Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service] recently heeded well-deserved criticism from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and released 13 people it had been holding in a secret prison.  As a result, both the SBU and Ukraine in general received a second hammering from the same NGOs.  Perhaps it was still deserved, but it made for an extremely incomplete picture.   There was doubtless nothing new to report from the Kremlin-backed militant side, but that was surely worthy of a mention.  There was none at all.  The media headlines were all exclusively about ‘secret prisons’ and shocking abuse, with it scarcely noted that the reports were appearing due to Ukraine not being impervious to criticism.

In July 2016, the same two organizations issued a joint report entitled “‘You Don’t Exist.’ Arbitrary Detentions, Enforced Disappearances, and Torture in Eastern Ukraine”.  They explain in the summary that they “investigated in detail nine cases of arbitrary, prolonged detention of civilians by the Ukrainian authorities in informal detention sites and nine cases of arbitrary, prolonged detention of civilians by Russia-backed separatists”.  The cases were mainly from 2015 and the first half of 2016.

While undoubtedly pointing to unacceptable abuses, the report aroused concern, through what it omitted to mention.  One such omission contrasted sharply with a report published by the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine earlier in July.  That study, called “Accountability for killings in Ukraine from January 2014 to May 2016”, provides detailed accounts of killings by those on both sides of the conflict.  The UN monitors do, however, point to differences in the scale of abuses and in the level of impunity.  While the Ukrainian authorities had sometimes been reluctant to investigate crimes committed by soldiers, there were systems in place for bringing those responsible to answer and people had been arrested and sometimes sentenced to long terms of imprisonment

The HRW / AI report gave no indication of the lack of parity in the real world outside their report. It did not mention, for example, the vast difference in the numbers of such abuses nor the level of impunity.

Both the UN Monitors and the international NGOs avoided mentioning the direct involvement of Russian military personnel and mercenaries in the conflict.  Yevhen Zakharov, Director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, strongly criticized the NGOs for this.  He believes that they had a positive duty to mention that Russians, including officers from the FSB, had taken part in torturing prisoners.  There was also evidence of people being taken to Russian territory and tortured there.

In the report Surviving Hell, Ukrainian human rights activists spoke with those who had been held captive by the militants.  They found that over 87% of Ukrainian soldiers and 50% of civilians taken prisoner by the militants in Donbas had been subjected to torture or ill-treatment.  In over 40% of the cases, key roles had been played by Russian Federation mercenaries, or people who identified themselves as Russian military personnel.

Clearly, there was no way that a report striving to show an even number of abuses from both sides could have included fighters from the real aggressor state. Yet, if they are a major factor, then the fact that they need to be left out for the sake of symmetry surely points to a major flaw in any attempt at even numbers.

A further flaw was highlighted by the major publicity on August 29 for the update.  HRW / AI reported the essentially good news that the SBU had released 13 of the people it is believed to be holding at a secret detention centre in Kharkiv, with the statement Ukraine: Authorities must commit to a thorough investigation after 13 people released from secret detention.  There was certainly a lot that was negative to be said.  The SBU, for example, had released one person even before the July report was published, but had placed three others in the secret detention unit, releasing one only at the beginning of August.  There are thus 5 people still believed to be held in secret detention, with this undoubtedly very bad, and the details provided to Ukraine’s Chief Military Prosecutor should certainly be investigated.

In an interview to Radio Svoboda, HRW investigator Tatyana Lokshina explained that that they had tried to organize a meeting with the ‘prosecutor’ from the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DNR].  The militants had, however, “perhaps not seen [such a meeting] as expedient” which was, she said, “a great shame”.

A shame indeed, since the lack of new information resulted in all the reports on August 29 about the apparently shocking new details, etc. all pertaining only to abuses on the Ukrainian government side.  This was particularly ironical since the new information was available precisely because the SBU had, albeit belatedly, demonstrated that it was not impervious to criticism.

There is no intention here to minimize the Ukrainian authorities’ liability for abuses.  There is, however, immense frustration at the distorted picture many readers will receive at a time when there are grave fears for the safety of some of the hostages in militant custody.

Just in the last month, for example, we have learned that 23-year-old Volodymyr Fomichov, who was taken hostage by the militants early in January after trying to visit his parents in Makiyivka, has been ‘tried’ and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.  His parents report that the militants returned some of his belongings including a sweater which was heavily bloodstained.  This matches other accounts of the treatment he has received.

Some of the hostages who are now facing ‘trial’ or have been ‘sentenced’ can be seen on militant-produced videos with little doubt remaining about the torture and ill-treatment they were subjected to – Vladimir Zhemchugov, for example, and Yevhen Chudnetsov.

The frustration is heightened by the virtual silence about prisoners in Russian-occupied Crimea.  Four Crimean Tatars are likely to receive very long sentences this week on charges which are grotesque, with another 10 men in custody and facing similar conveyor-belt trials and heavy terms of imprisonment.  There has been silence from international NGOs.  Perhaps Russia would also deem it not expedient to comment on such violations in Crimea under its occupation, but Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s voice is nonetheless needed.

By Halya Coynash, Human Rights in Ukraine