(Berlin) – Anti-Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine are abducting, attacking, and harassing people they suspect of supporting the Ukrainian government or consider undesirable, Human Rights Watch said today. These forces, who call themselves the “Army of the Southeast,” seized control of the city of Luhansk in April 2014 and since then have abducted dozens of people, beating and torturing some of them.
Human Rights Watch researchers in eastern Ukraine interviewed several people who described being beaten brutally, intimidated, and threatened while in captivity in Luhansk. A member of a pro-Ukraine family in the neighboring Donetsk region also told Human Rights Watch about a raid by armed men at their home during which the assailants shot up their home and viciously beat a 24-year-old man and his father.
“Anti-Kiev insurgents are using beatings and kidnappings to send the message that anyone who doesn’t support them had better shut up or leave,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These forces are out of control, abusing people at will.”
A school principal told Human Rights Watch that anti-Kiev forces abducted her at gunpoint from her school and subjected her to a “people’s tribunal.” “It was so terrifying, I don’t know how my heart didn’t burst,” she said. Another person was beaten for hours and struck with a whip. Insurgent forces also abducted a group of Nigerian students and taunted them with racial slurs. Many victims told Human Rights Watch they did not want to recount their stories or have them publicized because they feared retaliation.
All of the victims Human Rights Watch interviewed had been held in the Luhansk Security Service (SBU) office building, which the insurgents have been using as their headquarters and improvised jail.
Most of the people abducted were released after a day or two, but some are believed to remain in captivity. In most cases the victims are local pro-Ukraine activists or local residents who had expressed pro-Ukraine views. A member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission told Human Rights Watch that since early April, the mission has documented over a dozen similar cases in Luhansk, with at least one person – a former leader of a local pro-Kiev self-defense unit – in captivity since April 28.
An OSCE official in the region told Human Rights Watch that in the past week regular policing has ceased to function in Luhansk.“You see police cars in the streets but you have no idea who is in them,” the official said.
The OSCE mission should report publicly and regularly on these abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Russia should use the influence it has with insurgents to persuade them to stop the kidnappings, beatings, and threats.
“Kidnapping, beatings, and torture are serious crimes and the work of thugs,” Williamson said. “The reign of terror in eastern Ukraine needs to stop.”
On May 14, 2014, a group of armed men abducted Alexandra Shevchenko, 55, the principal of school no. 42 in central Luhansk. They stormed into Shevchenko’s office and led her away at gunpoint in front of students and other teachers. Shevchenko, who is openly pro-Ukraine, told Human Rights Watch that the abductors took her to the Luhansk State Security building, where they interrogated, verbally abused, and repeatedly threatened her.
Five men, some wearing camouflage clothing, arrived at the school at about 1 p.m., Shevchenko said. Two were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and three had other guns:
They told me to follow them. When I refused, they started shouting abuse and threatened to handcuff me and drag me away by force. I asked for a glass of water to take a blood pressure pill and at first they refused but then gave it to me so that I don’t collapse. When I realized that students and teachers of the school where I worked for 20 years would witness me being led away by armed men, I was horrified.
The captors forced Shevchenko into a car and drove her, with the siren on and their weapons “sticking out of the car windows,” to the Luhansk State Security building, she said. They repeatedly threatened her and called her a “provocateur,” a “traitor,” and an “enemy of Russia.” “It was so terrifying, I don’t know how my heart didn’t burst,” Shevchenko said.
At the security service building, several people, some of them armed, interrogated Shevchenko, claiming they were subjecting her to a “tribunal hearing” for her anti-Russia position and threatening that she would be “thrown in jail for 15 years.” The mother of one of her students was brought to the building to “testify” about Shevchenko’s pro-Ukraine views, she said.
Her captors accused her of not allowing school premises to be used for the May 11 referendum on the status of the Luhansk region. They also accused her of “failure to celebrate” the World War II Victory Day on May 9 or to show respect for veterans. Neither of the allegations was true, Shevchenko said. “They [insurgents] screamed at me, made me listen to songs glorifying Russia, said that Ukraine didn’t exist anymore,” Shevchenko said.
After four hours, Shevchenko was released. Her colleagues reported the incident to Luhansk official police authorities, who opened a criminal investigation.
An OSCE official in the Luhansk area told Human Rights Watch about another abduction victim who was ill-treated but feared to report the abuse or even to get medical help. “The level of fear is staggering,” the official said.
On May 3, armed forces opposed to the Kiev government abducted two pro-Kiev activists, severely beating one of them. Forty-year-old Alexei Beda told Human Rights Watch that he went to the Luhansk military conscript office that afternoon with two friends because he heard that anti-Kiev forces were planning to seize it. Someone in the crowd that had gathered to support the seizure of the office recognized Beda and started screaming that he was a “fascist.” He was soon surrounded by a group who were shouting at him and calling him “the Right Sector fascist,” referring to the right-wing Ukrainian nationalist party. Beda said:
I guess the locals called the fighters because five men with guns, some dressed in camouflage, arrived very quickly, grabbed me, tied my hands behind my back with a rope, and wrapped a rope around my neck. They also grabbed [my friend] Anna, who tried to reason with them, forced us both into a car, and drove away.
