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Dec 1, 2023

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Ukraine: Rebel Forces Detain, Torture Civilians

Dire Concern For Safety of Captives

(Berlin, August 29, 2014) – Russian-backed insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine are arbitrarily detaining civilians and subjecting them to torture, degrading treatment, and forced labor, Human Rights Watch said today. They also have detained civilians for use as hostages.

Beginning in April 2014, armed fighters supporting the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) have captured hundreds of civilians, targeting presumed critics, including journalists, pro-Ukrainian political activists, religious activists, and in some cases their family members.

“Pro-Russian insurgents are regularly committing horrendous crimes,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There are solid grounds to be seriously concerned about the safety and well-being of anyone held by insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine.”

In August Human Rights Watch researchers in eastern Ukraine documented 20 cases in which rebel fighters had captured civilians, and interviewed 12 people who said their captors had beaten, kicked, stabbed, or lacerated them, burned them with cigarettes, or subjected them to mock executions. At least six were used as hostages either for ransom or to exchange with captured insurgents held by Ukrainian authorities. Another is apparently awaiting exchange.

Three people whose cases Human Rights Watch documented remain in captivity in Donetsk.

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that insurgents held them at various bases in Donetsk, Sloviansk, and Makyivka, including in security services (SBU) buildings, local administration buildings, and other buildings. On August 17, Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed a DPR representative at the Donetsk SBU building read a list of 55 detainees to a large group of local residents who gathered there hoping to find their missing relatives. Local people confirmed to Human Rights Watch researchers that insurgents read out a list of civilian detainees every evening.

Human Rights Watch also examined lists of captives maintained by Sloviansk insurgents, which human rights lawyers found in the SBU building after Ukrainian forces took control of the city. The lawyers matched some of the names on the list to people whose cases Human Rights Watch documented.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned by evidence of extra-judicial executions, and other civilian deaths in custody. For example, Human Rights Watch came into possession of three death sentences against civilians apparently issued by the Sloviansk insurgents’ summary war tribunal. Two were marked “executed.”

Human Rights Watch has not independently verified whether those named in the death sentences were in fact executed, but in July the Internet news media site Buzzfeed and two other foreign reporters found similar execution orders in Sloviansk and had them “corroborated by sources including a man who stood ‘trial.’” One former captive interviewed by Human Rights Watch in August said he witnessed the interrogation of a man whose dead body with marks of torture was found several days later.

Human Rights Watch could not establish the exact number of civilian captives insurgents have held in eastern Ukraine since April. A July 15 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights cited a Ukrainian Interior Ministry figure of 717 people, including civilians and members of Ukrainian forces, “abducted by armed groups in eastern Ukraine” between mid-April and mid-July.

At the end of August the Center for Freeing Prisoners, a nongovernmental group run by former Ukrainian military officers negotiating for release of hostages, published a list of 501 people whose release they are trying to secure. At least 129 were identified as civilians.

A psychologist in Dniepropetrovsk who worked with several people who had been tortured during rebel captivity described them to Human Rights Watch as “distressed,” “deeply traumatized,” and “extremely frightened.” One, he said, was covered with bruises from severe beatings, “stared into space, would not talk or react to verbal stimulation, and although he had no prior psychiatric condition, required immediate psychiatric hospitalization.” A human rights lawyer in Kiev who took on the cases of six former captives told Human Rights Watch that all of her clients had been beaten in captivity and that some alleged they were tortured with electric shocks, cut with knives, and burned with cigarettes.

Common article 3 to the Geneva Conventions and article 4.2 of Additional Protocol II, which govern non-international armed conflicts, ban taking hostages and abducting civilians. As a party to the conflict rebels may detain enemy soldiers or persons on security grounds, subject to due process. But Human Rights Watch found that rebel forces are vastly exceeding this authority, essentially abducting civilians they perceive as critics and using some as “bargaining chips,” as one of the former leaders of the self-proclaimed DPR said publicly.

Torture and cruel or degrading treatment of people in custody is absolutely prohibited under international human rights and humanitarian law, and states have an obligation to prosecute those responsible.

“Self-proclaimed authorities in eastern Ukraine should immediately free anyone held arbitrarily, put an end to arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, hostage-taking, and torture of detainees, and treat anyone in custody – civilians and military alike – humanely and with dignity,” Williamson said. “Russia should use its influence with insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine to stop these blatant violations and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.”

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Ukraine, please visit: