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(Donetsk) – Armed insurgents in eastern Ukrainehave gone on a violence spree before the May 25, 2014 presidential elections, terrorizing staff of the district electoral commissions. The police, who are legally obligated to provide around-the-clock protection for electoral commissions, have not intervened and in some cases assisted the attackers.

“The violence by insurgents in eastern Ukraine has spiraled out of control,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Armed groups are targeting electoral commission staff in eastern Ukraine for simply doing their job.”

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 10 electoral commission representatives and candidates in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who described the increasing obstacles they have faced in preparing for the elections. Armed insurgents have raided and seized offices and destroyed equipment and paperwork. They have abducted and threatened electoral commission staff. Seven political activists monitoring the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk regions described to Human Rights Watch additional instances of attacks and intimidation of electoral commissions staff.

Most of those interviewed told Human Rights Watch that the police were largely unarmed and appeared to have no ability or willingness to deter or apprehend the attackers. Some said that the police allowed the insurgents to enter their electoral commission office, stood by without interference, and sometimes assisted the attackers during raids.

“I was immediately alarmed, not only by the presence of armed men,” one election official told Human Rights Watch, “but also by the fact that the two police officers, instead of showing them out, were having a friendly chat with them.”

A staff member of a district electoral commission in the city of Donetsk told Human Rights Watch that police officers looked on “helplessly” as armed insurgents entered the commission’s premises, handcuffed the commission chair, put him in a car, and drove away on May 22. He is still missing. The chair of a district electoral commission in Luhansk told Human Rights Watch that when she called the police to report threats she had received by phone, the police told her to “keep quiet if she wanted to live.” The same official said that many electoral commission members quit because they were too scared to come to work.

Starting in April, representatives of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk and People’s Republic of Luhansk have issued “decrees” that “banned” presidential elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and threatened to “execute” anyone who takes part in the elections in these regions. On April 23, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed “mayor” of Sloviansk in the Donetsk region, told the media that his supporters were ready to “torture hostages” to ensure the elections fail. Denis Pushilin, co-chair of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, said that the Ukrainian presidential election would not be held on the territory of the People’s Republic of Donetsk because “Ukraine is a different state.”

On May 24, a high-level representative of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said at a media briefing that 9 out of 22 district electoral commissions in Donetsk region and 8 out of 12 in Luhansk region have ceased functioning due to raids and attacks on the commission staff by armed insurgents.

“The police failure or unwillingness to respond to these terrifying attacks is alarming,” Williamson said. “Election officials are completely helpless in the face of armed thugs who are abducting and harassing them.”

Luhansk Region

Raid on District Electoral Commission No. 110

Antonida Melnik, 57, chair of the 110th district electoral commission in Luhansk region, said armed men who said they were “fighters of the Army of the Southeast,” broke into the premises of the commission, which services 160,000 voters, and seized materials and computer equipment. They pointed a gun at her and threatened to execute her and two other commission staff members for helping to organize “unlawful elections.”

On May 21, at approximately 11 a.m., a group of men wearing camouflage, some of them armed, entered the Youth and Children’s Center building, where the 110th district electoral commission is located on the ground floor. Melnik told Human Rights Watch that she heard some noise and stepped into the hallway, where she saw a group of armed men talking to two police officers:

I was immediately alarmed, not only by the presence of armed men in the Youth and Children’s Center, but also by the fact that the two police officers, instead of showing them out, were having a friendly chat with them. I came and asked what they were doing there and pointed out that there were kids on the premises.

Melnik said that when she did not get any response from either the armed men or the police, she returned to her office and closed the door. She said that she suspected trouble and told staff to grab whatever documents they could and leave through the back door. Melnik and two staff stayed behind and started gathering sensitive documents in order to hide them in a safe, when the men entered the office:

There were 12 of them altogether. Four came in and the rest remained outside. They closed the door. One of the police was with them, he must have shown them where to go because we had taken down all the signs and our door is not marked. I told them to leave and that they had no right to be there. One man with a gun started picking up things – papers, office supplies, election materials – then threw them on the floor and kicked them. Another pulled out a piece of paper, shoved it into my face and said:, “Can you read? This document says that the elections are banned.” I said that I was a Ukrainian citizen and followed Ukrainian law. In response, one of them said that they will “execute” those who do not obey the election ban. He aimed a gun at my chest and cocked the gun.