The abductors took Beda and his friend, Anna Mokrousova, to the State Security building, where the abductors separated them. They took Beda to a room on the fourth floor, where they stripped him naked, tied his hands behind his back with plastic straps, and beat him for an hour and a half. He said:
They took turns beating me and kicking me. They hit me with a rubber truncheon and a chain on my back and shoulders and the back of my neck. At one point, they used a whip. They shouted abuse at me, saying that I was from “Right Sector” and saying, “You will pay for what happened in Odessa” [a reference to recent violence there]. After they finished beating me, they started questioning me. They gave me a piece of paper and said that if I wanted to be released, I should write some “valuable” information about myself and other pro-Ukrainian activists. They threatened to shoot my leg off.
Later that day, a man who introduced himself as a head of the Luhansk forces headquarters told Beda that he would be released, but would have to spend the night at the building because of the curfew imposed in the city. Beda was then allowed to get dressed and his hands were untied. He was then taken to a different room with no bed, where he spent the night.
Mokrousova told Human Rights Watch that after she and Beda were separated, she was taken to a room on the fourth floor:
They checked my cell phone and saw that it had phone numbers of pro-Ukraine activists. I also had my Facebook page and other social networks still open so it was clear to them that I was pro-Ukraine. They called me a “fascist.” Then they went through my bag, found my car registration and asked me for the keys. I said that my friend had the keys and they made me call him and tell him to bring it.
Mokrousova also said that captors verbally abused her and made threats of physical violence:
At one point, after they tied my arms and legs with plastic straps, they put me on the floor near a window where I stayed for a short time, because they expected the building to be shot at by the Ukrainian army. One of the men, more reasonable than others, brought me a blanket. Later it got bad again: they brought several sheets of paper covered in blood and said it was Alexei’s blood and told me they had killed him. They said that I would also not leave there alive.
The next morning, the captors made Beda and Mokrousova mop the hallway floor and released them.
Mokrousova was not harmed physically. Beda had multiple injuries, cuts, and bruises. He told Human Rights Watch that the plastic straps on his wrists damaged his circulation, and that his palms were still numb. Several days after the abduction, Beda and his family left Luhansk for security reasons. A criminal case was opened into Beda’s abduction. Police have not questioned him, however, and he is not aware of how the investigation is progressing.
In a separate incident, on May 18, anti-Kiev forces in Luhansk detained a group of Nigerian students enrolled at Shevchenko University. Human Rights Watch interviewed an activist with Luhansk S.O.S, a local telephone hotline, who said that that at about 2 a.m. on May 18, a young woman had called to report the incident. The caller said that she was in a local café, where she saw a group of seven or eight armed men in camouflage clothing with no insignia entering the café and ordering “all Africans in the room to follow them.” The men then rounded up a group of approximately 20 students from Nigeria and forced them outside, pushing them and using racial slurs.
The caller also said that once the students were taken outside, she heard the sounds of beating and saw the armed men putting the students into a van and driving away. She called the police, but none came. A medical student confirmed to Human Rights Watch that two of his classmates were among those detained.
A YouTube video posted on May 18 that Human Rights Watch viewed shows one of the leaders of the so-called South-Eastern Army of the Luhansk People’s Republic, Vladimir Gromov, standing in front of eight black men. In the video, Gromov refers to the students as “a squad from friendly Africa” and states that they had been “detained” for, among other things, drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana during the curfew.
On May 21, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported that two of the students were still being held at the State Security building and that the mission representatives had been denied access to them.
On May 21, the “Luhansk People’s Republic” press service told Human Rights Watch that all the students had been released and had left Luhansk. On May 22, the president of the Kiev-based African Students Union confirmed that information for Human Rights Watch. Also on May 22, the head of the Luhansk Nigerian Society said in a media interview that unidentified armed people allegedly kidnapped another two Nigerian students and that Nigerians in Luhansk had been targeted in a “manhunt.”
On May 8, three men armed with sawed-off Kalashnikovs broke into the home of a pro-Ukraine activist and terrorized and beat him and his father. “Dmytro,” 24, lives in a small village in the northern Donetsk region with his parents. He told Human Rights Watch that both his parents are openly pro-Ukraine and that his father attended several Maidan protests in Kiev.
Dmytro said that the family was at home on the evening of May 8:
We saw and heard them coming – they broke down our fence and shot at our dog but missed. Father told us to run to the second floor to try and escape through the window onto the roof, but they broke the widow and entered the house. It all happened very fast.
Dmytro said that one of the men chased them up the stairs and shot at but missed his father as he was trying to climb out the window. The men then beat Dmytro and his father, punchingand kicking them and hitting them on the head and chest withthe butts of their guns. The men called Dmytro and his father“fascists” and accused them of being loyal to the “Kiev junta”:
They hit me several times with the butts of their guns.Father tried to resist so they beat him much more. They hit him very hard in his stomach several times. They said: “You know the slogan ‘Glory to Ukraine?’ You should forget that slogan.” They threatened to take us hostage and bring us to the SBU.
Dmytro said that the men then shot at the walls, furniture, and electronic equipment in their house and destroyed a computer monitor and a printer. They took Dmytro’s and his father’s cell phones. Dmytro said that he immediately called the police, who arrived shortly after and examined ammunition shells left on the floor after the shooting. The police opened a criminal investigation.
Dmytro’s father spent the night in the hospital, where he was treated for cuts and bruises on his face and body and a torn earlobe. After his father was discharged, Dmytro and his parents fled the village, but his parents later returned.