KYIV -- Thirteen civilians who were allegedly held incommunicado, interrogated, and tortured after being rounded up “abduction-style” have been released from a secret jail run by Ukraine’s domestic security service, two prominent human rights groups say.
In a letter to Ukraine’s chief military prosecutor, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) said 12 men and one woman who had been held at a detention facility in the eastern city of Kharkiv were set free by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) on July 25 and August 2.
At least five people were still being held in secret detention at the Kharkiv facility, according to the rights groups’ letter, which was dated August 23 and made public on August 29. Some of those who were released had been held for weeks, others for months.
The SBU, which has said it has no secret jails, did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment.
“The SBU has denied the existence of the secret prison in Kharkiv and the use of the practice of secret detention, both in public and in our private meetings with them,” Krasimir Yankov, a Kyiv-based researcher for Amnesty International, told RFE/RL.
In their letter, Amnesty International and HRW said the SBU’s continued denial of enforced disappearances and secret detentions “fosters a climate of lawlessness and perpetuates impunity for grave human rights violations.” They called on the office of the chief military prosecutor, Anatoly Matios, to take immediate steps to secure the release of those who remain in custody and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The recent releases, which Amnesty and HRW learned of through interviews with five of the freed individuals, followed the groups’ joint report on July 21 that accused Ukrainian authorities and pro-Kyiv militias of rounding up and abusing civilians suspected of supporting or having connections with Russia-backed separatists.
Besides the Kharkiv site, the report said detainees were held in secret SBU jails in the government-controlled eastern cities of Kramatorsk, Izyum, and Mariupol.
It also alleged that the Russia-backed separatists imprisoned civilians suspected of backing or spying for the Ukrainian government. Separatist leaders in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have called the allegations “absurd.”
The report detailed 18 alleged cases of arbitrary, prolonged detentions by both sides during the conflict, which has killed more than 9,500 civilians and combatants since April 2014. Fighting persists despite a February 2015 cease-fire deal signed by Ukraine, Russia, and the separatists, and little progress has been made on political steps to resolve the conflict.
“International humanitarian law acknowledges that during times of armed conflict there may be security grounds for temporary detention of civilians, but arbitrary detention is always prohibited, and parties to an armed conflict are required to ensure a legal basis and framework as well as basic safeguards for the detention of civilians,” Yankov said.
Allegations of torture by the SBU at secret jails were first raised by a group of United Nations (UN) inspectors in March.
In May, UN efforts to gain access to the facilities were thwarted by the SBU.
Because Ukraine is a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the Optional Protocol to that agreement, UN inspectors should be able to make unannounced visits to any detention center.
Detained, Tortured, Discarded
Amnesty and HRW said that SBU officials in Kharkiv freed six detainees on July 25, and seven more on August 2. At least five remain at the secret detention facility there, they added.
The groups interviewed five of the freed detainees who said SBU officials covered their heads with black bags, drove them out of Kharkiv in the back of an armored minivan, and left them on the side of the road on the outskirts of Kramatorsk and Druzhkyvka, in Donetsk Province. The two cities are under government control but are close to the front lines of the conflict.
Before letting them go, their captors returned their passports and gave them about $2-$5 “for transportation costs,” the rights groups said. One man was without a passport because he did not have it when he was detained. The captors warned the detainees to keep silent about their secret detention and threatened them with severe repercussions if they spoke out.
But three of them have given detailed testimony to Amnesty and HRW.
Viktor Ashykhin, 59, told Amnesty and HRW that he was abducted from his home in Ukrayinsk, in Donetsk Province, on December 7, 2014.
“One of them went through my computer. The others found my phone and badge from the [May 11, 2014 separatist] referendum, [which] I had kept. Then, without giving any explanation or producing any papers, they put a black plastic bag over my head, tightened it with scotch tape at eye level, and led me outside into a white VW van,” he said. The men warned his wife not to contact any authorities for the next two days or else they would harm him.
Ashykhin said his captors took him to an SBU facility in Kramatorsk, where he was tortured and forced to confess to being an informant for armed separatists. Four days later, Ashykhin was transferred to the Kharkiv facility, where remained until his release on July 25.
Mykola Vakaruk, 34, said he was taken from his home in Ukrayinsk by unidentified armed servicemen in face masks on December 9, 2014 and brought to a facility in the city of Chervonoarmyisk, which has since been renamed Pokrovsk. There, he said, interrogators wearing insignia of Ukraine’s Dnipro-1 and Donbas battalions beat and kicked him for six hours while he was handcuffed before forcing him to confess to being a separatist spy.
“They were doing it in pairs: when two men got tired from kicking me, another two replaced them,” Vakaruk told Amnesty and HRW. “At some point they said, ‘Do you hear this? Would you want your wife to be next in line?’” he added.
On December 11, Vakaruk was transferred to the SBU facility in Kramatorsk and four days later to the Kharkiv site. In October 2015, he said, he developed a serious kidney problem and his captors took him to a Hospital in Kharkiv. While registered under the false name of Serhiy Ivanov, surgeons removed one of his kidneys. He said he was kept him in intensive care for 10 days before being moved to another room for an additional 20 days. There, he was handcuffed to a bed and supervised by a guard watching around the clock.
On November 27, Vakaruk said, SBU officials returned him to the Kharkiv site, where he stayed until July 25, when he was set free along with Ashykhin and four others.
Dmytro Korolyov, 37, was a policeman in the city of Zaporizhzhya who joined separatists in Donetsk in early June 2014 but returned home weeks later. He was arrested in January 2015 and given a five-year suspended sentence for organizing an "unlawful armed group." He was transferred to a detention facility in the city of Dnipro until the verdict came info force. He said that on August 3, 2015, with his release papers in hand after walking free, he was abducted by SBU officials and taken to the Kharkiv site.
Korolyov told Amnesty and HRW he thought he was going to be part of a prisoner exchange. Instead, his captors took him to the Kharkiv site, where he remained until his release on August 2.
In their letter, Amnesty and HRW said Ashykhin, Korolyov, and Vakaruk were invited by the police in their respective hometowns to file reports about their forced disappearances. But police merely wrote in reports that they were no longer missing and closed the missing person cases on each of them.
The police did not open investigations and did not encourage them to file complaints, according to Amnesty and HRW.
Amnesty and HRW said a Russian national named Vladimir Bezobrazov was among at least five people held in secret detention in Kharkiv at the time the letter was written.
“We call on the Ukrainian authorities to commit to an independent and transparent investigation of the information provided in our report and to deliver justice to the victims of these egregious violations,” Yankov said.