KYIV -- The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has documented more than 500 cases of ill-treatment, incommunicado detention, and torture by both Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists since the conflict erupted in April 2014, the mission’s head said in Kyiv on June 13.
“We believe, however, that this is the tip of the iceberg, as torture is a systemic issue in Ukraine that was exacerbated by the armed conflict,” Fiona Frazer told reporters at a press conference where she presented a new UN report.
In many instances, Frazer said, “the alleged perpetrators are the state security services and the so-called ‘ministries of state security’ of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic.”
In one case documented in the UN report, a foreign national said he had been detained and tortured by officers of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in December. In March, after the man filed a complaint and Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) launched a probe into the incident, the same SBU officers came to his apartment.
“They asked him to come with them to Odesa, allegedly to sign some documents. In their car, the men put on masks, and seized his passport, wallet and phone,” the UN report said. “The individuals told him that he had to leave Ukraine. One of them showed the victim a live video stream of two armed men near his apartment where his wife and two children were, and told him they would enter his home if he did not agree to leave,” it continued.
The SBU officers forced the man to make a statement on video saying he was leaving Ukraine voluntarily and that he had not been abused physically or psychologically, according to the report.
At a border crossing between Ukraine and Moldova, one of the officers delivered a warning: “If you return to Ukraine, we will kill you. If you talk about what happened to you, remember that you have a family in Ukraine.”
Frazer lamented the lack of progress in previously documented cases of torture at the hands of the SBU and stressed the urgent need to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“We see no progress in the investigation of arbitrary and incommunicado detention that took place on the premises of the Kharkiv SBU from 2014 to 2016,” Frazer said. “But the Kharkiv SBU is only one of dozens of illegal places of detention, which flourished on both sides of the contact line during the early years of the conflict.
“Another location, for example, is the Izoliatsiya detention facility in Donetsk,” she said.
In Donetsk, the UN documented four cases this year of civilians detained by the security forces of Russia-backed separatists.
In one, which occurred on February 26, a mother learned that her two sons had been transferred to a detention facility and charged with “espionage” following their disappearance in 2018.
In another, on March 3, a man got into an argument with Donetsk security personnel when crossing a checkpoint and was beaten.
“He fainted, and when he regained consciousness, he realized he had been handcuffed and thrown on the floor,” the UN report said. “He was then taken outside and left handcuffed to a fence for an hour. They then threatened to kill him. He was released after signing documents which he was not allowed to read.”
Frazer said the UN mission is aware of at least 51 detention facilities on both sides of the front line where hundreds of people were subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment.
Updating the civilian death toll, Frazer said 3,332 civilians have been killed while more than 7,000 were injured as a result of five years of fighting. Around 13,000 people in all have died, according to the organization’s count.
Frazer said there were 12 civilian deaths and 58 injuries recorded between January 1 and June 9.
“These are the lowest figures for the entire conflict period,” Frazer said.
Her report said the numbers “demonstrate that it is possible to progressively decrease civilian casualties to close to zero.”
In recent weeks, however, there has been a sharp uptick in artillery shelling and gunfire, resulting in at least six Ukrainian servicemen being killed last week alone.
The spike comes amid calls from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to reboot stalled peace negotiations, including the so-called Minsk Trilateral Contact Group meetings and the Normandy Format talks.
Zelenskiy will fly to France and Germany on June 17-18, respectively, where he is expected to meet with the country’s leaders to discuss the conflict, among other issues.