Skip to main content

(Berlin) – Russian-backed insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine are arbitrarily detaining civilians and subjecting them to torture, degrading treatment, and forced labor. They also have detained civilians for use as hostages.

Beginning in April 2014, armed fighters supporting the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) have captured hundreds of civilians, targeting presumed critics, including journalists, pro-Ukrainian political activists, religious activists, and in some cases their family members.

“Pro-Russian insurgents are regularly committing horrendous crimes,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There are solid grounds to be seriously concerned about the safety and well-being of anyone held by insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine.”

In August Human Rights Watch researchers in eastern Ukraine documented 20 cases in which rebel fighters had captured civilians, and interviewed 12 people who said their captors had beaten, kicked, stabbed, or lacerated them, burned them with cigarettes, or subjected them to mock executions. At least six were used as hostages either for ransom or to exchange with captured insurgents held by Ukrainian authorities. Another is apparently awaiting exchange.

Three people whose cases Human Rights Watch documented remain in captivity in Donetsk.

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that insurgents held them at various bases in Donetsk, Sloviansk, and Makyivka, including in security services (SBU) buildings, local administration buildings, and other buildings. On August 17, Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed a DPR representative at the Donetsk SBU building read a list of 55 detainees to a large group of local residents who gathered there hoping to find their missing relatives. Local people confirmed to Human Rights Watch researchers that insurgents read out a list of civilian detainees every evening.

Human Rights Watch also examined lists of captives maintained by Sloviansk insurgents, which human rights lawyers found in the SBU building after Ukrainian forces took control of the city. The lawyers matched some of the names on the list to people whose cases Human Rights Watch documented.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned by evidence of extra-judicial executions, and other civilian deaths in custody. For example, Human Rights Watch came into possession of three death sentences against civilians apparently issued by the Sloviansk insurgents’ summary war tribunal. Two were marked “executed.”

Human Rights Watch has not independently verified whether those named in the death sentences were in fact executed, but in July the Internet news media site Buzzfeed and two other foreign reporters found similar execution orders in Sloviansk and had them “corroborated by sources including a man who stood ‘trial.’” One former captive interviewed by Human Rights Watch in August said he witnessed the interrogation of a man whose dead body with marks of torture was found several days later.

Human Rights Watch could not establish the exact number of civilian captives insurgents have held in eastern Ukraine since April. A July 15 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights cited a Ukrainian Interior Ministry figure of 717 people, including civilians and members of Ukrainian forces, “abducted by armed groups in eastern Ukraine” between mid-April and mid-July.

At the end of August the Center for Freeing Prisoners, a nongovernmental group run by former Ukrainian military officers negotiating for release of hostages, published a list of 501 people whose release they are trying to secure. At least 129 were identified as civilians.

A psychologist in Dniepropetrovsk who worked with several people who had been tortured during rebel captivity described them to Human Rights Watch as “distressed,” “deeply traumatized,” and “extremely frightened.” One, he said, was covered with bruises from severe beatings, “stared into space, would not talk or react to verbal stimulation, and although he had no prior psychiatric condition, required immediate psychiatric hospitalization.” A human rights lawyer in Kiev who took on the cases of six former captives told Human Rights Watch that all of her clients had been beaten in captivity and that some alleged they were tortured with electric shocks, cut with knives, and burned with cigarettes.

Common article 3 to the Geneva Conventions and article 4.2 of Additional Protocol II, which govern non-international armed conflicts, ban taking hostages and abducting civilians. As a party to the conflict rebels may detain enemy soldiers or persons on security grounds, subject to due process. But Human Rights Watch found that rebel forces are vastly exceeding this authority, essentially abducting civilians they perceive as critics and using some as “bargaining chips,” as one of the former leaders of the self-proclaimed DPR said publicly.

Torture and cruel or degrading treatment of people in custody is absolutely prohibited under international human rights and humanitarian law, and states have an obligation to prosecute those responsible.

