A review of a torture report based on interviews with 200 prisoners released by the Ukraine government carried out by a Russian civil society group
This article originally appeared at Counterpunch
A report issued on March 1, 2015 by the Moscow-based Foundation for the Study of Democracy contains chilling descriptions of the widespread use of torture and other inhumane treatment of prisoners by the Ukrainian army and paramilitary forces and by its Ukraine’s national security police. The report is titled, ‘War Crimes of the Armed Forces and Security Forces of Ukraine: Torture and Inhumane Treatment’. It is 144 pages long, half in Russian and half in English.
The information in the report is the result of interviews with over 200 prisoners released by the Ukrainian side of the war that has raged in eastern Ukraine for the past year. The interviews were conducted by researchers of the Foundation from 25 August 2014 to 20 January 2015.
The Foundation for The Study of Democracy is a civil organization in Russia (Russian-language website here). Its director is Maxim Grigoriev. The report on torture and prisoner abuse was prepared in cooperation with the Russian Public Council for International Cooperation and Public Diplomacy, presided by S. Ordzhonikidze, while assistance was provided by the Russian Peace Foundation (L. Slutsky, Y. Sutormina) and by S. Mamedov, I. Morozov, E. Tarlo, D. Savelyev, A. Chepa and other members of the Committee for Public Support of the Residents of Southeastern Ukraine.
The media tour to Donetsk, eastern Ukraine in mid-April, 2015 in which I participated met with Mr. Grigoriev in Moscow at the outset of our tour.
“Human rights are one of the key issues of concern for our foundation,” Grigoriev explained. As reports of prisoner abuse and torture became widespread last spring and summer, his Foundation decided to investigate the accusations more formally. Its first report was published on November 24 of last year. The second report published on March 1 of this year includes data gathered in the first one.
“It was not difficult to gather information,” Grigoriev explains. “Once the prisoner exchanges began to take place [just prior to the ceasefire of September 5, 2014], any researcher or journalist could speak to those released prisoners who were willing to talk.”
Prisoners who were released beginning last August have reported being subjected to electric shock and cruel beatings lasting multiple days in a row using objects such as iron bars, baseball bats, sticks, rifle butts, bayonet knives and rubber batons. Techniques widely used by the Ukrainian armed forces and security forces include waterboarding, strangling with a garrote and other types of strangulation. In some cases, prisoners were sent to minefields for the purposes of intimidation and were run over with military vehicles, causing death.
Other torture methods included breaking of bones, stabbing and cutting with knives, branding with red-hot objects, and shooting different body parts with small arms. Prisoners were kept for days at freezing temperatures and with no access to food or medical assistance. They were often forced to take psychotropic substances causing agony.
An absolute majority of prisoners are put through mock firing squads and suffered death and rape threats to their families. Women report being raped.
Many of those tortured are not members of the self-defense forces of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). Those who are members are identified as such in the Foundation’s reports.
Further is an outline of the findings published in the Foundation’s report of March 1, 2015.
The Foundation notes in its report that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits in absolute terms torture, irrespective of other circumstances. Article 3 of the convention reads, ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’
Moreover, it is assumed in the law of the European Union that ‘the State is responsible for the actions of all of its agencies, such as the police, security forces, other law enforcement officials, and any other State bodies who hold an individual under their control, whether they act under orders, or on their own accord.’
Unlike other clauses of the Convention related to rights, Article 3 makes no provision for derogation (reservations) in the event of a war or any other emergency threatening national security. Article 15 (2) explicitly states that there can be no derogation from Article 3 within the Convention.
The March, 2015 report of the Foundation for the Study of Democracy concludes, “The information collected by the [Foundation] gives grounds to believe that the Ukrainian armed forces (VSU), the National Guard and other military units of the Ministry of the Interior of Ukraine, as well as the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), systematically and on purpose violate the European Convention on Human Rights. The extent to which torture is being used and the fact that this is done systematically prove that torture is an intentional strategy of the said institutions, authorized by their leadership.
“The information gathered provides grounds to conclude that torture and inhumane treatment inflicted by the Security Forces of Ukraine (SBU), the Ukrainian armed forces, the National Guard and other formations within the Interior Ministry of Ukraine, as well as by illegal armed groups such as Right Sector, are routine and are even gaining in scale and becoming systematic.”
Ukrainian as well as international human rights agencies have apparently paid scant attention to the evidence of torture practices in Ukraine. Maxim Grigoriev says he personally gave his two reports to the Ombudsman of Ukraine, Mrs. Valeriya Lutkovska. “She told me that she cannot do anything to stop those practicing torture because it is difficult for her to investigate the allegations.”
What about international agencies? The European Court of Human Rights has received the documentation and it said it would investigate, Grigoriev says.
Human Rights Watch also received the materials and said it would respond. “That was two months ago.”
“Amnesty International said it would use the findings,” he says.
Neither agency has issued a statement on the findings of six months of prisoner testimonials.
An Amnesty International report in July 2014 reported briefly on accusations of torture, saying that it was occurring and that both sides in the conflict were responsible. That implicitly equated the responsibilities of the Ukrainian government with those of rebel forces, whose governing structures, to this day, the governments of Ukraine and the European Union refuse to formally recognize.
A second report by Amnesty, in October 2014, was again brief and again equated the responsibilities of the two sides in the conflict.
Amnesty has issued reports documenting what it calls “war crimes” by one of the extreme-right militias allied with the Kyiv government, the Azov Battalion. One report was issued in September 2014. In December,Amnesty denounced the blockading of humanitarian convoys into eastern Ukraine from Ukraine proper by forces allied to Kyiv.