Melnik ran into the computer room followed by the two remaining staff members. They locked the door behind them and attempted to flee through the back door, but it was locked. They then climbed out through the window:

The office is on the ground floor, but it is quite high. We grabbed whatever papers we could and climbed out through the window. We saw a man in camouflage running towards us, screaming, “What documents did you take?” We saw that he did not have a gun and ran as fast as we could. We saw a bank and ran inside. We hid there until it was safe to leave.

Melnik said that some commission staff who had left earlier and were hiding in a park across the street saw the men loading up papers, election materials, computers, and other equipment into a car parked outside the building after Melnik had fled. They also said they saw both police officers helping them load the car.

She tried to call the police but all the lines were busy. “I didn’t try again,” she said. “There is no point. Police are useless around here.”

Melnik said that since early May, People’s Republic of Luhansk representatives have repeatedly harassed, intimidated, and threatened her and other commission members. Armed men came to the commission office on May 10, but left when no one opened the door. That day, Melnik received intimidating phone calls from a man who introduced himself as a “referendum official” for the People’s Republic of Luhansk:

Some man called me on May 10, the day before the “referendum” [on the independence of the Luhansk region] and invited me for a conversation about the upcoming presidential elections. I told him I had nothing to talk to him about. I said that I was appointed by the legitimate Ukrainian authorities who tasked me with preparing for the presidential elections on May 25 and that I intended to do just that. He responded, “You are a brave woman. But after tomorrow, we will make sure that you feel very scared.” He called me several times and threatened me in a similar manner.

Melnik reported the phone calls to the local police, who said that there was nothing they could do and that they have no control over the insurgents. She said,

When I told the policeman I felt threatened by these phone calls, he did not even listen to me. He said there was nothing they could do and advised that, if I wanted to live, I must lay low until the elections. He also advised me to switch off my phone.

Attack on staff of the District Electoral Commission No. 105

Valentin Tkalich, chair of District Electoral Commission No. 105 in Luhansk city told Human Rights Watch that at about 7 p.m. on May 15, a group of armed men broke into the premises of the commission and seized all election-related materials, computer servers containing personal data of all commission members, and other sensitive information. No staff members were in the office at the time, but a witness later told Tkalich that the police officers guarding the premises did not stop the attackers.

Tkalich said that at about 9:30 p.m. the same evening, eight men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles arrived at his home. When his wife opened the door to feed a dog in the courtyard, she saw a group of armed men standing outside. Five men forced their way in and the rest remained outside. The attackers twisted her arms behind her back, pointed a gun at her, and told her that they were looking for her husband. They ordered her to call her husband, but his cell phone was switched off. Two of the attackers then searched the house and took his computer and some election-related materials. According to Tkalich, his wife told him that the two men who conducted the search acted like professionals and “knew exactly what they were looking for.” They also questioned the wife about Tkalich’s activities during the winter Maidan protests, where he had spent two months. They implied that Tkalich was from the right-wing Ukrainian nationalist movement Right Sector and asked her, “Does he shoot well?” and “How many people did he kill at Maidan?”

After the attackers left, Tkalich’s wife called his second cell phone and told him to not come home. Tkalich spend the night at a friend’s place, and in the morning, he fled to another city.

Donetsk region

Abduction of Ruslan Kudryavtsev, Chair of District Electoral Commission No. 43

On May 22, a large group of armed men raided the premises of district electoral commission No. 43 in Donetsk and abducted its chair, Ruslan Kudryavtsev, 45. Kudryavtsev’s fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

One of the commission staff, “Anna,” who witnessed the raid and the abduction, told Human Rights Watch that on May 22 just after 9 a.m., she received a phone call from a colleague. The colleague said that two men, who introduced themselves as representatives of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, came to the office and demanded that she hand over the commission’s seal and documentation. When Anna arrived at the office 15 minutes later, she saw 12 men in camouflage and balaclavas carrying truncheons jump out of a van and run into the building. She said that the four unarmed policemen on duty to protect the commission let the men through.