Self-proclaimed authorities in eastern Ukraineshould immediately free anyone held arbitrarily, put an end to arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, hostage-taking, and torture of detainees, and treat anyone in custody – civilians and military alike – humanely and with dignity,” Williamson said. “Russia should use its influence with insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine to stop these blatant violations and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.”

Ongoing Detentions

Human Rights Watch documented cases of an artist, a political activist, and a presumed critic of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), who remain in captivity by insurgents in Donetsk region.

Serhiy Zakharov

On August 6, 2014, insurgents detained Serhiy Zakharov, 47, an artist from Donetsk. At this writing, Zakharov remains in captivity in the SBU building as punishment for his caricatures of insurgent leaders.

In July Zakharov created an anonymous art group, Murzilka, which published online and as part of public installations in central Donetsk various caricatures of Igor Girkin, the former DPR defense chief, and other DPR fighters. Zakharov’s brother, Andriy, told Human Rights Watch that on August 6 a group of armed insurgents broke into Zakharov’s house, searched the house and garage, put Zakharov and some of his belongings into their vehicle, and drove off. Zakharov’s relatives learned what happened from neighbors who witnessed the detention. Several days later, DPR representatives confirmed to Zakharov’s family that they were holding him in the SBU building and that an “investigation” into his “unlawful actions” was under way.

Andriy Zakharov told Human Rights Watch:

Murzilka became pretty popular on Facebook, and journalists would reach out to Serhiy for interview requests…. He actually gave an interview the day before the DPR came for him. On the evening of August 6, [neighbors said] armed men arrived in a minibus and surrounded his house, as if they were after a dangerous criminal…. The house was totally torn apart as a result of their search. They took away Serhiy’s computer and other electronics, all his drawings, and stuff. Though they did not say how long they’d be holding him, what exactly they were accusing him of, and what his punishment would be.

On August 17 Zakharov was temporarily released and DPR representatives told him to return to the SBU building the next day to pick up his identification documents and other belongings. The next day Zakharov went to a hospital for a medical examination of his injuries from beatings in captivity, including x-rays that revealed rib fractures, and then returned to the SBU building. A friend watched him enter the building and waited outside for him until late evening. The guards refused to answer his questions about Zakharov. Later that week, Zakharov’s relatives received information from DPR representatives that he was being held in the SBU building to serve “30 days’ detention as punishment for his actions.”

Dmytro Potekhin

On August 7, DPR fighters in Donetsk detained a prominent pro-Ukraine activist, Dmytro Potekhin, 37, who had arrived the day before apparently to see how the city was affected by the armed conflict. Family members said the DPR leadership has accused Potekhin of spying and that he remains a hostage. The insurgents are apparently negotiating with the Ukrainian authorities over his possible exchange for captured rebels.

Potekhin’s family learned of his detention on August 12 when an unidentified person contacted them through social media, claiming he had been held with Potekhin at the insurgent base at the Izolyatsiya plant in Donetsk. The person told Potekhin’s relatives that the insurgents accused Potekhin of being a spy but did not beat him.

During the next two weeks, several other sources told Potekhin’s family that he was at the Izolyatsiya plant, that his captors did not torture him, and that negotiations regarding his exchange were under way.

On August 25 Potekhin’s parents told Human Rights Watch that they thought they recognized him among the Ukrainian prisoners paraded by insurgents in the center of Donetsk on August 24.

Mykola Mykolaiv (not his real name)

On August 16, insurgents in Donetsk detained Mykola Mykolaiv, 54. On August 17 his wife, Anna (not her real name), received confirmation that he was held in the SBU building but could not get any information about the reason for his detention.

Anna told Human Rights Watch that when she returned to their apartment late in the evening of August 16, it was “literally turned upside down” and that her husband was gone. Next-door neighbors told her that earlier that evening several armed men entered the apartment, searched it, forced Mykolaiv into their vehicle along with some of the family’s belongings, and drove off. When Anna examined the apartment she realized that her husband’s documents, phone, laptop, and some cash were missing.

The next day, Anna heard her husband’s name read among 54 other names on the SBU list of detainees. The DPR representative who read the list told Anna that he did not know what Mykolaiv was accused of and how long he would be in detention.