Human Rights Watch has documented the use of cluster weapons against civilians in eastern Ukraine by Ukrainian armed forces but has published little on the use of torture.
Western media has largely been silent on the subject. A few outlets, such as the UK Telegraph, have probed the extreme-right battalions allied with Kyiv.
Grigoriev rejects drawing an equal sign between the actions of Ukrainian forces and those of the rebels. “That is wrong. Ukraine forces use torture or prisoner abuse fifty to 100 times more than rebel forces, and they are much more cruel.”
Reports of torture and prisoner abuse are widespread in print and online news outlets in Ukraine and Russia. This includes victim testimonies that are video recorded and posted online. When can we expect Western media to report on this, and Western governments to acknowledge what it taking place?
No time soon. A great deal of political, economic and military capital is invested in defeating the rebel movement of eastern Ukraine and weakening and isolating the Russian government and people. ‘Inconvenient truths’ that get in the way of the ‘blame Russia’ narrative for this war are the last thing that is wanted.
Think of the media and government silence last October when Human Rights Watch reported widespread use of cluster weapons by Ukrainian forces. Or the investigation into the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 on July 17, 2014, which is dragging on interminably while unfounded accusations of ‘Russian missiles’ downing the plane continue to run rampant.
During all wars–Vietnam comes to mind–it is the concerted actions of groups like The Foundation for the Study of Democracy which forces the truth about war crimes to come to the fore. Protests, tribunals, gaining the support of social and political organizations such as trade unions and political parties–these are the tried and true methods of human and social rights advocacy that are urgently needed today.
 ‘War Crimes of the Armed Forces and Security Forces of Ukraine: Torture of the Donbass region’, published by The Foundation for the Study of Democracy, Nov. 24, 2014, 49 pages in English (pdf online here).
Outline of ‘War crimes of the armed forces and security forces of Ukraine: Torture and inhumane treatment’ (March 2015)
Part 1, sub-titled, ‘Methods and circumstances of torture committed by the Ukrainian armed forces and security forces':
An overwhelming majority of prisoners held by the Ukrainian side are brutally and systematically beaten.
Many of the torture victims report marathon beatings inflicted by the Ukrainian armed forces and security forces.
The captured women are frequently raped.
According to accounts by the victims, the Ukrainian army, the National Guard, various units of the Ministry of the Interior and the Security Service of Ukraine employ a whole range of torture techniques. Many of the victims say that they were stabbed and cut with a knife.
Thus, a large number of victims assert that the torture techniques used include burning skin with the gas burners or burning-hot objects and burning various inscriptions into the skin of the prisoners.
The torture victims indicate that the Ukrainian army and law enforcement bodies systematically employ a torture technique called ‘waterboarding’. Previously, this method was used by the American secret services.
The victims indicate that the Ukrainian armed forces and security forces use other torture techniques as well, for example suffocation with plastic bags, gas masks, etc.
The so-called ‘Banderist garrotte’ is used as a weapon – both for intimidation and torture.
Electric shock is a common torture tool used by the Ukrainian armed forces and divisions of the Ministry of the Interior.
A large number of the people interviewed said that the Ukrainian troops were sending some of the prisoners to minefields. For
Almost everyone says that the Ukrainian army and punishment battalions kneecap and run over feet with military vehicles. A mock firing squad is also a common practice.
The vast majority of people detained by the Ukrainian armed forces and security forces receive threats of murder, torture, and harm to their families during interrogations.
Those detained by the Ukrainian side suffer torture at various stages: directly when taken prisoner, during transportation, after being handed over to this or that unit, under preliminary or principal interrogations, in detention facilities, in courts, etc. When asked to define the entity carrying out the torture, victims name the National Guard, various groups under the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, Right Sector, various units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU).
Some of the victims say that they were subjected to excruciating torture right after being wounded or directly in hospitals. Practically everybody attests that medical help is either unavailable or insufficient.
Vast majority of the detainees questioned tell that by means of torture and threats the Ukrainian authorities made them sign confessions stating that they were agents of Russian secret service organisations. Overall majority of civilians captured by the Ukrainian Armed Forces could not endure the torture and threats, and signed any accusations relating to them.
A large number of the victims questioned point out specific places where the National Guard and the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been using torture on a massive scale or give code names of the people who subjected them to torture.
Also mentioned frequently are the Mariupol airport where detainees are kept in the industrial cold storage and subjected to torture, and the Kramatorsk airport.
The victims interviewed also state that the Ukrainian side intentionally for long periods of time does not register its detainees and violates the procedure prescribed by law.
Based on the information collected by the Foundation, a clear conclusion can be drawn that most of the torture victims are not members of the Donetsk or Lugansk People’s Republics’ self-defense forces, but civilians. A ‘reason’ for arrest and torture of civilians by the Ukrainian side can be as simple as involvement in anti-Euromaidan rallies, participation in Russian TV shows, expression of your opinion on the Internet, involvement in pro-DPR rallies, participation in the referendum, ‘possession of a telephone number of a Russian journalist’, ‘Caucasian names – Aslan, Uzbek’ in the personal phone contacts, a phone conversation with people from ‘the Donetsk People’s Republic’, ‘receiving medical assistance in the DPR’, etc. The same absurdity and lack of substantial evidence is characteristic of the other accusations.
In a large number of cases the Ukrainian authorities – to be able to exchange prisoners – would arrest citizens who have not committed any offence.
In many cases Ukrainian civilians are also subjected to beatings and death threats to their families.
The Ukrainian armed forces and security forces quite often torture and inject people with psychotropic drugs at the same time.
A number of victims, subjected to torture by the Ukrainian armed forces and security forces, also claim to have been robbed.