(Kyiv) – Both sides in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine have detained and abused people with complete impunity, Human Rights Watch said today at a joint press conference with Amnesty International in Kyiv. In a statement released in Kyiv jointly with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for the Ukraine government and the Russia-backed separatists to stop all arbitrary and secret detentions and ill-treatment of detainees and ensure accountability for abuses that have occurred.

In July 2016, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a joint report, “You Don’t Exist,” documenting prolonged, arbitrary, and sometimes secret detentions – that is, enforced disappearances – as well as ill-treatment of detainees by both the Ukrainian authorities and Russia-backed separatists. Since then, based on the information obtained and verified by the organizations, the Kharkiv branch of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) has released all 18 people it had forcibly disappeared, the last three in December. However, Ukrainian authorities have not acknowledged either the detentions or the releases and have not taken effective steps to ensure accountability for these abuses.

“Though freeing the detainees was a positive step, we are concerned about the SBU’s continued denial of enforced disappearances,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The lack of effective investigation by Ukraine’s authorities fosters a climate of lawlessness and perpetuates impunity for grave human rights violations.”

Scars from hand-cuffs on the wrists of a man held in incommunicado detention and tortured by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. (November 2016, Mariupol). 

© 2016 Tanya Lokshina

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have seen no positive developments in connection with the detention-related abuses by Russia-backed separatists documented in their joint report.

People held by the warring sides in eastern Ukraine are protected under international human rights and international humanitarian law, which unequivocally ban arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture, and other ill-treatment.

In July, when the report was released, the chief military prosecutor of Ukraine pledged in a meeting with the two groups to investigate the allegations of secret detentions by the SBU detailed in the report. In August, the organizations informed the chief military prosecutor in a letter that, based on information they had obtained and verified, some of the detainees had been released from the SBU facility in Kharkiv, but that five people remained there in unacknowledged detention. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch reiterated their call for prompt and effective investigation, but Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine that the investigation has yielded any tangible results or even any concrete steps or progress.

In December 2016 and in January 2017, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch learned from different sources who were participants in or had direct knowledge of relevant events, that at the beginning of August, guards had moved the five remaining detainees from their cells to a basement in the Kharkiv SBU compound and on August 20, released two of them warning them not to reveal any information about their detention. The other three men – two Russian nationals, Vladimir Bezobrazov and Vladislav Kondalov, and one Ukrainian national from separatist-controlled Torez, Sergei, whose last name has been withheld for privacy reasons, remained in unacknowledged SBU custody until December 12.

Based on the organizations’ interviews with Bezobrazov, and Kondalov, on August 21 SBU officials moved the three men to another SBU facility just outside Kharkiv, where they were locked in a tiny room with three iron beds and a boarded-up window, without any contact with the outside world. After about a month, SBU officials moved the three men to another unacknowledged detention site, apparently a former resort outside Kharkiv, where they stayed until December 12.

In the evening of December 12, SBU officials released Bezobrazov, Kondalov, and Sergei, dropping them off near the town of Novoluhansk in Ukraine’s Donetsk region without any identification documents.

Bezobrazov finally returned to Moscow on December 23, after close to 21 months of secret detention. Kondalov was home in Russia’s Samara region by December 29, after approximately 7 months of secret detention. Sergei, who spent over a year in secret detention, is being treated in a hospital in Donetsk.

“The prolonged enforced disappearances irreversibly altered the lives of the former detainees and their families,” Williamson said. “Ukraine’s leadership should not allow this to go unpunished.”

When working on the report “You Don’t Exist,” Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also documented nine cases in which Russia-backed separatists held civilians incommunicado for weeks or months without charge and, in most cases, subjected them to ill-treatment.

The organizations are particularly concerned about Igor Kozlovsky, a university professor from Donetsk, and Volodymyr Fomichyov, a pro-Ukrainian blogger originally from Makiivka, who have been in the custody of Russia-backed separatists since January 2016 on fabricated charges of weapon possession.

Both cases were detailed in the report, although Fomichyov was assigned the pseudonym “Yuri” as a security measure at the time. Kozlovsky is currently in a remand prison in Donetsk pending trial. On August 16, a court in Donetsk found Fomichyov “guilty” of weapon possession and handed down a two-year prison sentence.

The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) de facto authorities then sent him to a penal colony in Makiivka, a small town near Donetsk. As documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, the circumstances of Fomichyov’s arrest, his detention conditions, and the indications of clearly fabricated evidence and a coerced confession, leaves his “conviction” void of any credibility and his continued detention a serious violation of both international human rights and humanitarian law.

The efforts by Human Rights Watch to engage on the issue with the Russia-backed separatists and to convince Russia’s leadership to exercise its leverage over the de facto authorities in the DNR and the Luhansk People’s Republic, the two Russia-backed separatist regions, have yielded no tangible results.

“Local security services operate with no checks and balances and the overall vacuum of the rule of law in separatist-controlled areas denies people protection for their rights and for those held in custody leaves them vulnerable to abuse without any effective remedies,” Williamson said.