Summary of the United Nations report on arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment in the context of armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine
The thematic report is done by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and examines the scale, methods, perpetrators and context of arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment in the armed conflict that has occurred in eastern Ukraine, both by Ukrainian Government actors as well as armed groups and other actors in the territory controlled by the Ukraine and the self-proclaimed “Donetsk people’s republic” and “Luhansk people’s republic”. The study is limited to the timeframe from 14 April 2014 to 30 April 2021.
The report also presents two emblematic case studies of conflict-related arbitrary detention, torture and ill-tretment: one in the Kharkiv regional department of the Security Service of Ukraine and the second one in the Izoliatsiia detention facility controlled by the Donetsk republic.
General data findings
The report is based in findings made by the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU). The OHCHR estimates the total number of conflict related detentions in Ukraine from 14 April 2014 to 30 April 2021 as between 7900 and 8700 (approximately 85% men and 15% women), of which it is estimated that 3600-4000 were committed by Government actors and 4300-4700 by armed groups and other actors in territory controlled by the self-proclaimed republics.
The OHCHR estimates that about 60% of all conflict-related detentions by Government actors from 2014 to 2021 (approximately 2300) were arbitrary and most of them occurred during the initial stage of the conflict (2014-2015). From 2016, the prevalence of arbitrary detention by Government actors decreased substantially.
As to the conflict related detentions by armed groups and other actors in territory controlled by the self-proclaimed republics, these lacked any semblance of legal process during the initial stages of the conflict, and a more formalized approach started to be seen in 2015 with the introduction of the figures of “administrative arrest” (in Donetsk territory) and “administrative detention” (in Luhansk territory). As of April 2021, arbitrary detention remains to be a daily occurrence in territories controlled by the self-proclaimed republics.
In 2014 and early 2015, various armed groups used more than 50 improvised detention facilities (often called “basements”) to hold detainees. In some of these facilities, such as the ones of the case studies, torture and ill-treatment were carried out systematically.
The OHCHR found a strong correlation between conflict related arbitrary detention and torture and ill-treatment in both Government controlled territory and territory controlled by the self-proclaimed republics. After 2016, torture or ill-treatment became less common on both sides of the contact line.
Methods of torture and perpetrators
Methods of torture and ill-treatment on both sides of the conflict line included beatings, dry and wet asphyxiation, electrocution, sexual violence on men and women (rape, forced nudity and violence to the genitals), positional torture, water, food, sleep or toilet deprivation, isolation, mock executions, prolonged use of handcuffs, hooding and threats of death or further torture or sexual violence or harm to family members.
Among Government actors, the most common perpetrator of arbitrary detention and torture was the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). During the initial phases of the conflict, “volunteer battalions” were also regular perpetrators.
In territory controlled by the self-proclaimed republics, the main perpetrators were various armed groups and later, members of the “ministries of state security”.
The right to an effective remedy has been severely undermined by the lack of effective investigation into allegations of arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment. The number of individuals brought to responsibility for these acts are small in comparison with the estimated numbers of violations and indicates the prevailing impunity for perpetrators.
For effects of the report, the OHCHR determined that “conflict related detention” refers to deprivation of liberty in the context of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, in both territories controlled by the Ukrainian Government and territories controlled by the self-proclaimed republics. “Incommunicado detention” occurs when a detainee is not permitted any contact with the outside world and “secret detention” refers to incommunicado detention when the detaining entity refuses to confirm, denies, or actively conceals the detention itself, or refuses to provide or actively conceals information about the fate or whereabouts of the detainee. The latter is also referred to as “enforced disappearance” since it meets all the requirement for said international crime.
Following the Maidan events from November 2013 to February 2014 that resulted in the departure of President Viktor Yanukovych and the occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, in early April 2014, groups of armed people began to seize Government buildings across Donetsk and Luhansk regions. After gaining control over some settlements, these armed groups proclaimed the creation of the “Donetsk people’s republic” and the “Luhansk people’s republic”. On 11 May 2014, both republics held referendums to validate their “acts of independence”. The referendums were not recognized by the Government of Ukraine nor the international community. In response to the seizure of administrative facilities in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the Government launched the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in mid-April 2014.
The OHCHR believes that the scale and gravity of these human rights violations were exacerbated by existing endemic torture and ill-treatment of detainees in Ukraine before 2014. Hate speech and disinformation aimed at dehumanizing and demonizing opposing parties resulted in an atmosphere of hatred and incitement to violence. The OHCHR also found that some methods of torture had been used allegedly by Russian state agents against people in detention or in the time between their de facto deprivation of liberty and formal placement in detention.
Arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment committed by Government actors
Since the launch of the ATO in mid-April 2014 until 30 April 2021, Ukrainian Government actors have detained from 3600 to 4000 individuals in the context of armed conflict. Most of these detentions took place in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as in south-eastern regions and in Kyiv. Men comprised an estimated of 85% of detainees and women 15%.
Individuals detained by Government actors could be categorized as: 1) members of armed groups of the self-proclaimed republics, 2) individuals who did not take part in the hostilities but were believed to be supporting armed groups by providing them intelligence or other support, 3) officials of the self-proclaimed republics and other individuals whose actions were believed to benefit the creation or functioning of the republics. Conflict related detainees often faced charges of creation of a terrorist group or organization (art. 258 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code) and creation of unlawful paramilitary or armed formations (art. 260).
As of 30 April 2021, 3100 individuals who were detained by the Government since 2014 were estimated to have been released, 500 individuals are estimated to be serving sentences or remain in pre-trial detention and an estimated 100-150 have been killed or died while in detention.
The OHCHR estimates that about 60% of all conflict related detentions committed by the Government from 2014 to 2021 (approximately 2300) were arbitrary, most of them occurred during the initial period of the conflict (2014-2015). The situation began to improve in the second half of 2015 and since December 2016, when the last detainees were released from the Kharkiv SBU, the OHCHR has not recorded any prolonged confinement in unofficial places of detention.
From April 2014 to 30 April 2021, the OHCHR documented the detention of 767 individuals (655 men and 112 women), 68.8% of whom (528, 456 men and 72 women) were subjected to torture or ill-treatment, including conflict related sexual violence. It is believed that there would have been approximately 1500 victims of conflict related torture and ill treatment. 60% of all cases of torture and ill-treatment by Government actors occurred between 2014 and 2015, 74% of individuals detained during said period suffered torture.
The methods of torture used by Government members included beatings, dry and wet asphyxiation, electrocution, sexual violence on men and women, positional torture, water, food, sleep or toilet deprivation, isolation, mock executions, prolonged use of handcuffs, hooding and threats of death or further torture or sexual violence, or harm to family members.
Of the 767 individuals detained by the Government, 35 individuals (4.6% of all detainees, of which 4.3% were men and 15.2% women) were subjected to sexual violence such as rapes, electric shocks to genitals, kicks on genitals, forced nudity, unwanted touching, threats of sexual violence to the victims and their female relatives.
There is a broad range of perpetrators of the crimes committed in Government controlled territory, including: SBU, police, state border authorities, volunteer battalions, national guard and national police and other armed units which took part in hostilities or were present in Donetsk and Luhansk regions without being formally incorporated into the UAF.
Since the perpetrators belonged to multiple structures, victims often were not able to identify the affiliation of the individuals who detained or tortured them. The prominent role that the SBU played could be attributed to the fact that it coordinated the ATO.
Places of detention
Detentions and tortures executed by the Government actors occurred in over 30 places of detention, SBU administrative premises (such as Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Lysychansk, Mariupol, Sieveierodonetsk and Sloviansk), police precincts, temporary and permanent military bases, ad hoc bases, “makeshift prisons” or battalions, military checkpoints, official places of detention, sanatoriums, and schools. These unofficial facilities were subjected to either no or nominal prosecutorial oversight.
The case of the Mariupol airport
In 2014, Mariupol airport was turned into a military base used by UAF, SBU and some volunteer battalions and some of its premises were used as a detention facility. The OHCHR documented 21 individual cases (19 men and 2 women) of arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment occurring in Mariupol airport from 2014 until the first half of 2016. In most cases the detainees were not informed of the reasons for their arrest or the charges against them, they were denied access to legal counsel or contact with the outside world.
Detainees were held in non-working cold stores (basement rooms without windows), they were not regularly provided with water or food and sometimes were denied access to the toilet. The absence of ventilation made breathing difficult and some detainees lost consciousness.
Arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment committed by armed groups and other actors in territory controlled by the republics
From mid-April 2014 until 30 April 2021, armed groups and other actors in the self-proclaimed republic detained 4300-4700 individuals in the context of the conflict. Men comprised an estimated of 85% and women 15%.
The detainees were mostly: 1) persons hors de combat (captured members of UAF or volunteer battalions or other individuals who took part in the hostilities on the side of the Government), 2) civilians accused of supporting the Ukrainian Government or of pro-Ukraine views and 3) other individuals.
By 30 April 2021, an estimated 3800-4000 conflict related detainees are believed to have been released, while an estimated 300-400 individuals remained in detention and an estimated 200-300 individuals had been killed or died while in detention.
