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© 2016 Human Rights Watch cover illustration with two men tied up

Witness: Tortured by Both Sides in Eastern Ukraine

© 2016 Human Rights Watch

Vadim may be the unluckiest man in eastern Ukraine. How many people can say they were tortured by both sides in a conflict?

The 39-year-old man’s ordeal began April 9, 2015, as he returned from a business trip to Slovyansk, a town controlled by Ukraine government forces. He boarded a shuttle-bus back to his hometown of Donetsk – the capital city of self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) controlled by pro-Russian rebels. The bus stopped at a checkpoint manned by government forces. Armed servicemen collected all the passengers’ passports – the new normal in this war torn region of Ukraine.

© 2016 Human Rights Watch

Then an armed man waving Vadim’s passport came and ordered him off the bus. Vadim was led to a small cabin where three people in camouflaged uniforms without insignia took away his phone and searched him. They found a badge identifying him as one of the organizers of the May 2014 separatist referendum in Donetsk, after which the region declared independence from Ukraine.

The men tied Vadim’s hands behind his back with his belt, pulled a bag over his head, and pushed him to his knees, calling him a “separatist thug.” They questioned Vadim about his pro-Russia connections in Slovyansk. They threw him into the back of a car, sandwiched between two gunmen.

A new report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch lays bare how fighters on both sides of eastern Ukraine’s conflict arbitrarily detain and torture people. A June 2016 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said “arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment remain deeply entrenched practices” in the region.

After a two-hour drive, Vadim’s captors dragged him out of the vehicle. One of the gunmen punched him hard in the lower back, saying, “Hello from Pumpkin!”

Vadim felt a sense of dread. He was seeing a woman named Natalia, and her sister, Marina, affectionately called “Pumpkin,” worked with the DNR intelligence in Donetsk. Several weeks earlier, Natalia had hinted that her sister would be interested in information about any military activity by the Ukrainian forces he saw during his travels in Ukrainian government-controlled territory. Trying to score some points with Natalia, Vadim had called her on his way to his business trip in Slovyansk, telling her he’d seen several Ukrainian tanks and personnel carriers on the road.

His captors handed him over to other gunmen who took him to a basement and interrogated him for hours, asking about his connections with Pumpkin and some other people whose names did not sound familiar. They beat him with sticks on his arms, legs, and back, kicked and punched him.  

“There were crackling sounds and electric current went through me,” he said. “I was howling from pain… they put out their cigarettes on my back and torso.”

The next day was more of the same.

According to Vadim, during a break from the interrogation a sympathetic guard un-cuffed one of his hands, allowed him to remove the bag, gave him a cigarette, and left him alone. He managed to catch a glimpse of papers left on a nearby table, and realized it was a print-out of his April 8 telephone conversation with Natalia and what appeared to be his phone billing. His torturers had been asking him the names on the billing – people he had met briefly in his recent real estate dealings and whose names he had forgotten, he said.

“There were crackling sounds and electric current went through me,” he said. “I was howling from pain… they put out their cigarettes on my back and torso.”

He spent the night in a cramped dark shed. The next day, Vadim was transferred to another location and told he “would live” provided he was “on his best behavior.”

The new location was a compound with lots of armed servicemen on the premises. Vadim was marched into a basement, where he spent the next several weeks, handcuffed to the radiator by one hand. Guards took him to interrogations several times, where he was beaten. They kept asking him about Pumpkin and other “connections.” Often, he heard screams of other prisoners under interrogation. Sometimes he was given food, sometimes not.

Based on snatches of conversations of guards and interrogators, Vadim believed that he was held in a Ukraine security service compound.

Early in the morning of what would be the last day of his detention, three servicemen entered his cell. One told Vadim to say on camera that he had been “recruited by Natalia, the sister of Marina, code name Pumpkin, to carry out intelligence activities in Ukraine’s territory.” They suggested Vadim would be released if he cooperated, so Vadim did as they asked.

After he confessed, they put him in a car, with a bag over his head. When the car stopped, Vadim was ordered to get out, lie flat on the ground with his face down and count to a hundred before getting up.

A few minutes after they left, Vadim got up, found himself next to a major road, and managed to flag a taxi. The driver told him it was May 22 – more than five weeks since he’d been detained.

The next day, he returned to Donetsk, believing the worst was behind him.

It wasn’t.

The day after he returned, May 24, an acquaintance affiliated with the DNR intelligence operatives told Vadim that intelligence officials needed to debrief him. It was “standard procedure,” he was told.

Vadim complied. On May 25 he went to see an intelligence officer. The officer asked him a few questions and promptly locked him up.

Vadim wasn’t told why he was detained. One of his cellmates had a phone and let Vadim call his mother. Immediately afterwards, several armed men ran into the room screaming, “What the… do you think you’re doing?” They kicked Vadim with booted feet and punched him several times.

Although Vadim wasn’t allowed to speak to a lawyer or anyone else in the outside world, the guards gave him food packages sent by his mother.

Vadim was interrogated several more times over the next several weeks. The interrogators accused Vadim of having been recruited by Ukrainian forces to spy on the pro-Russian separatists. According to Vadim, one particularly vicious interrogator screamed at Vadim, punched him on the head, kicked him, tore a chain with a cross off his neck, and threatened to kill him.

“They kept accusing me of having been recruited as a spy and spotter for Ukraine,” Vadim said. “They’d say, ‘Stop spinning your tales! Why would they return your documents and even give you transportation money, if they haven’t recruited you? Why would they let you go at all?’”

On July 31, another detainee with a phone moved into Vadim’s cell and let Vadim make a quick call. He spoke to his mother, the first contact he had with family or loved one for nearly two months, and found out that unidentified armed men in camouflaged uniforms had searched his office and seized all the electronic equipment.

Vadim’s mother also told him that she had filed inquiries about his detention with a number of DNR agencies. In return, she received a written response, dated July 14, confirming that Vadim “is held at 62 Schors St. in Donetsk” without explanation as to the reasons behind his detention.

On the evening of August 1, a female investigator from the Ministry of State Security met with Vadim, and told him she had “sorted out” his situation and he was free to go.

By the time of Vadim’s release, his bruises – those inflicted by both Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists – had healed, but an x-ray confirmed two fingers on his left hand had been broken in the recent past.

In December 2015, Vadim lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights alleging unlawful detention and cruel and degrading treatment by both Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists. He hopes to see justice someday.



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