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Both the Ukrainian government authorities and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine are holding civilians in prolonged arbitrary, and sometimes secret detention and torturing them, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said in a joint report released today.

The report You Don’t Exist: Arbitrary Detentions, Enforced Disappearances, and Torture in Eastern Ukraine, is based on interviews with 40 victims of abuses, their family members, witnesses, victims’ lawyers, and other sources. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented nine cases of arbitrary, prolonged detention of civilians by the Ukrainian authorities, including some cases of enforced disappearances, in informal detention sites and nine cases of arbitrary, prolonged detention of civilians by Russian-backed separatists. Most of the cases detailed in the report took place in 2015 and the first half of 2016. 

“People in eastern Ukraine who are being seized and hidden away by the warring sides are at the mercy of their captors,” said Tanya Lokshina, senior researcher for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.  “It is never legal or justified to seize people off the streets, cut them off from contact with family and lawyers, and beat and abuse them.”

“Torture and secret detention are not historical – or unknown – practices in Ukraine. They are taking place right now, on both sides of the conflict,” said Denis Krivosheev, Eurasia Research Director at Amnesty International. “Those countries providing support – to whatever side – know this perfectly well. They must not continue to turn a blind-eye to these abhorrent abuses.”

Enforced Disappearances, Torture

The Ukrainian authorities and pro-Kiev paramilitary groups have detained civilians suspected of involvement with or supporting Russian-backed separatists, while the separatist forces have detained civilians suspected of supporting or spying for the Ukrainian government, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found.  

In one case, “Vadim,” 39, was detained and tortured first by one side, then the other. In April 2015, armed men seized him at a checkpoint manned by Ukrainian forces, pulled a bag over his head, and questioned him about his alleged connections with Russia-backed separatists. Vadim spent more than six weeks in captivity, most of the time in a facility apparently run by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) personnel. His interrogators tortured him with electric shocks, burned him with cigarettes, and beat him, demanding that he confess to working for Russia-backed separatists.

After they finally released him, Vadim returned to Donetsk and was immediately detained by the local de facto authorities, who suspected him of having been recruited by Ukraine’s Security Service during his time in captivity. He spent more than two months in incommunicado detention in an unofficial prison in central Donetsk, where his captors also beat and ill-treated him.

Torturing detainees is always prohibited and always a crime, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said. Ukraine’s leadership and the de facto separatist authorities should both ensure that all forces under their control are aware of this and make it clear that ill-treatment of detainees won’t be tolerated.  

In some cases, the detentions constituted enforced disappearances because the authorities refused to acknowledge that the person was being detained or refused to provide their relatives with any information on their whereabouts or fate. Most of those detained suffered torture or other forms of ill-treatment. Several who had been injured in detention were denied medical attention.

In almost all of the 18 cases investigated, the release of the civilian detainees was at some point discussed by the side holding them in the context of prisoner exchanges. This gives rise to serious concern that both sides may be detaining civilians to have “currency” for potential exchanges of prisoners, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. Such detentions could constitute hostage taking, a war crime.

Secret Detention Facilities of Ukraine’s Security Service

In three of the cases of enforced disappearance in government-controlled territory, the people who had been detained said Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) held them in unacknowledged detention for periods ranging from 6 weeks to 15 months. One person was released in a prisoner exchange, and the other two were eventually released without trial.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found that unlawful, unacknowledged detentions have taken place in the SBU’s premises in Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Izyum, and Mariupol. A June 2016 UN report also noted the SBU compound in Kharkiv as an alleged place of unofficial detention.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have received information from a range of sources, including recently released detainees, that as many as 16 people may remain in secret detention on the SBU’s compound in Kharkiv. In a letter to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the SBU denied operating any detention facilities other than their only official temporary detention center in Kiev and denied having any information regarding the alleged Security Service abuses the groups documented.

“The allegations of secret detention by Ukraine are compelling and serious, and they merit thorough investigation. The Ukrainian government must come clean on this; and those countries lending international support should be forthright in their calls for an end to such practices,” said Krivosheev at Amnesty International.

Arbitrary detention in Areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists

In the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, local security services, which operate without any checks and balances, have arbitrarily detained civilians and in some cases tortured them. Residents of Donetsk and Luhansk described respective de facto state security ministries as the most powerful and the most feared organizations in the self-proclaimed republics.

“The vacuum of the rule of law in separatist-controlled areas deprives people who have been detained of their rights and basically leaves them helpless,” said Lokshina at Human Rights Watch.  

People held by the warring sides in eastern Ukraine are protected under international human rights and international humanitarian law, which unequivocally ban arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment. International standards provide that allegations of torture and other ill-treatment should be investigated, and that, when the evidence warrants it, those responsible should be prosecuted. Detainees must be provided with adequate food, water, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

The Ukrainian government and the de facto authorities in self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk peoples’ republics should immediately end enforced disappearances and arbitrary and incommunicado detention, and put into effect zero-tolerance policies for torture and ill-treatment of detainees. All parties to the conflict need to ensure that all forces under their control are aware of the consequences of abusing detainees under international law, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.