Anna said:

He did not participate in any rallies or anything. Maybe it’s because he said some critical things about the DPR on his VKontakte [social network] account…. On the other hand, I’m even more frightened they would accuse him of being a spy. He always rides his bicycle to work and they [the DPR] think informers for Ukrainian forces do this to take a close look at different sites. We have some unfriendly neighbors who could have reported him to the DPR, simply out of spite…. [The DPR] don’t answer my questions except by saying that they are still “working on it.”

Mykolaiv apparently remains at the SBU.

Taking Relatives of Presumed Critics Hostage

Activists from Donetsk and Luhansk regions seeking release of captives told Human Rights Watch that in recent months they had documented several cases in which insurgents captured or threatened parents of pro-Ukrainian activists or journalists who had fled the region for security reasons in order to force their children to return and give themselves up. Human Rights Watch documented one such case in the Donetsk region.

Iryna and Valeriy Ischenko

On August 9, 2014, armed men in Donetsk raided the apartment of Iryna Ischenko and her husband, Valeriy, forced the couple into a car, and drove away with them. They were held until August 19, for the most part at the Izolyatsiya base in Donetsk, and then released but without their identity documents. Insurgents appeared to have targeted the couple because their daughter, Viktoria, who had left Donetsk two months earlier, had worked for a Ukrainian-language media portal.

Viktoria Ischenko told Human Rights Watch that on August 9 her mother called her at 3:40 p.m. and said that people claiming to be from the DPR had just knocked on their door, demanding to talk about her. After her mother refused to let them in, they left, threatening to return and break down the door. The daughter tried unsuccessfully to reach her parents for several hours. Later that day, the couple’s next- door neighbors described to Viktoria what had happened. She said:

The neighbors [told me they] heard some noise, looked out, and saw that the door to my parents’ apartment was open. They stepped inside and saw two men in civilian clothes and an armed man in fatigues tearing the place apart. The men chased [the neighbors] away, but my mother managed to say, “This is happening because my daughter is a journalist.” The DPR people spent a total of four hours in the apartment. At 8 p.m., they [DPR representatives] led my parents down the stairs and carried out their computer and some other devices.

Viktoria worked at the Ukrainian-language media portal, which stopped operating in the summer of 2014. In 2013 she participated in a workshop on information technology sponsored by the United States embassy in Ukraine. She said that on the day her parents were detained, armed insurgents visited the parents of another pro-Ukraine activist who had also left Donetsk several months earlier. They threatened to hold the activist’s parents hostage until she returned to Donetsk and gave herself up to the DPR. A man called the young woman, claimed he was a DPR representative, and told her to return to Donetsk if she wanted her parent to be safe. They have not been harmed.

Torture of Activists Captured by Insurgents

Since April 2014 Human Rights Watch has documented over two dozen of cases of insurgents torturing political activists they detained in Donetsk, Sloviansk, Makyivka, and Luhansk. While in eastern Ukraine in August, Human Rights Watch researchers documented several more.

Dmytro Kluger, Viktor Levchuk, and Olha Klimenko

In mid-May insurgents detained three pro-Ukraine activists in Donetsk, held them in captivity for six days, tortured them, and used them for forced labor.

Dmytro Kluger, 35, said that police stopped his car on May 22 at about noon as he and fellow activists Viktor Levchuk and Olha Klimenko were leaving Donetsk. Police called the DPR authorities and a group of armed insurgents promptly arrived and took all three to the SBU building in Donetsk. Armed men in fatigues searched all three, put Kluger and Levchuk into a small basement cell together, and put Klimenko into a separate cell. The captors pulled Kluger’s cap over his eyes and wrapped tape around it.