From late 2014, detentions were increasingly formalized with individuals being detained by designated “law enforcement” entities. They were initially detained under “administrative arrest” (in Donetsk) or “preventive detention” (in Luhansk).
The most common charges against the detainees were espionage, incitement of hatred, storage of explosives, terrorist act, assistance to terrorist activity and public calls for extremist activities in territory controlled by Donetsk authorities; and creation of a criminal organization, illegal acquisition and storage of weapons or ammunition, state treason and illegal acquisition of information comprising state secrets in territory controlled by Luhansk authorities.
The OHCHR documented the detention of 532 individuals (447 men and 85 women) from 2014 to 30 April 2021, 281 of whom (249 men and 32 women) were subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Of 281 cases of torture and ill-treatment, 49.5% (139) occurred in 2014 or 2015. Of these total documented cases, 51.1% occurred in Donetsk controlled territory and 56.3% in Luhansk controlled territory. This was more prevalent in 2014 and 2015, during which time 82.2% of documented cases occurred in Donetsk territory and 85.7% in territory controlled by Luhansk involved torture and/or ill-treatment.
The methods of torture used by armed groups and actors of the self-proclaimed republics included beatings, dry and wet asphyxiation, electrocution, sexual violence on men and women, positional torture, water, food, sleep or toilet deprivation, isolation, mock executions, prolonged use of handcuffs, hooding and threats of death or further torture or sexual violence, or harm to family members.
Of the 532 detainees by armed groups and other actors in territory controlled by the republics that were documented by the OHCHR, 21 (14 men and 7 women, that is 3.9%) were subjected to conflict related sexual violence (rapes, electric shocks to genitals, kicks on genitals, forced nudity, unwanted touching, threats of sexual violence to the victims and their female relatives).
In 532 cases identified by the OHCHR, the perpetrators were identified as members of different private militia and armed groups that obeyed to either Luhansk or Donetsk people’s republics. The detainees also refereed that some of the perpetrators were nationals of the Russian Federation.
Places of detention
Since April 2014, numerous places of detention emerged in both territories controlled by the self-proclaimed republics. The OHCHR identified over 50 new facilities (often referred to as “basements”) and mostly ceased to operate by 2016. However, the largest facilities continued to function as of 30 April 2021.
Former premises of Luhansk SBU
The OHCHR documented 57 cases of arbitrary and incommunicado detention, torture, and ill-treatment (affecting 47 men and 10 women) occurred from 2014 until April 2021. By the end of April 2021, these premises continued to be used to detain conflict related detainees. Before their release, detainees must sign an agreement not to disclose information regarding their detention and treatment.
National investigations followed by Ukrainian authorities
From 1 April 2014 to 31 December 2020, military prosecutors oversaw 757 investigations into crimes against civilians committed by Government actors in the ATO zone; while 283 of them were closed, 442 cases were prosecuted in court, 249 of which resulted in convictions.
In October 2019, the Office of the Prosecutor General created the Department for Oversight of Investigation of Crimes Committed in the Situation of Armed Conflict to ensure that law enforcement bodies, such as the National Police, SBU and State Bureau of Investigation, properly investigate crimes committed during the armed conflict.
The Government’s lack of access to territory controlled by self-proclaimed republics considerably challenges its investigations into human rights violations, making it difficult to achieve accountability and reparation to the victims who suffered detention, torture and ill-treatment in the territories controlled by the self-proclaimed republics. It has also been identified the lack of political will and motivation to investigate cases perpetrated by Government actors, as well as misuse of procedure to avoid proper investigation. The Kharkiv case, which is examined as one of the case studies of the report, is particularly emblematic of the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators.
Investigations initiated in territory controlled by self-proclaimed republics
“Law enforcement” entities set-up in the self-proclaimed republics have initiated investigations that appear to have been selective, focusing mostly on acts committed by members of those armed groups which have been disbanded or otherwise re-organized due to alleged lack of discipline or loyalty to the republics. The investigations lacked due process and fair trial guarantees.
The victims have found obstacles in their effective remedy which has been undermined by the lack of effective investigation. Rehabilitation of victims of torture and conflict related sexual violence is provided almost exclusively by NGOs.
The OHCHR criticizes that the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has and continues to be marred by arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and ill-treatment and finds it unacceptable that such magnitude of human rights violations remains largely unaddressed.
Recommendations of the OHCHR
To the Parliament of Ukraine, the OHCHR recommends amending the legislation to include a definition of torture to the Criminal Code and to include explicit provisions on the right of victims of torture and ill-treatment to redress.
