(Kyiv) – Victims of arbitrary detention in government-controlled secret prisons in eastern Ukraine face new, serious obstacles to justice, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today.

At least five detainees held in secret facilities run by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) in 2015 and 2016 filed complaints against the authorities for their enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment used to extract forced confessions, and subsequent unlawful detention. An appeals court will issue a ruling on March 27, 2018, on an appeal of a complaint that had been dismissed.

“People held for months in Ukraine’s secret detention sites endured serious abuse,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Almost two years later, facing a wall of denial from the authorities, they are as far from justice as when they were detained.”

In July 2016, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released a report documenting nine cases of arbitrary, prolonged detention of civilians by Ukrainian authorities, including some enforced disappearances. The groups also documented nine cases of arbitrary, prolonged detention of civilians by Russia-backed armed groups. Most of the cases took place in 2015 and 2016.

Soon after the release of the report and after representatives of both groups met with Ukrainian officials, the Kharkiv SBU released 13 of the people whose cases Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had been aware of. By the end of 2016, the Kharkiv SBU had released three of the others and two men whose cases were unknown to the two groups at the time.

The SBU leadership never acknowledged the detentions or releases and has continued to deny secretly detaining civilians, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others.

Five of those released have filed complaints against the Ukrainian authorities. One of them is Kostyantyn Beskorovaynyi, who spent 15 months between December 2014 and February 2016 in unacknowledged and unlawful detention in three SBU facilities – in Kramatorsk, Izyum, and Kharkiv. In June 2016, Beskorovaynyi filed a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office, alleging that he was the victim of an enforced disappearance, torture, and ill-treatment and subsequent unlawful and secret detention.

Beskorovaynyi’s lawyer told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that the authorities have still not carried out an effective investigation into his case. On March 10, 2017, an investigator from the Military Prosecutor’s Office in Kramatorsk re-designated Beskorovaynyi a witness instead of a plaintiff, allowing the investigator to promptly close the case. As a witness, Beskorovaynyi was not entitled to appeal the investigator’s decision.

On February 26, 2018, an appeals court restored Beskorovaynyi’s status as a plaintiff. On March 27, the appeals court will decide whether to order the criminal investigation reopened.

By the end of 2016, four other people that the SBU had held unlawfully in the same facility during the same period had also filed complaints about their enforced disappearance, torture, and ill-treatment and subsequent unlawful detention between December 2015 and August 2016. They told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that an investigator from the Military Prosecutor’s Office in Kramatorsk interviewed them toward the end of 2016, but they have heard nothing further.

An investigative report, aired by the Ukrainian independent TV company Hromadske on March 15, documents the secret detention of several people by the SBU in Kharkiv. Hromadske journalists interviewed Beskorovaynyi and three other detainees, as well as the SBU leadership in Kharkiv and Kyiv.

The Hromadske investigation was prompted by the allegations documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Ukraine’s international partners should urge the country’s leadership to conduct effective investigations and end impunity for enforced disappearances, illegal detention, torture, and other ill-treatment by government forces. The authorities should acknowledge the SBU’s secret detention and ensure that any remaining secret sites are closed, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.

“Instead of addressing past injustices, the Ukrainian authorities are denying the truth, denying justice to victims, and stalling and obstructing effective and thorough investigation of these grave human rights violations,” said Oksana Pokalchuk, director of Amnesty International Ukraine. “Instead of cornering themselves in this way, the Ukrainian authorities should take responsibility for these abuses and identify and bring those responsible for all aspects of the secret detentions to justice.”