After an hour, men took Levchuk away for questioning. Two hours later they took Kluger to the second floor. Kluger was able to make out three interrogators wearing military fatigues. Two other men stood behind him and delivered kicks and punches. He said another five people were observing the proceedings:

They [interrogators] asked me if I was involved with Euromaidan. They also wanted to know if I worked for one of the election commissions [for the May 25 Ukrainian presidential elections]. I admitted to being on an election commission and they started screaming, “How much do they pay you? What do you do for them?” Those who stood behind me beat me for giving snide replies or thinking too much before answering their questions. They punched me on the head, on the liver, in the solar plexus. One of them put his gun to my head and pulled the trigger. The gun wasn’t loaded, but I did not know that. The beating went on for some 40 minutes.... Then, a guy with a cover name, Cherep [Skull], took me back to the basement and said he’d tear my liver out if I didn’t get the chair of my election commission to come to them…. Their interrogations were all about breaking you.

Kluger said that the next day, the guards gave him fatigues to wear instead of his bloodied clothes and took him to the SBU yard where he saw another eight detainees, including Ruslan Kudryavtsev, an election commission chair from Donetsk. The insurgents split the prisoners into two groups. They dispatched the first group to fill bags with sand at checkpoints and tasked the second one with stripping the plastic covering off copper wire. Kluger was in the second group. He said that while the detainees worked, crouched over the rolls of wiring, the guards kept kicking and punching them on the back, arms, and legs, yelling that they were too slow, that they were “killers deployed by the Kiev junta.” In the evening, the guards took Kluger back to the basement, kicking him and saying that he had two hours to sleep before his next interrogation.

That evening Kluger tried unsuccessfully to slit his wrist using a key he had managed to hide from his captors. Later that evening he tried to strangle himself with his shoelace. He fainted and came to a while later, after his captors had poured water over him.

The next day, insurgents took him and Levchuk, who had suffered a dislocated shoulder during his interrogation the night before, to an emergency room in Donetsk. Both were covered in bruises. A doctor treated Levchuk’s shoulder, diagnosed Kluger with a concussion, and urged the insurgents to leave them both in the hospital. The insurgents said they would “provide the necessary treatment” themselves and took the men back to the SBU. For the next three days, the insurgents left Kluger to recover in his cell.

On May 26, insurgents forced Kluger to come out and work again. The following evening, guards took Kluger into a room where an insurgent commander with the code name Kerch, who said he was a native of Crimea, was already talking to Levchuk, Klimenko, and Kudryavtsev. Kerch said they were free to go, indicating they had been “exchanged” for captured insurgents, apparently along with several captured members of the Ukrainian forces. All three were released immediately.

On May 30 Kluger filed a complaint with the Ukrainian security services in Kiev for the purposes of future prosecution of those responsible for torturing him and had a medical examination that revealed a basal skull fracture, a perforated eardrum, an acute ear infection, and multiple hematomas.

Yevheniya Zakrevskaya, Levchuk’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that in addition to a dislocated shoulder, Levchuk suffered head traumas, multiple bruises on his face and neck, facial skin damage, and a cigarette burn on his hand. Kluger said that insurgents beat Klimenko less severely than the men but nonetheless repeatedly hit her on the head and slapped her so hard during one interrogation that she fell off the chair onto the concrete floor and suffered multiple bruises.

Anna Guz and Fedir Menshakov

At the end of May insurgents detained pro-Ukraine activists Anna Guz, 30, and her partner, Fedir Menshakov, 28, and held them hostage for five days at a police building in Makyivka, in Donetsk region. Both were tortured and released in a prisoner exchange with Ukrainian government authorities.

Guz told Human Rights Watch that at about 8 a.m. on May 27, she and Menshakov were awakened by loud knocks on their apartment door in Donetsk and men yelling that they were from the DPR. When Guz opened the door, she saw seven armed men in military fatigues. They said that Guz and Menshakov were under arrest, threatened them with Kalashnikov assault rifles, searched the apartment, and took their laptop, camera, cell phones, credit cards, and pro-Ukraine leaflets. They also tore a Ukrainian flag off the wall yelling, “You know that Ukrainian flags have been banned on DPR territory after May 11 [the DPR referendum]!” They then tied the flag around Guz’s head, covering her eyes, blindfolded Menshakov, marched both activists down the stairs, pushed them into a vehicle, and drove off.

