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(Berlin) – New information has corroborated allegations of enforced disappearances and secret detention by Ukraine’s security services, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said in a joint letter to Ukraine’s military prosecutor. The new information indicates that at least five victims of enforced disappearances remain in secret detention at Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) in Kharkiv, one of the secret detention sites the groups documented in a July 21, 2016 joint report.

© 2016 Human Rights Watch

The report, “You Don’t Exist,” documented prolonged, arbitrary, and sometimes secret detention as well as ill-treatment of detainees by both Ukrainian authorities and Russia-backed separatists. Ukraine’s military prosecutor should prioritize and personally oversee an investigation into grave allegations of secret detention by the SBU.

In the two weeks after the report’s publication, 13 people – 12 men and one woman – were released from secret detention in the Kharkiv SBU.

“The release of 13 people secretly held in Kharkiv was very good news, but there has been no official acknowledgement of their detention or release, or of the problem of enforced disappearances by the SBU,” said Tanya Lokshina, a senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Security Service’s continued denial of enforced disappearances fosters a climate of lawlessness and perpetuates impunity for grave human rights violations.”
Mykola Vakaruk, 34, and Vyctor Ashykhin, 59, victims of enforced disappearances, after their release from prolonged unacknowledged detention in the premises of Ukraine’s Security Service in Kharkiv. Ukrainsk, August 2016. © 2016 Krasimir Yankov

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said that three of the five people still in the Kharkiv Security Service headquarters have been held there for more than 17 months. The military prosecutor should immediately secure the release of people who remain in secret detention and bring those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.

In July, Ukraine’s military prosecutor met with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to discuss the joint report’s key concerns, including several cases of enforced disappearances in secret detention at the Kharkiv SBU. The Security Service denied the allegations. The military prosecutor pledged to investigate, and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch subsequently sent him a list of 16 people who, based on information from a range of sources, were being held in secret detention in the premises of the SBU in Kharkiv.

Based on follow-up research by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, most of the 13 people released from the Kharkiv SBU were among the 16 on the list sent to the prosecutor’s office.

In the letter to Ukraine’s military prosecutor, the groups summarized their findings from interviews conducted in August with five of the people who were recently released. Their accounts of detention and treatment at the Kharkiv SBU further confirmed the patterns described in the report and brought to light some new developments.

The interviews revealed that one of the 16 people on the list had been released from the facility in mid-March, and that on April 20, three more unofficial detainees were taken to the facility, bringing the total number of people held there at that time to 18.

They also confirmed that on July 25, officials at the Kharkiv SBU released six of these 18 people and on August 2 they released seven more. The interviewees, from both groups, said that Security Service officials drove them from Kharkiv in the back of an armored minibus, letting some off on the outskirts of Kramatorsk, approximately 170 kilometers southeast of Kharkiv, and others 15 kilometers further south, on the outskirts of Druzhkyvka. Before letting them go, their captors returned their passports and gave them 50 to 200 hryvnia (approximately US$4 to US$8) “for transportation costs.” The captors warned the detainees to keep silent about their disappearance and threatened them with severe repercussions for divulging information about it.

The accounts by the five recently released people are consistent with the accounts of former Kharkiv Security Service detainees interviewed for the report. Taken together, both sets of interviews form a comprehensive picture of secret Security Service detention, Human Rights Watch said. Both groups provided consistent descriptions of the SBU facility, the daily routine, the guards and other inmates, inadequate medical assistance, failed prisoner exchanges, and efforts by staff to hide them from Ukrainian and international officials, including by removing them from their cells temporarily and using pseudonyms to register those who required emergency medical assistance at a medical institution.

The new interviews also confirmed patterns of the agencies’ enforced disappearances, snatching them from a courtroom or a pretrial detention prison after a judge had ordered their release, or abducting them from their homes.

Police authorities had eventually opened “missing persons” cases, but did not investigate effectively.  After the detainees were released, the missing persons cases were closed, but police reports do not reflect they were held in secret detention. No one has been held to account.

Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when agents of the state or their proxies deprive someone of their liberty and then refuse to acknowledge it or conceal the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person. Enforced disappearances are grave crimes, which are strictly prohibited under international law in all circumstances and may constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity, depending on their context. States have strict obligations to prevent, investigate, and punish all incidents of enforced disappearances.

Three of the five recently released detainees interviewed said they want those responsible for their disappearances to be held to account and are eager to cooperate with an investigation. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch shared their contact details with the military prosecutor, along with their case summaries.

Ukraine’s international allies should urge the country’s leadership to acknowledge the practice of enforced disappearance and secret detentions by its Security Services and put a resolute end to impunity for such crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

“We are concerned about the safety of these three people, especially as they have been threatened with repercussions for speaking up about their secret detention,” Lokshina said. “Ukraine’s military prosecutor should ensure their safety and protect them from harassment and intimidation by other Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.”

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