To the Government of Ukraine, the OHCHR recommends ensuring that these crimes are investigated promptly, effectively, and thoroughly, perpetrators are prosecuted (including persons in positions of command). To ensure that legal safeguards for persons deprived of their liberty are fully implemented with no exception. To provide training on the Istanbul Protocol to law enforcement and to include training in the Istanbul Protocol in the curricula of vocational, graduate, and postgraduate courses for law enforcement, legal and health professionals. It is also recommended to put in place effective mechanisms of reparation for victims.
To the self-proclaimed republics, the OHCHR recommends releasing all those arbitrarily detained, to cease the practices of “administrative arrest” and “preventive detention”, to refrain from holding individuals in incommunicado detention and provide unimpeded confidential access to OHCHR and other independent international monitors to all places of detention.
The case study of the Government Kharkiv SBU in 2014-2016
The findings are based on interviews that the HRMMU conducted on 63 persons (59 men and 4 women). The OHCHR have reported how arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment of such conflict related detainees were common practice of SBU in Kharkiv city and the region, with victims often held on the premises of the Kharkiv SBU.
From spring 2014 until the end of 2016, Kharkiv SBU premises served as an unofficial detention hub for conflict related detainees. The OHCHR established a list of 105 detainees (98 men and 7 women) that had been in the Kharkiv SBU premises between April 2014 and December 2016.
Most of the detainees held there were men, while most women were detained for short periods of time to be interrogated prior to being moved to another detention center. Victims of detention and ill-treatment there reported to be forced to sleep on chairs, not receive food, only water, to be subjected to beatings with different objects, mock executions, threats against their loved ones and threats of rape, to be subjected to pouring of water and electrocutions, asphyxiations, threats of cutting in their genitals, severe beatings and suffocations with masks.
Some victims reported to be taken to the Kharkiv Emergency Hospital for a formal medical check-up and doctors failed to document their injuries, despite being covered in bruises and being brought in with obvious signs of mistreatment. Some reported to be interrogated without a lawyer and being beaten and forced to make confessions of having ties with “Kharkiv partisans”, usually placing bags over their heads and twisting their fingers. They also report to have been beaten, subjected to suffocation and sometimes being burned with lighters. Victims were undressed and lowered into a pool of cold water, subjected to waterboarding and mock executions.
The OHCHR was denied access to the Kharkiv SBU premises between 2014 and 2016. The detention facility was located in the department’s headquarters on Myronosytska Street in Kharkiv city. The facilities were renovated sometime between 2016 and 2017, since the HRMMU visited the installations in August 2017 and found that the renovation had effectively removed traces of blood, sweat and hair of the detainees; this possibly to cover traces that could be used for eventual accountability.
Often, the authorities of the Kharkiv SBU hid the detainees by moving them when visits of the Prosecution or the Ombudsmen occurred.
It has been documented that citizens of the Russian Federation were brought to the Kharkiv SBU in December 2014. From autumn 2014 until summer 2015, the detention conditions in the facility were deplorable, the food was of poor quality and insufficient quantity, detainees usually received “5-6 spoons of porridge, a matchbox-sized piece of bread and tea with no sugar”. Detainees did not receive hygiene items and were usually held in overcrowded conditions, sometimes even held in the shower room. Detainees in the cells took turns to sleep, as there were too few beds.
Some detainees had medical issues that required medical care that was unavailable, and it remained abysmal throughout the summer of 2015. Health problems constantly plagued the detainees, such as serious oral infections due to the lack of dental hygiene and kidney issues.
From July 2015 and towards autumn of said year, SBU allowed detainees to prepare food in the makeshift kitchen, which considerably improved their diet (canned meat, peas, rice, fresh vegetables such as cabbage and beetroot were introduced).
In early February 2016, around 23 detainees remained in the facilities. On 20 April 2016, another external inspection was conducted in the Kharkiv SBU by the Prosecutor Office, that time the SBU brought a bus and ordered all detainees to pack their belongings and board the bus, which was parked in a street nearby the train station for around six hours before returning to the facility before midnight. The last documented inspection took place on 20 May 2016, when a delegation of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, but their access was denied, and the visit was suspended.
At least two detainees attempted to commit suicide and other detainees seemed to have psychophysical traumas.
There has been no broad investigation into the overall circumstances of the use of Kharkiv SBU premises as an unofficial detention facility. Victims are often too scared to report or speak and even fewer former detainees remained in Government controlled territory. All of these conditions created obstacles to holding perpetrators to account for past human rights violations.
The case study of the Donetsk “Izoliatsiia” in 2014-2021
The art center “Izoliatsiia”, created in 2010, is located at 3 Svitloho Shliakhu Street in Donetsk. On 9 June 2014, armed groups of the Donetsk people’s republic seized Izoliatsiia.
