(Berlin) – The Ukrainian government investigation into the violence in Odessa on May 2, 2014, should be thorough, impartial, and capable of ensuring that those responsible are held accountable, Human Rights Watch said today in a joint statement with Amnesty International. The violence, and primarily a fire, on May 2 left 46 people dead and injured another 200.
The authorities should also share information about the progress of the investigation with the public, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Both institutions should urgently press the Ukrainian government to ensure that the investigation progresses in a manner that will lead to full accountability.
“Ukrainian society has been deeply traumatized by recent events and bombarded and polarized by rumors and propaganda from all corners,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Odessa victims deserve justice, and until the authorities deliver justice, they can’t begin to bring together Ukraine’s society.”
It will be crucial for the government to keep the public informed about the progress of the investigation to stem rumors and speculation, Human Rights Watch said.
Violent clashes broke out at about 3 p.m. on May 2 in Odessa’s center between supporters of the interim authorities in Kiev and protesters opposing the Kiev authorities, and spread to other parts of the city.
Information gleaned from video and Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses in Odessa indicate that the opposing groups fought each other with wooden batons, Molotov cocktails, chunks of asphalt, and the like. After a government supporter was shot dead, the Kiev supporters attacked a large group of anti-Kiev protesters who had been camped outside the trade union building for several months. They sought cover in the building, which was subsequently set on fire, trapping many in the flames. Many died from burns, smoke inhalation, and gunshot wounds.
The investigation should not only identify the causes of the fire but also examine police failure to contain the violence, Human Rights Watch said. Video footage available on the Internet and Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses strongly indicate that police merely stood by as the violence took place. One witness told Human Rights Watch, “The police just stood there – they saw people fighting violently but said that they won’t intervene until they receive an order to do so.”
The prosecutor general’s office is investigating the violence, and the internal affairs minister announced on his Facebook page that foreign experts would be invited to join the group. On May 4 Acting Prime Minister Areseny Yatsenyuk dismissed the Odessa police chief and his deputy.
Each side accuses the other of instigating the violence, and, given the role played by the local police during the clashes, they do not trust the authorities to conduct an impartial investigation.
“The investigation into the Odessa violence will be closely scrutinized within Ukraine and by the international community, and rightly so,” Williamson said. “It is an important test for the Ukrainian authorities, and they have to get this right – for the sake of dozens of victims and their own credibility at home and abroad.”