits abuse.
“Anti-Kiev forces should immediately free all captives and rein in the armed men under their command,” Neistat said. “Foreign governments should use their influence to ensure that non-state forces in Eastern Ukraine stop abusing people and to secure the release and well-being of the captives.”
On May 4, a large group of armed men abducted six residents of Novogradovka, 40 kilometers northwest of Donetsk: Aleksandr Vovk and Aleksandr Gurov, members of the Independent Trade Union of Ukrainian Miners; Konstantin Museiko, Valeriy Pavlik, and Oleg Bubich, members of the Novogradovka town council; and one other man.
Vovk told Human Rights Watch that on May 4 he had been in Museiko’s house, together with Pavlik, Bubich, Gurov, and one young man whose name he did not know. At around 3 p.m., a group of about 10 men armed with automatic weapons and wearing camouflage uniforms and black balaclavas stormed into the yard and dragged the men out of the house. The abduction took place in broad daylight, just steps away from the town police station. Vovk said:
They shot in the air and killed Museiko’s dog in the yard. They screamed, “On the ground, bastards!” pushed us to the ground and then dragged us into Museiko’s minibus, parked nearby.
As they drove us away, Gurov and I managed to jump out of the car, but they caught us. They brought us to the regional council building in Donetsk [headquarters for the self-proclaimed “Donetsk Republic”], brought us up the stairs, pushed us on the floor and started beating. I was trying to cover my head, but they kept kicking me on the head and face with their feet. They were in masks, didn’t introduce themselves, and were accusing me of being a “Banderovetsk [pro-Kiev].”
Vovk said that all six men were interrogated separately and that he could hear the sounds of beatings and screams from the adjacent room. Around 1 a.m. on May 5, Vovk said, the captors released him, Pavlik, and Bubich and told them to go home. The captors took the men’s money and kept Vovk’s pension card, although they did return other documents they had confiscated.
At the time of the interview with Human Rights Watch, Vovk’s face, especially his eyes, were covered in bruises, and he said that both his head and his body hurt. He went to the local hospital to seek medical assistance and register his injuries. He said that as a result of the beatings, Bubich had several broken ribs, and Pavlik had serious head injuries.
Museiko, who was released in the afternoon of May 5 with Gurov and the other man, said that various groups of men had beaten him “every 15 minutes,” broke his ribs, and injured his ear, eye, and nose, and threatened to shoot him and cut off his ears. He said that Gurov was also badly beaten: “He had a tattoo on his arm with a Ukrainian flag and words ‘Vivat Ukraine, vivat the heroes!’ So, they mainly beat him on this arm – it was all black and swollen almost twice in size.”
Museiko said that the abductors shot through the walls and windows of his house, turned everything upside down, and took money and gold jewelry.
Yaroslav Malanchuk and Artem Popyk
A group of men in camouflage uniforms on April 29 abducted Malanchuk, 46, a member of the nationalist Svoboda political party and a representative in the local election commission in the town of Konstantinovka. A witness told Human Rights Watch that Malanchuk had been talking to her on the phone at about 7 p.m. while heading back home from a bus stop:
He said somebody invited him for a meeting, and he was heading there before going home. I got worried – he didn’t know who the men who asked for a meeting were. Suddenly, I heard some noise and then the sound on the phone got muffled – he must have put it in his pocket. I heard him screaming and begging, “Don’t hit me,” and someone responded, “Crawl to the trunk on your knees.” Then the connection was lost.
I found some witnesses who confirmed that a group of masked men beat him and took him away in the trunk of their car, but they wouldn’t tell me anything more – everybody is so afraid.
The witness said that following inquiries from regional Svoboda leaders, the police opened a criminal investigation into the abduction and questioned her, but she was not aware that the investigators had made any progress. Unofficial sources told her that Malanchuk was being held in the office of the Ukrainian security service, SBU, in Sloviansk, which is under control of anti-Kiev forces.
The next day, shortly after midnight, a group of armed men arrived at the home of Popyk, 26, who is the head of Svoboda’s Konstantinovka branch and a member of the local electoral commission.
Popyk’s mother told Human Rights Watch that when they heard someone banging on the door, Popyk called the police. The police, his mother said, told Popyk to “pack his things and run.”
But Popyk had nowhere to run and instead hid under a bed in her bedroom just as the men broke open the door and came in. She said that the three men who entered the house wore camouflage uniforms and black masks and that one of them had an automatic gun. They asked for Popyk and searched the house. They dragged him from under the bed, used pepper spray to disorient him, pushed him on the floor, and handcuffed him. She said:
They dragged him out like a dog, and I saw them pushing him into the trunk of their car. I kept asking where and why they were taking him, but they only said, “Just need to do some brainwashing.” They took him away barefoot, in his t-shirt and sports pants.
Popyk’s mother said the police came to the house after the kidnappers left. They asked questions and wrote a statement that the mother signed. The following day she tried to formally register the abduction with the local police and make sure they open a criminal investigation, but because of the public holiday nobody was there to take her statement.
She also inquired at the offices of the city council, which was under the control of anti-Kiev forces, but the men there told her they had no information about Popyk’s whereabouts. Unofficial sources told her that Popyk was first taken to Kramatorsk and then held by the SBU in Sloviansk.