Torture and Police Violence in Ukraine Must End

On the occasion of the meeting in Kyiv of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights’ (IHF) Executive Committee, the IHF and the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union (UHHRU) drew attention to the long-standing human rights problems of torture, ill-treatment, and police violence in Ukraine.

“Recent reports by the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) and the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) point to frequent violations of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,”[i] stated Aaron Rhodes, IHF Executive Director. “Under these circumstances it is especially problematic that human rights NGOs are not given access to places of detention in order to carry out monitoring of the conditions in which detainees are held and the treatment they receive while being cut from the outside world,” he added.

The IHF and UHHRU are especially concerned with the existence of “special anti-terrorist units” in prisons. Officially established in 2005 for the execution of sentences, in reality, their main role is to intimidate and subdue prisoners. The CAT pointed to problems with incidents involving the use of anti-terrorist units wearing masks inside prisons, and the UHHRU recommended their abolishment.

Still, most recently on 7 June 2007, evidence of special unit abuse has been recorded. In the Buchansk Penal Colony No. 85 (Kyiv region), a special unit consisting of men in masks and special outfits was deployed in the heightened security section of the colony. For approximately one hour, the prisoners were beaten by fighters from the special unit. Prisoners in other sections reported hearing screams suggesting severe beating. Afterwards, 12 prisoners were escorted by the special unit to the penal hospital with serious bodily injuries.  Some of the prisoners reportedly had tried to slash their wrists, unable to endure the harsh beating.[ii]

Research conducted by the Kharkiv Institute for Sociological Research (KISR) produced distressing figures on the ongoing problem of police misconduct in Ukraine, pointing to frequent beatings and bodily injuries during criminal investigations for the year 2004. The study collected information on thousands of people who were additionally subject to torture through the use of “special equipment,” or torture devices including electric shocks.[iii] However, convictions for law enforcement agents accused of such torture and ill-treatment remain rare and when they do occur, the lenient sentences delivered do not correspond to the seriousness of the charges.

We call upon the Ukrainian government to give access to human rights NGOs to places of detention in order to be able to monitor the situation and play their role in the fight against torture.

We also call upon the government to implement without delay the recommendations made by both the CAT and the KHPG to lower the incidence of torture within its borders, including:

–  Any impunity on behalf of police officers committing crimes of torture should be abolished by establishing an independent investigation and prosecution system;

–  A coordinated effort to stop torture should be developed, which would include amending the criminal code to align more closely with the UN Convention, making forced statements inadmissible as evidence;

–  Detainees must be given access to lawyers and materials of their own criminal cases and they must be provided with a written record of all actions taken during detention;

–  Living conditions in penitentiaries must be improved; and

–  All “special units” to combat terrorism in prisons should be abolished.

[i] On 8 May 2007, Ukraine presented its fifth periodic report to the CAT. At the same time, the KHPG, which is a member of the UHHRU, presented an alternative report to the CAT regarding Ukraine’s adherence to the Convention for the years 2001–2006, describing factors that contribute to the continued practice of torture and ill-treatment in Ukraine.

[ii] Other cases of torture within Ukraine have also been reported. In a 2006 report entitled “Human Rights in Ukraine – 2005: II. Protection against Torture” the KHPG detailed several nationally known cases of police misconduct against citizens. In one particularly grievous example, a minor was interrogated without the presence of his parents or a teacher. During the interrogation, he was physically assaulted and sustained a concussion, forcing his mother to take him to a hospital. Other case studies collected by the KHPG reported similarly egregious levels of violence, including one case where the victim later died, allegedly as a result of police violence.

[iii] “Unlawful Violence in Law Enforcement Agencies: Sociological, Legal and Historical Analysis.” General Editor: Fellow Member of the Academy of Legal Sciences of Ukraine, Doctor of Law, Professor O.N. Yarmish. National University of Internal Affairs Publishing, 2005. Cited in the KHPG Alternative Report.

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