When the car stopped, the armed men led them into a damp basement. After a short while, they took Guz to another room, sat her down on a box, and untied the blindfold. Guz saw two women and two men, all in military fatigues. Another camouflage-clad man with a knife ran into the room and threw himself at Guz screaming, “I’ll kill you, I’ll cut you to pieces! You’ll eat that Ukrainian flag of yours!” He slapped her hard on the face, causing her to bleed. For the next two hours, the man tortured Guz, beating her, poking her with his knife, piercing her skin, and cutting her face, hands, arms, and neck:

He was yelling non-stop and waving his knife close to my face…. He was hitting me on the knees with handcuffs, then poked me with his knife on one knee, pushed the knife in by half an inch, and turned it. He did the same to my other knee. He would run out and then come back and torture me again. He threatened me with gang rape. The whole thing continued for some two hours and the other four were just watching, like in a theater….

Finally, he says, “Bow your head. It’s time to kill you!” and slashed me on the back of my neck. So, my neck is bleeding, my hands and arms are all cut up and bleeding – the lacerations are deep – and he drags me to another room on the first floor with some armed people in it. Those people actually asked me questions – in which events I took part, what kind of activism I was involved in. They said that if I wanted to live I had to trick other activists and journalists into coming to them.

Because Guz was bleeding heavily, the guards asked a nurse on the premises to clean and dress her lacerations. She also secretly gave Guz a shot of anesthetic. Her captors then forced her to wash the floors in the hall, even though her hands were still bleeding through the dressings, and then to clean the inside of a car in which bodies of killed insurgents had been brought to the base. When Guz was washing the car, she told Human Rights Watch, the base commander arrived and, indicating Guz’s condition, berated the insurgents. “Why did you do this? Are you nuts? She is up for exchange – what would they think about our treatment of prisoners?!” The next day, her torturer took her to a hospital to treat her right index finger, which was injured and would not stop bleeding. While leaving the yard, Guz saw a sign on the gate that read, “Makyivka Police Organized Crime Department.”

At Makyivka’s central hospital, a doctor treated her wounds and gave her a large dose of antibiotics. Guz spent the rest of her captivity in a room with her partner, who was also badly beaten. On the sixth day, they, along with one other captive, were exchanged for three captured insurgents held by Ukraine government forces and set free.

Two-and-a-half months after Guz’s release, the scars on her hands and arms were still plainly visible. She and Menshakov both lodged complaints with the Ukrainian security services for the purposes of future prosecution of those responsible.

Detentions and Cruel and Degrading Treatment of Journalists

Since April 2014, numerous journalists, both Ukrainian and foreign, have experienced physical violence, detention, harassment, intimidation, and death threats from insurgent forces, according to media reports and information Human Rights Watch collected from the journalists, including 12 cases based on first-hand interviews. In some cases the violence against journalists has amounted to what appears to be cruel and degrading treatment. Three of these cases are described below.

Serhiy Lefter

In mid-April, insurgent forces who controlled Sloviansk held Serhiy Lefter, a 24-year-old Ukrainian freelance journalist, captive for 17 days, beating and threatening him repeatedly.

At about 7 p.m. on April 15, Lefter, on assignment in the center of Sloviansk, was talking on his cell phone when two men approached, one masked and both armed with guns, and asked why Lefter was talking on the phone. When Lefter responded that he was a journalist, the men took him to the city council building, where several insurgents interrogated him, searched his backpack, and demanded his laptop password. They accused him of being a spy, of gathering data about firing positions, and of involvement with the far-right Ukrainian nationalist group, Right Sector. One of the men in charge told Lefter they would take him hostage.

Lefter spent the night there. The next day, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, then the self-proclaimed people’s mayor of Sloviansk, ordered him to be taken to the SBU building. When Ponomarev himself arrived at the SBU, he accused Lefter of being a spy and punched him in the jaw.

Lefter said that on his third or fourth day in captivity, the insurgents interrogated him from about 11 p.m. to 3 or 4 a.m. Judging from other voices he could hear, he estimated that four to five other people were being questioned in the same room. When Lefter told the insurgents that he was a journalist, a man hit him on the right side of his face several times, dislodging his lower left front tooth and causing hematomas and massive swelling. Someone pushed Lefter to the floor and kicked him in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him.

