(Berlin) – Insurgent forces are detaining civilians on allegations of violating public order and then subjecting them to forced labor. Rebels appear to be using public order infractions as a pretext to obtain unpaid labor.
In some cases, the members of these “punishment brigades” are beaten or subjected to other cruel and degrading treatment. In several cases Human Rights Watch documented, civilians were forced to work at checkpoints near front lines, where they were at risk of attacks by Ukrainian government forces.
“Rebels in eastern Ukraine need to stop forcing people into labor brigades and stop exposing them to dangers of the front lines,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Both are serious violations of the laws of war.”
In Donetsk in mid-August, Human Rights Watch interviewed several victims of forced labor and relatives of victims, as well as an insurgent fighter. All said that people detained for alleged public drinking, breaking the curfew, unlawful use of drugs, and other minor infractions could be put into “punishment brigades” for up to 30 days. On several occasions, Human Rights Watch also observed men in civilian clothing working in “punishment brigades” at checkpoints near Donetsk.
In two cases, the civilians were subjected to forced labor because they had been drinking beer in public.
“Punishment brigades” carry out numerous manual tasks, such as filling sandbags at checkpoints, clearing brush, digging trenches, and working as kitchen help. The former captives interviewed by Human Rights said they worked close to the front lines and described their work as “dangerous.” The former captives and family members of other captives told Human Rights Watch that “punishment brigades” were widespread in the region and that insurgents threatened to kill those who did not cooperate.
The findings are consistent with an early August New York Times report in which an insurgent commander at a checkpoint acknowledged that all of the people in the brigade under his supervision had been sentenced to 15 days of forced labor as a punishment for causing “some harm to society.”
An insurgent fighter who wished to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) typically hands out between one and four weeks of “corrective labor” as punishment for minor infractions that require no military court review. He also said that people suspected of serious crimes are sometimes forced to dig trenches, clean military bases, and carry out manual tasks at checkpoints. Working for the benefit of DPR, he said, is a “way for them to expiate their guilt.” Several pro-Ukrainian activists who were tortured by insurgents in detention also told Human Rights Watch that their captors forced them to work.
“Forced labor is just one of many serious abuses that rebels in eastern Ukraine impose on their captives,” Williamson said.
Alexander (not his real name), told Human Rights Watch that on August 15, 2014, rebel representatives had detained his 25-year-old nephew at a bus stop in central Donetsk for holding an open beer bottle. On August 16, Alexander, who had been looking for his nephew all over the city, showed up at the security service building that rebels are using as a headquarters for the daily reading of the list of detainees the rebels are holding. After hearing his nephew’s name, Alexander learned from a rebel representative that his nephew would be performing corrective labor for the next 10 to 30 days, assigned to a “punishment brigade [and] tasked with digging trenches.”
Mikhail (not his real name) told Human Rights Watch that rebel representatives picked up his son, Dmitry, on August 13 just past midnight, when he was returning from a date. They accused him of breaking the 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew established in Donetsk and eventually took him to the rebel headquarters. A rebel representative told Mikhail on August 16 that his son would work in one of the punishment brigades for the next 15 days.
Twenty-year-old Anton (not his real name), who served in a “punishment brigade” from July 22 to August 1, told Human Rights Watch:
They [armed insurgents] picked me up drunk, late at night. They beat me up, took me to the [Donetsk region] administration building, beat me up some more. In the end, they put me on this brigade with a dozen others. We were doing different things – filling bags with sand, clearing brush, peeling vegetables, cleaning some premises. Helping at checkpoints was real scary because of the shelling nearby.
In mid-July, armed insurgents caught Yuri (not his real name), a 28-year-old student, in the street with an open can of beer. Yuri told Human Rights Watch he spent the next six days working in a small “punishment brigade” at a checkpoint in the village of Pervomaiskoe, southwest of Donetsk and 10 kilometers from Karlovka, which at the time was on the front line between government and insurgent forces:
The checkpoint came under shelling twice while I was there. When the shelling started, the fighters told us where to run, where to hide, and how to protect ourselves from the shelling. There was a doctor there as well. I think they just needed the workers. Two other detainees were brought there two days after I arrived [for] drinking beer after curfew. They had several bruises. They told me that they had been beaten [at the rebel headquarters] to confess that they were drug addicts.… I was lucky they did not beat me.… But it is dangerous work. You could get killed if the checkpoint comes under attack.…
International humanitarian law does permit parties to the conflict, in limited circumstances, to impose some compulsory labor on civilians. However, it cannot be abusive and should be compensated, nor can the work relate directly to the conduct of military operations. This applies whether the civilians are in detention or not.
“If insurgent leadership in eastern Ukraine has any respect for international humanitarian law, they should put an end to these abusive and dangerous forced labor practices,” Williamson said.