UN documents prisoners’ torture, abuse in Ukrainian conflict

KYIV, Ukraine — Prisoners taken by the warring parties in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine have endured systematic torture, sexual violence and other abuses, the United Nations human rights agency said in a report released Friday.

The report issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that prisoners’ abuse was particularly rampant in the initial stage of the seven-year conflict, but noted that it continues to this day.

“Seven years since the outbreak of the conflict, it is unacceptable that such egregious human rights violation remain largely unaddressed,” said Matilda Bogner, Head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. “The prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is absolute. Torture can never be justified.”

The conflict in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland called the Donbas erupted in April 2014 weeks after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula that followed the ouster of the country’s former Moscow-leaning president. Russia-backed separatists took control of large areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, established the so-called ‘people’s republics’ and fought the government forces attempting to reclaim control. More than 14,000 people have been killed.

The OHCHR estimated the total number of conflict-related detentions from April 14, 2014 until April 30, 2021 at 7,900-8,700 , including 3,600-4,000 by the government side and 4,300-4,700 by separatists.

It said in the report that both sides used secret detention facilities immune from any prosecutorial oversight or access by rights monitors. The government side stopped using them in 2017 but the separatists continue to hold prisoners incommunicado, denying access to their relatives and monitors to that moment, the OHCHR said.

The OHCHR analyzed more than 1,300 individual cases of conflict-related detention. It said that in cases that occurred only between 2014-2015, 74% of detainees held by government forces and 82.2% to 85.7% of those held by the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions respectively were frequently subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

It estimated the total number of conflict-related detainees subjected to torture and ill-treatment in 2014-2021 at around 4,000 – 1,500 at the hands of government agents and about 2,500 by separatists. They included an estimated 340 victims of sexual violence.

The OHCHR said that both in the government-controlled and separatist-held territories “torture and ill-treatment, including conflict-related sexual violence, were used to extract confessions or information, or to otherwise force detainees to cooperate, as well as for punitive purposes, to humiliate and intimidate, and to extort money and property.”

Methods of torture and ill-treatment used by both sides included beatings, dry and wet asphyxiation, electrocution, rape, forced nudity, water, food, sleep or toilet deprivation, mock executions, hooding, and threats of death or further torture or sexual violence, or harm to family members.

Stanislav Aseyev, a journalist who worked for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and spent 28 months in the Izoliatsia (Isolation) separatist prison in Donetsk, said the facility had an elaborate system of torture that put emphasis on electric shock.

“They would strip a person naked tied to a metal chair with a band and then apply electric shock to different body parts,” Aseyev, who was released in a 2019 prisoner swap, told The Associated Press.

Aseyev, who was also subjected to torture, said that hearing others screaming in pain under torture in a nearby cell has added to the trauma. “It’s unbearable to hear a person crying from torture in a neighboring room,” he told the AP.

OHCHR pointed to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) as the most common perpetrator of arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment on the government side, adding that volunteer battalions were also responsible at the initial stages of the conflict.

On the rebel side, the report said that various armed groups and later members of separatist ‘ministries of state security’ were responsible for prisoner torture and abuse.

The report noted that most of the abuses have remained unpunished.

“We have observed a lack of political will and motivation to investigate the cases allegedly perpetrated by government actors, as well as misuse of procedures to avoid proper investigation of such cases,” Bogner said. “While we can count victims in the thousands, perpetrators brought to account only number in the dozens.”