Stanyslav Aseev.

© Radio Svoboda

(Berlin) – Authorities in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine have been unlawfully holding a blogger known for his pro-Ukraine views in unacknowledged detention for over six weeks, Human Rights Watch said today. DNR security officials forcibly disappeared Stanyslav Aseev on June 2, 2017, and in recent days Human Rights Watch received credible information from reliable sources that Aseev has been in custody of DNR security services throughout his enforced disappearance.

An underground reporter in an area controlled by Russia-backed separatists and a regular contributor to RFE/RL, Aseev wrote about daily life in the region, from shooting and shelling to cultural events. His blog kept under the name of Stanyslav Vasin was a unique window into life on the other side of the “line of contact,” an area that can be difficult for many Ukrainians to access due to travel restrictions and security concerns.

“It seemed clear early on that Stanyslav Aseev was targeted because he wrote things the DNR didn’t like,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “He is the victim of an enforced disappearance–a very serious crime under international law that cannot be justified under any circumstances, in times of peace or war.”

On June 20, at a conference of the Office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative on freedom of the media in Vienna, Russia’s Union of Journalists and Ukraine’s Union of Journalists issued a joint statement expressing concern about Aseev’s enforced disappearance, asserting that it was possibly connected with his journalism work, and urging “the international community to do its utmost to establish… [Aseev’s] fate [and whereabouts] and secure his release.”

On June 2, Aseev, who had been traveling for a number of days, called his mother and said he was on a bus entering the city of Donetsk. He promised to visit her the next morning. On June 3, his mother called him many times, but his cell phone had been switched off. Aseev’s mother went to his apartment in Donetsk, but the door was locked. She waited until late at night to no avail and convinced the landlord to open the door for her the next morning. The place looked ransacked. She filed a missing person report with police. She also went to State Security Ministry asking if they had detained her son, but they refused to speak to her. Her subsequent inquiries to police yielded no tangible result.

During the next five weeks numerous international and intergovernmental organizations asked DNR authorities for information regarding Aseev, and the authorities repeatedly denied having any information about him, including at a July 5 meeting in Minsk of the trilateral contact group for peace negotiations on Ukraine. On July 11, Human Rights Watch received confirmation from confidential sources that Aseev was being held at the ministry.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which DNR’s security ministry forcibly disappeared civilians, holding them in custody for weeks without any contact with the outside world and subjecting them to ill-treatment. A special DNR cabinet decree enables the ministry to hold people for up to 30 days, and sometimes longer, without charging them or even acknowledging their detention.

Such a decree blatantly violates international legal protections against arbitrary detention, applicable both during conflict and peacetime. Numerous interlocutors in the DNR told Human Rights Watch that the State Security Ministry is the most powerful and feared agency in the self-proclaimed republic, as it operates without checks and balances, arbitrarily detaining and disappearing people and inflicting other abuses with full impunity.

A 2016 joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch detailed nine cases in which Russia-backed separatists detained civilians incommunicado for weeks or months without charge, and, in most cases, subjected them to ill-treatment. Two of the people whose cases are documented in the report, Igor Kozlovsky, a university professor from Donetsk, and Volodymyr Fomichyov, a pro-Ukrainian blogger originally from Makiivka, a town close to Donetsk, have been in the custody of DNR authorities since January 2016.

On August 16, 2016, a court in Donetsk found Fomichyov guilty of weapons possession and handed down a two-year prison sentence, which he is now serving in the DNR. Kozlovsky was also found guilty of weapon possession and sentenced to 32 months in prison in May 2017. The circumstances of their arrest, their conditions of detention and the indications of clearly fabricated evidence documented leave their convictions void of any credibility.

DNR authorities should immediately end Aseev’s enforced disappearance by acknowledging his detention and releasing him, Human Rights Watch said. They should also investigate and prosecute those responsible for this serious crime, as required by international law.

“DNR authorities haven’t yet officially confirmed Aseev’s detention, but we are in no doubt that he is being held incommunicado by security officials in Donetsk,” Williamson said.