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On November 9 Ukrainian authorities arrested Denis Kulikovsky, a senior-level member of the Russia-backed armed group “DNR”. Between 2015 and 2018, Kulikovsky oversaw the “Izoliatsiia” detention center in Donetsk, where rights groups like Human Rights Watch and others have documented torture and prolonged incommunicado detention. Following his arrest, Mariupol district court remanded Kulikovsky, known by his nom-de-guerre “Palych”, to custody for two months on multiple charges including violation of the laws and customs of war, under a generic and rarely used article 438 of the Criminal code.  

Denis Kulikovsky in Mariupol district court, November 10, 2021. © Graty

This is big news, and highlights the need for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to finally sign law 2689, adopted in May, which could help authorities prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity domestically.

Numerous former detainees held in “Izoliatsiia” while Kulikovsky was in charge have come forward, describing horrific treatment there. I’ve interviewed people detained there and read through more than 30 testimonies from former prisoners, many gathered by Media Initiative for Human Rights, an organization monitoring detentions by armed groups. They described Kulikovsky personally beating and torturing them and others, including with electric shocks, and subjecting them to mock executions. They also spoke of widespread sexual violence at the facility.

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry stated that police have interviewed 166 former detainees of “Izoliatsiia” in its investigation of the facility, and Kulikovsky is among the 45 perpetrators they named.  

The war in eastern Ukraine will soon enter its eighth year. Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented grave crimes committed by Russia-backed armed groups in the east, many of which would amount to war crimes, including enforced disappearances, torture, and forced labor. I witnessed the exhumation of a mass grave in Sloviansk, at the time controlled by Russia-backed armed groups who regularly beat and tortured civilians.

However, domestic investigations of these crimes, as well as crimes committed by Ukrainian government forces, have been slow and ineffective, due at least in part to domestic legislative gaps, meaning that some international law provisions are not effectively incorporated. Law 2689 would align Ukraine’s domestic legislation with international criminal and humanitarian law and include crucial provisions on command responsibility and the statute of limitations for international crimes.

It may take years for grave crimes in this conflict to be investigated and perpetrators identified. Closing legislative gaps and enabling prosecuting authorities to bring specific war crimes charges could help. Having a suitable legal framework in place is key for bringing justice to victims and accountability to perpetrators.

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