The interrogators dragged Lefter across the floor and at one point burned his right hand with a cigarette. Human Rights Watch, interviewing him four months later, photographed a small, circular scar from the burn. Lefter said that those questioned in the same room included Yuri Popravka, whose body with marks of torture was found in Sloviansk on April 19, together with the body of Vladimir Rybak, a pro-Kiev politician. He said that during his interrogation, he could hear the other captives screaming:

They would beat information out of them to get answers to how did they get here and which checkpoints did they come through. I could hear kicking and punching. I heard a few people being burned with cigarettes. I also heard them threaten to cut off sex organs. I could hear them taking someone’s pants down. They threatened me with it too. One of the prisoners seemed to be totally covered in tape, and it seemed that when they cut the tape they were cutting the detainee, because I heard him scream.

On April 26 or 27 the guards found out that one of the detainees had managed to sneak out a letter. They questioned Lefter and his cellmates, Artem Deinega and Vitaliy Kovalchuk, all night and beat Lefter on the legs with a truncheon. On May 2 at about 1 p.m., the insurgents told Lefter he was free and released him.

Simon Ostrovsky, VICE

On April 21, armed insurgents captured a VICE News reporter,Simon Ostrovsky, in Sloviansk and held him for three days, beating him repeatedly. Ostrovsky told Human Rights Watch that this was related to his documentary series, Russian Roulette, in Ukraine and the “inconvenient questions” he kept asking at news conferences of the self-proclaimed authorities in Sloviansk.

Ostrovsky and four other journalists were stopped in their car on April 21 at an insurgent checkpoint close to their hotel in Sloviansk. An insurgent shined a flashlight in Ostrovsky’s face, compared it to a photograph, and yelled, “I got him, I got him, it’s him!”

Armed men pulled the journalists from the car and searched, threatened, and questioned them about their work. They let the other four go but took Ostrovsky to the Sloviansk SBU building. A group of men in military fatigues led him to a courtyard behind the building, blindfolded him, searched him once again, took away all of his belongings, and tied his hands behind his back. Then they led him down to the basement and threw him on the floor.

A group of men came into the room and beat him, kicking and punching him in the ribs and smacking him on the head and ears. The beating continued intermittently from approximately 1:30 a.m. until daylight, he said. When he was not being beaten he was left blindfolded, sitting in the corner of a filthy basement room with damp walls and water dripping from the ceiling.

The next day, the insurgents put other detainees in the same room, at one point there were as many as eight. Among them were a Ukrainian journalist and his driver, a member of the local legislature, a local resident captured for attempting to set up a web camera across the street from the SBU building, and a Euromaidan activist whom insurgents accused of being associated with the Right Sector and who suffered a very bad beating in captivity. Some had already spent more than two weeks in captivity and based on their own experiences, warned Ostrovsky that he should expect a “real” interrogation during which he would probably be severely beaten.

At one point, a man took Ostrovsky, blindfolded, to another room. Several men asked him for his computer password, beat him on the arm with a truncheon when he refused to provide it, and asked whether he worked for the CIA, the FBI, or the Kiev government, and whether he was a spy for the Right Sector. This interrogation continued for about ten minutes, after which the men left Ostrovsky alone in the room for the night.

Ostrovsky’s hands were bound for his first two days in captivity; the beatings stopped after a day and a half.

He said his first night in captivity was the roughest:

It is an initiation procedure which involves violence. That first night they want to terrify you so that you are cooperative. They want to make sure you sit when they tell you, look down on the floor, do everything they tell you to do. They want to break your resolve to resist, to punish you, to teach you a lesson.

Throughout Ostrovsky’s captivity, DPR representatives made contradictory statements to the press regarding Ostrovsky’s fate and whereabouts. At about 5 p.m. an insurgent gave Ostrovsky his belongings and told him that he was free to go.