The report bases its findings in the interviews with 44 persons (33 men and 11 women) that were held in Izoliatsiia. As of 30 April 2021, no international monitors have been granted access to Izoliatsiia.
Two groups of persons were detained in Izoliatsiia, one group included Ukrainian servicemen, persons suspected of ties with SBU and persons suspected of espionage and crimes against national security; the second consisted of members of armed groups and other actors of Donetsk people’s republic accused of committing common or military crimes and persons accused of using drugs.
Former detainees provided estimates of between 40 and 70 individuals being held in Izoliatsiia at given times in 2017 and 2018.
The conditions in Izoliatsiia were not given for it to be a detention center, but the detention conditions improved in May 2017. Until then, most cells lacked toilets or running water and detainees were allowed to use the bathroom only once a day for a few minutes. Detainees who did not have a toilet often had to relieve themselves in plastic bottles or buckets, they were allowed to empty their bucket once every three days and detainees who used a washbasin as a toilet, were only allowed to empty it once a week, which meant the cells “always stank”. Later in 2016 the detainees were allowed to empty the bucket and washbasin daily.
In 2014 and 2015, detainees frequently were left without food for days as a form of punishment or to force confessions. One detainee reported to ate cigarette butts after smoking since cigarettes were more available than food, another one said she was only given one meal a day.
The temperature in the cells was often cold, this improved in late 2917 when the detention facility was renovated. Although some cells had windows, the glass was covered with paper or painted and barred, restricting access to natural daylight, detainees who intended to scrap the paper, were beaten. Many detainees said the light was on all day long in the cells and they were not allowed to turn it off. They were rarely allowed to walk outside, at least until 2018, when they were allowed to have a short daily walk in a small courtyard.
The doctor at Izoliatsiia did not provide medical care and the available medical supplies were expired. A former detainee reported seen a man being brought back to the cell unconscious with signs of being subjected to physical violence. Other detainees tried to help him and called for a doctor, but the man died without receiving medical assistance. It has been reported that there are about 30 unmarked graves in the territory surrounding Izoliatsiia.
In Izoliatsiia most detainees were held incommunicado and were not allowed contact with relatives or a lawyer. At the initial stages of the conflict, in 2014-2015, detainees were held at Izoliatsiia without any charges against them, often being vaguely accused of espionage or aiding Ukrainian Forces taking part in the ATO.
Former detainees reported to have been held in 2 by 3-meter cell with nine other detainees, with no access to fresh air and left without food, water or access to bathroom facilities for several days.
On 8 August 2014, Donetsk people’s republic issued a decree authorizing the “ministry of state security” to detain individuals suspected of banditry and other grave crimes, committed by organized criminal groups by up to 30 days without charges. This increased the chances of being held incommunicado or in preventive detention. Some detainees have reported that using Ukrainian language in their phones provided sufficient grounds to imprison someone for years.
Detainees have reported to be subjected to torture by wrapping wires around their toes and electrocution. All of them were forced to sign a statement where say to not have any complaints about the detention.
Most of the detainees in Izoliatsiia were charged with espionage and Izoliatsiia was called “a spy base”.
Since late 2014, members of the armed groups and representatives of the “mgb” began to charge detainees under the “criminal code” of Donetsk people’s republic adopted on 19 August 2014, most commonly with articles 320 (high treason), 321 (espionage), 329 (organization of an extremist group) and 330 (organization of extremist group’s activity).
The majority of individuals held in Izoliatsiia were and said to have witnessed others being tortured with verbal abuse and threats of torture, including threats of sexual violence, or death for them or their family members, prolonged solitary confinement and forced labor.
The methods of torture used in Izoliatsiia against the detainees include beatings, punching and kicking with hands and legs, beatings with hard materials, suffocation, electrocution, mock executions, blindfolding and handcuffing, pouring cold water, forced nudity and other forms of sexual violence, verbal abuses and threats, including threats of sexual violence and violence towards relatives of detainees.
Several detainees reported that a health professional was present during their interrogations in Izoliatsiia, he would examine the detainees before interrogations and give injections of unknown substances. The doctor reportedly guided the perpetrators on how to inflict maximum pain without causing death and how to revive those who lost consciousness.
Since the perpetrators and authorities at Izoliatsiia did not use insignias and always covered their faces with balaclavas, the victims have not been able to recognize them. Some detainees believed that many of them were from the Russian Federation.
From July to early autumn of 2014, a commanded with the call sign “Mongol” was in charge of the facility. Between 2016 and 2018, the person in charge was known by the call sign “Palych”. On 11 or 12 February 2018, Palych was replaced by a man with the call sign “Kuzmich”.