Ukraine must end ‘grotesque practice’ of secret detention, say Amnesty & HRW

Ukraine is facing pressure to come clean on its secret detention centers after it was revealed that 12 men and one woman have been set free from a clandestine facility run by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in Kharkov.

Six men were released on 25 July and six men and one woman were released on 2 August, say reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The two human rights groups have demanded that Kiev acknowledge and investigate the practice.

Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch say the release of the detainees was prompted by their joint report “You Don’t Exist”: Arbitrary Detentions, Enforced Disappearances, and Torture in Eastern Ukraine’, published on July 21.

Upon the report’s release, representatives from the NGOs met with Ukraine’s military prosecutor and sent him a list of 16 people presumably held in the secret Kharkov detention center. Twelve of the 13 eventually released were from this list, Amnesty says.

“The grotesque practice of secret detention continues to be denied by the Ukrainian authorities, but the evidence is overwhelming. The release of 13 people is welcome, but simply confirms the need to end and investigate these abuses and deliver justice to the victims,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s regional director for Europe and Central Asia, said on the organization’s website.

The two human rights groups have now called on the Ukrainian government to take action to investigate the practice of secret detention. The organizations have also written to Ukraine’s Chief Military Prosecutor Anatoly Matios with evidence of five more people being kept in secret detention.

“We urge Kyiv to take immediate steps to secure the release of those still secretly detained and to provide justice – and crucially protection – to those now seeking it,” Dalhuisen added.

“The Security Service’s continued denial of enforced disappearances fosters a climate of lawlessness and perpetuates impunity for grave human rights violations,” said Tanya Lokshina, a senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

SBU’s chief of staff, Aleksandr Tkachuk, has rejected the information on secret jails, calling it “false,” however he pledged to carry out a thorough investigation into the issue during a broadcast of the Ukraine 112 TV channel.

“We do pay careful attention to the information obtained by human rights groups,” Tkachuk said. “And we are to check this data,” he added.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say they managed to interview five of the prisoners who were released from the Kharkov detention facility. They claimed that the Ukrainian authorities were guilty of illegal detentions and torturing detainees.

“Three of the former secret detainees – Mykola Vakaruk, Vyktor Ashykhin and Dmytro Koroliov – are determined to seek justice. The other two have asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals against themselves or their families,” the Amnesty report says.

Ashykhin said he was abducted from his home in December 2014 and was released last month. He told Amnesty International that during his 597-day illegal detention, the guards would go to great lengths to remove any trace of their presence so that independent monitors would not find anything.

After the prisoners were set free, they were given between 50-200 hryvnas ($2-10) “for transportation costs” and their passports were returned. However, they were warned by SBU officials that they would face “severe repercussions” if they spoke out about their detentions and the abuse they had faced.

Dalhuisen said that it is vital for Ukraine to acknowledge the problems it is facing as it looks to overhaul its criminal justice system – although he added that this is difficult when members of the public are given “such complete impunity.”

“The rule of law is already weak in Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities cannot hope to overhaul its ailing criminal justice system, while pockets of its law enforcement engage in such egregious practices with such complete impunity. Ukraine’s interests are far better served by tackling this problem, than denying it,” he said.

A number of letters containing the allegations were sent to the head of the Ukrainian Security Service, the Ukrainian military prosecutor and other officials. However, they “have been met with denial,” Krasimir Yankov, a researcher focusing on Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus at Amnesty International, told RT.

Apart from a secret prison in Kharkov, Amnesty International believes there are detention centers all over eastern Ukraine used for short-term imprisonment where people are forced to confess to alleged crimes on camera, Yankov added.

“We understand that these confessions were extracted under duress, including beating and heavy torture,” Yankov said.

Afterwards the detainees are sent to Kharkov to be exchanged for Ukrainian fighters captured by pro-Russian opposition.