Pavel Kanygin, Novaya Gazeta

Pavel Kanygin, special correspondentfor the Russian independent outlet Novaya Gazeta spent around 12 hours in insurgent captivity from May 11 to 12 in Donetsk region. He was reporting on the May 11 unofficial referendum on the independence ofthe self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Before his abduction, Kanygin published a series of comments on social media describing, among other things, the persecution of officials who did not support the referendum.

Kanygin said he was in a café in Artyomovsk with Stefan Scholl, a correspondent for the German newspaper Südwest Presse, when four men approached them at about 9 p.m., demanding that Kanygin explain his coverage of the referendum. They took both men to the town’s main square, where a mob of armed insurgents and local residents had already gathered. Armed insurgents surrounded Kanygin, accusing him of being a spy and demanding that he disclose his ties to the Right Sector, the SBU, or the CIA. When Scholl tried to intervene, they threatened to shoot him on the spot.

Unarmed people pushed Kanygin to the ground and started kicking and punching him, but an armed insurgent ordered them to stop, saying they would take Kanygin to Sloviansk to “figure things out in the SBU basement.” The man, whom people called “Bashnya” (Tower) or “Leonidych” (apparently, his patronymic), twisted Kanygin’s arms, pushed him into a car, and told him to sit still and keep his head on his knees. When Kanygin asked the man what they wanted, “Bashnya” elbowed him in the jaw, breaking a tooth. On the way, “Bashnya” and the driver discussed where to take Kanygin, contemplating whether to exchange him “for some of our boys” or to kill him in the woods.

Eventually they brought Kanygin to an insurgent base in Volodarka, near Sloviansk. Several armed men led Kanygin into a tent, took his laptop and his backpack, and ordered him to strip. The insurgents asked Kanygin for the passwords to his cellphone and laptop and hit him in the face when he refused. When one of the armed men grabbed Kanygin and threatened to break his finger, the journalist gave his password. The insurgents logged in and went through Kanygin’s files and photographs, asking him questions.

Kanygin told Human Rights Watch he heard insurgents bragging on the phone about “catching a good target for exchange” and getting instructions. Then they threw him on the floor of a vehicle and drove to another camp with insurgents from Horlivka. This group was under orders to transfer Kanygin to Sloviansk. However, they eventually took all the cash Kanygin had, 39,000 rubles (US$1,130) and allowed him to call Scholl, who offered to give all the cash he could pull together, nearly $1,000. They told Kanygin the money was “not ransom but your contribution to our war.”

Scholl told Human Rights Watch that at 2 a.m. he received a call from Kanygin asking him to pay the insurgents for his release. Kanygin’s captors met with Scholl at his hotel in Artyomovsk and took the cash from him. Scholl expected Kanygin to be handed over right away, but instead the insurgents drove Kanygin to Horlivka, switched cars, apparently drugged him, and finally took him to Hotel Liverpul in Donetsk.

Kanygin told Human Rights Watch:

I actually don’t remember what happened after Horlivka. They made me drink some mineral water … and 15 minutes later I just nodded off in the car. When I came to I was on a bed in a hotel room, fully dressed, and a clerk was shaking me awake saying it was already noon. He said two men brought me into the hotel lobby in the early morning and asked for a room. He said I was walking between them as they held on to me and looked a bit strange…. It was more like a coma than normal sleep. I suspect they put something in that water.

I called my editor. It’s clear that I was released so soon only because Scholl had gotten in touch with my colleagues, and then some high-level Russian officials intervened on my behalf. The Horlivka men decided to make some fast money and simply took whatever cash [we] had. A few hours after I came to, a DPR rep … called me to apologize for the “misunderstanding” … and promised that my computer, phone, and money would be returned to me. But this never happened.

Detention and Torture of Religious Activists

Armed insurgents have also captured, held, and tortured active members of non-Russian Orthodox religious groups. In its July 15, 2014 report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that “a Protestant pastor and his wife were abducted and held in Druzhkivka (Donetsk region)” by insurgent forces.

Also in July Anton Heraschenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s interior minister, stated that a mass grave found in Sloviansk contained the bodies of four members of the Church of the Transfiguration: Albert and Ruvim Pavenko (sons of the church’s pastor), as well as two deacons, Viktor Brodarsky and Volodymyr Velichko. On July 8, insurgents had broken into the church during services and abducted the four.