Anna said that Kudryavtsev arrived shortly after and started negotiating with the attackers. Ten more men in camouflage and balaclavas, some armed with military rifles, arrived 10 minutes later and entered the office. The attackers, who said that they were from the People’s Republic of Donetsk, seized all the election-related documentation from the commission’s safe. They also took the computer and the commission’s seal and left.

A group of armed men again came to the commission premises later on the same day. Anna told Human Rights Watch,

It was approximately 3 p.m. when I heard Ruslan [Kudryavtsev] shouting from the hallway, “Ladies, grab your things, we’ve got more visitors!” I peeked outside and saw that the hall was swarming with men with automatic weapons. They were all masked so I could not say if they were the same men who raided us that morning.

Several women, accompanied by a monitor from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and a translator who happened to be there, attempted to leave, but the attackers did not let them through. Anna said,

The OSCE person was French. He could not understand anything and they started shouting at him and did not let him leave.… I tried to intervene on his behalf explaining he was from an international organization, but they only got mad and started yelling at me too. Finally they allowed him out of the hall. We also got out in a short while, but they [armed men] took away our secretary’s personal laptop, went through our bags.… We went out into the courtyard and there was a small white bus, along with several other vehicles. On the side of the bus, there was this sign, “Battalion East.” I saw that several armed men were leading Ruslan out of the building. Ruslan was handcuffed. They pushed him into that bus and drove away.

Anna called the police to report the abduction. Police officials questioned the witnesses, examined the scene of crime, and opened a criminal investigation.

Kudryavtsev’s wife, Alina, told Human Rights Watch that the day before her husband’s abduction, he had a meeting with two “representatives of the Donetsk People Republic, who told him ‘to stop the commission’s work or else.’” According to Alina, who filed a police report the day after the abduction, she has been receiving conflicting information regarding her husband’s situation. On May 22, an acquaintance affiliated with the Donetsk People’s Republic’s leadership told her that Kudryavtsev was being held on the 5th floor of the regional administration building, with several other captives from election commissions. On May 23, he said that he had checked and that Kudryavtsev was actually being held in the security services (SBU) building, which is occupied by the insurgents. That day, the district police chief working on the case told her that Kudryavtsev was “most likely” being held in the regional administration building. Alina said that despite her request, he did not explain how the police would proceed and whether they had any plans to rescue her husband.

Attack on staff-members of a campaigning office in electoral district No. 42

“Anatoly,” the regional campaign manager for one of the presidential candidates, described to Human Rights Watch the May 6 attack on the chair of the candidate's campaigning office in electoral district No. 42 and their driver.

Anatoly said that the two men were attacked in the afternoon near a garage used for storing election-related materials located not far from the office. The two men later told Anatoly that when they arrived at the garage to store some election materials, four armed men were waiting for them. They shot in the air and ordered them to drop to the ground face-down. Two uniformed policemen approached the scene and called out to the attackers, “Don’t shoot, we are with you.” The police lingered for a moment and then walked away.

The attackers dragged the two men into the garage, tied them up, put bags over their heads, and started beating them without asking any questions. After an hour, they took both men outside, released the driver, forced the other one into a car and took him to the second floor of the Donetsk regional administration building. They also seized all election-related materials stored in the garage. The abductors held their victim for over four hours, beat him, and threatened to kill him.

Anatoly told Human Rights Watch that during those four hours he called his colleague’s phone number multiple times. Several times, a man he did not know answered. Anatoly could hear the sounds of beating in the background. He asked the man to release his colleague, explaining that he was simply doing his job:

I was telling them, “He is just an ordinary staffer, he is not someone important, he doesn’t control anything.” …In response they were saying things like, “Come and join us and we’ll kill the both of you,” and saying that I was from the Right Sector. When they finally released him in the evening he was in a very bad shape. He still has kidney problems and needs medical treatment.

Anatoly said that both men have since turned off their phones and gone into hiding. He also said that neither of the two victims filed an official complaint with the police for fear of retaliation: “They saw police officers basically collaborating with those criminals. Of course they are not going to report anything.”

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