Against torture

26 June 2006 is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture and events are taking place throughout the day in Ukraine to highlight the problem of torture by law enforcement officers and in penal institutions. 

Press conferences will be held by the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union in Kyiv and by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group in Kharkiv.

They will look at how Ukraine is (or is not) complying with its international commitments with respect to combating the use of torture and ill-treatment and will also provide information about recent cases where people were victims of such treatment.

Throughout the country protest pickets will be held outside prosecutor’s offices demanding that they carry out swift and effective investigations into reports or complaints alleging torture and ill-treatment.  The protesters will hand over information which human rights groups have received and checked.

UHHRU have invited all civic organizations to run their own events without the framework of this action.  

How widespread is the use of torture and ill-treatment in Ukraine?

The first problem is finding out. The State Department for the Execution of Sentences [the Department] is extremely secretive and normally denies reports of torture and ill-treatment.

Its use of a special "anti-terrorist" unit in penal colonies should have been stopped at New Year when the Ministry of Justice withdrew the registration of the Order creating this special unit however there have been a number of reports of its deployment since. The most evidence has been received regarding the Izyaslav colony in January 2007 where, after the prisoners called a protest hunger strike, and the Deputy Head of the Department became involved, around 40 prisoners, those who took part in the protest, were beaten by a special unit, and then moved to other institutions.

The UN Committee against Torture which reviewed Ukraine‘s Fifth Periodic Report in May 2007 expressed concern about the use of anti-terrorist units in penal institutions. 

In general, the increasing number of incidents in penal institutions, such as the cases of self-mutilation in Kharkiv and Lviv last year, as well as reports which do reach human rights groups, suggest that there are a large number of cases of ill-treatment in penal institutions. 

Another major problem is the lack of realistic ways for prisoners to register complaints

Human rights defenders have organized pickets outside prosecutor’s offices for good reason. The latter seldom carry out proper and unbiased investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment from prisoners.  The Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Secretariat incredibly has sent such complaints received to the Department itself. Without proper mechanisms for ensuring that prisoners can safely make complaints with no fear of reprisals and with a chance of being heard, the scope for abuse is huge.

Torture and ill-treatment in police custody

Problems still remain here thought the Ministry of Internal Affairs is more open about the problem than the Department, and efforts are being made.

Abuse most often takes place before a person is formally detained with a protocol being drawn up.  At this stage the person is especially vulnerable. In many cases which human rights groups are aware of people thus detained were either threatened with reprisals if they said anything or forced to sign a piece of paper saying that they have no grievances against the police (the same also happens in penal institutions).

Two positive steps can be reported

MIA mobile groups are already working on monitoring the observance of human rights in MIA places of imprisonment, mainly in police temporary holding centres [ITT].  The most important aspect here is the use of spot checks with trained members of the groups.

A national network of people trained in this way is a prerequisite for the creation of a national preventive mechanism against torture and ill-treatment in accordance with the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT). The work of the mobile groups has been assessed highly by OSCE and Council of Europe experts.

It should be mentioned that Ukraine is behind in developing the national preventive mechanisms demanded by OPCAT.

A major problem in Ukraine is the parlous state of the system of legal aid.  This, and failure by the police and investigators to ensure that those detained or accused of a crime are properly represented. A major initiative underway involves the provision of a 24-hour Public Defence Office providing such free legal aid from the real moment a person is detained.  Pilot offices are already functioning in Bila Tserkva (Kyiv region), Kharkiv and Khmelnytsky.

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