Serhiy Kosyak

Human Rights Watch spoke with an evangelical pastor from Donetsk, Serhiy Kosyak, who described how insurgent forces had detained and tortured him and other religious activists.

Beginning in March Kosyak coordinated daily ecumenical “prayer marathons for peace and unity” in the center of Donetsk. He said that from April through August, insurgents had taken 12 of the participants captive, held them at bases in Donetsk, Makyivka, and other towns for periods ranging from several hours to several weeks, beat and threatened them, and subjected at least three to mock executions. At least four were released for ransom and one remains disappeared. The others, to the best of Kosyak’s knowledge, were freed without payment. Kosyak had spoken directly with all of those freed following their release.

Insurgents seized Kosyak himself on May 24. That day, when Kosyak went to the “prayer marathon,” he saw that the prayer tent had been destroyed and went to the city administration building to consult with acquaintances in the DPR about it. Another DPR representative jumped on him, yelling to others, “This man is a troublemaker! He says that DPR is sinful, that God disapproves of separatism! He’s with Right Sector!” Several people then severely beat Kosyak, eventually throwing him into a room on the eighth or the ninth floor and threatening to take him to the SBU basement in Sloviansk. A short time later, two former members of Kosyak’s church entered the room, said he was “harmless,” and convinced the others to let him go. Kosyak said:

I spent four hours there. They beat me with truncheons and hammers. I had a split lip, and my left arm was fractured. My left side was all back and blue.

On August 17, when Kosyak was away, armed DPR representatives forced their way into Kosyak’s home in Donetsk looking for him. They searched the house thoroughly, found nothing except family belongings and religious literature, and left.

Kosyak also told Human Rights Watch that insurgents on August 3 had abducted another of his congregationists, Yevheniy Frantsuk, held him in a trench for three weeks, and released him on August 23. Kosyak said Frantsuk had not been tortured.

Alexander Khomchenko

Kosyak also gave a detailed account of how armed insurgents detained and tortured Alexander Khomchenko, a member of his church and deputy coordinator of the “prayer marathon,” and detained two participants, Valeriy Yakubenko and Roksolana Shvaika.

On August 8 Khomchenko was coordinating the daily prayer session while Kosyak was away. The session began at 6 p.m. in the city center, as usual. Several armed insurgents approached the group at about 6:30 p.m., said they were from the DPR, and asked who was in charge. Khomchenko said he was, and the insurgents detained him, Yakubenko, and Shvaika and took them to the SBU building. There, it appeared that the insurgents mistook Khomchenko for Kosyak. When bringing in the three detainees one of the captors yelled to the insurgents in the building, “We got Kosyak!”

The insurgents interrogated their captives for three hours at the SBU, together and separately. They soon released Shvaika, berating her for getting involved with a “sect,” and transferred the two men to an insurgent base at the conscription office in Makyivka. The insurgents released Yakubenko the next day.

They held and tortured Khomchenko for three days, then released him. Khomchenko had volunteered as a driver to evacuate people from areas affected by the armed conflict, and when he was detained he had several receipts from gas stations across Donetsk region. The receipts made the insurgents suspect he was a spy for the Ukrainian forces. Kosyak said:

They started beating Sasha [short for Alexander] in Makyivka…. Sasha told me they also would watch while they would force some prisoners to beat other prisoners. If they thought the kicks and punches weren’t strong enough they would then beat the slackers. Sasha’s body was all black and blue, and his face was beaten to pulp. During his three days in Makiyvka they staged his execution three times. Twice they shot above his head. And the third time, they shot at him at point-blank range, but the gun was not loaded. He is now recovering from his injuries.

Human Rights Watch examined a photograph of Khomchenko taken two weeks after his release from captivity. His entire upper body was still extensively bruised.

After the detention of Khomchenko, Yakubenko, and Shvaika, the prayer marathon participants stopped conducting public sessions, convening them instead in secret places.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Most Viewed