The armed conflict in areas of Donbas controlled by Russia-backed separatists continued at year’s end, despite a September 5 ceasefire signed in Minsk by Russian and Ukrainian officials and two separatist leaders.
International organizations and NGOs, including Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued periodic reports of human rights abuses committed in the Donbas region by separatist and government forces. Additionally, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) fielded a 358-person special monitoring mission, which issued daily reports on the situation and conditions in most major cities.
According to the UN’s HRRM, fighting and violence in the Donbas region deprived more than five million residents of their basic human rights to education, health care, and housing, and the opportunity to earn a living. On December 24, the HRMM reported at least 4,771 civilians were killed and 10,360 wounded in the conflict since fighting began in mid-April. This figure included the 298 passengers and crew on board flight MH17, which was shot down in July over Donbas (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuses). The figures, however, did not include the number of Russian or other foreign fighters killed or wounded who collaborated with the separatists. Additionally, more than 1.2 million residents left separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, of whom an estimated 593,000 left the country. Most of those who left went to Russia; the remainder moved to other parts of the country.
On August 27, Alexander Zakharchenko, the self-proclaimed leader of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” said on Russian state television that 3,000 to 4,000 Russian citizens were fighting together with armed rebels. This number included former or current Russian soldiers, whom he claimed were “on leave” from duty. Russian authorities supported the rebels and sent numerous convoys of trucks with supplies to the Donbas region without the permission of the Ukrainian government and without monitoring by international relief agencies. International observer groups in Donbas noted an almost constant flow of armed men, weapons, and material crossing from Russia into separatist-controlled areas of Ukraine.
In a report released October 8, the United Nations stated that, during the period from August 18 to September 16, “international humanitarian law, including the principles of military necessity, distinction, proportionality, and precaution continued to be violated by armed groups and some units and volunteer battalions under the control of the Ukrainian armed forces.” Additionally, “armed groups continued to terrorize the population in areas under their control, pursuing killings, abductions, torture, ill-treatment, and other serious human rights abuses, including destruction of housing and seizure of property.”
In a subsequent report released December 15, the HRRM stated there was a “near total breakdown in law and order” in separatist-held areas and the human right situation was “dire.” The report stated heavy weapons and foreign fighters, including from Russia, were fuelling the crisis. The HRRM report issued November 20 also reported on the use of cluster munitions in both urban and rural areas, citing concern about their impact on civilian areas. The report called for urgent and thorough investigations of all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law.
Killings: There were multiple reports by media and international monitors of arbitrary and unlawful killings and of “mass graves” in areas of the Donbas region. Lawlessness and a complete breakdown of civic institutions and governance fostered a climate of fear and intimidation among civilians caught in the fighting. Victims included progovernment activists and fighters, government soldiers, members of volunteer battalions, former local government officials, suspected spies, and others swept up by separatist patrols.
On July 9, separatists abducted and murdered four Protestant church members in Slovyansk, including the pastor’s two sons. Separatists abducted the members after a church service, stole their vehicles, and transferred them to a police station where they were tortured and executed the next day. Separatists buried them secretly in a mass grave containing 10 other bodies.
Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, a former Russian military intelligence officer who commanded separatist forces in Slovyansk until July, allegedly engaged in unlawful killings. In one case, Girkin reportedly ordered the killing of Aleksey Pichko, whom separatists accused of stealing two shirts and a pair of pants.
On October 20, AI released a report on its investigation into allegations of execution-style and other deliberate killings in several towns in Donbas. Based on accounts of survivors and eyewitnesses, the report stated while there was no doubt both sides were responsible for such killings, it was difficult to determine the scale of the abuses.
Some activists and international organizations noted the government took steps to investigate such abuses, but lacked resources to do more. At the same time, they noted the self-proclaimed separatist authorities in Donbas had so far not attempted to investigate reported abuses.
Both sides also accused each other of indiscriminate shelling in populated areas by using unguided Grad rockets and cluster bombs. The UN HRMM and HRW stated in reports released on October 20 and October 8, respectively, more than 50 persons died, with dozens of others wounded, by shelling in areas of Donetsk city and nearby villages. The government denied it used cluster munitions.
Shelling in the conflict zone killed several journalists, such as Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who worked for Russian-state television, and one International Red Cross employee. On August 20, two artillery shells hit a prison in Makiivka in Donetsk oblast, killing two inmates and injuring six. On November 5, mortar and artillery shells struck a sports field at a school in Donetsk, killing two children and injuring four.
Abductions: Separatists, government forces, progovernment civilian battalions, and criminal elements engaged in abductions. The October 8 report by the HMMR stated prior to the signing of the September 5 ceasefire that the SBU received up to 50 reports per day of missing or abducted persons. One of the 12 provisions in the September 5 Minsk Protocols called for the “immediate release by both sides of all hostages and unlawfully detained persons.” At that time separatists held approximately 1,000 persons in the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” According to the Internal Affairs Ministry, separatists held about 400 detainees as of the end of December.
In May separatists abducted two teams of four international observers and local staff seconded to the OSCE’s special monitoring mission. Separatists detained one four-person team in Donetsk city, the second in Slovyansk. One team was released after a week, but the second was detained for more than a month as separatists and the OSCE negotiated their release. A senior OSCE official in Vienna denounced the kidnapping, characterizing it as “sabotage of international efforts to de-escalate the crisis in Donbas.” On November 26, OSCE monitors came under fire from a rocket-propelled grenade and an antiaircraft gun believed to be in separatist territory. Additionally, separatists fired weapons at OSCE drones and used jammers to damage and blind them.
On June 18, separatists in Luhansk abducted government pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who was on leave to help train a volunteer battalion. Following an interrogation that separatists posted on the internet, she was smuggled out of the country to Russia. She surfaced in Moscow, where authorities charged her with complicity in the killing of two Russian television journalists by providing coordinates for mortar attacks on separatist positions. On August 27, authorities transferred her to the Serbsky Institute, infamous for its use of punitive psychiatry against political detainees. On October 27, authorities deferred her court hearing a second time and extended her detention into 2015.
On September 8, AI released a report critical of abuses by the progovernment Aydar battalion operating in northern Luhansk oblast. The battalion was one of more than 30 volunteer groups that assisted government security forces to retake separatist-held areas. The report noted Aydar had “acquired locally a reputation for brutal reprisals, robbery, beatings, and extortion.” AI criticized Aydar and other volunteer battalions for being effectively outside government lines of command and control. According to the military prosecutor’s office, authorities opened criminal proceedings against two Aydar fighters for the arbitrary detention of a civilian. The government disbanded another progovernment battalion, Shaktarsk, after accusations it engaged in human rights abuses.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Separatist forces reportedly abused and tortured civilians as well as progovernment activists and soldiers in detention facilities, which eyewitnesses and survivors described as “concentration camps.” Reported abuses included beatings, forced labor, psychological and physical torture, and sexual violence. There were also reports separatists used civilians and convicted prisoners from local jails as human shields, locking them in rebel-occupied buildings as a deterrent to government forces seeking to recapture the structures.
On August 7, armed men abducted Dmytro Potekhin, a prominent civic activist and blogger, in Donetsk on suspicion he was from Kyiv. They put a bag over his head and took him into an abandoned hotel, interrogated him, and then transferred him to a makeshift holding cell in the basement of a former arts center. He was held for 48 days and subjected to forced labor, intimidation, and humiliation. In a published account of his captivity in the Financial Times, “How I Survived the Dungeon in Donetsk,” Potemkin wrote he was one of hundreds of prisoners kept in such “isolators.”
On August 24, separatists detained Iryna Dovhan in Donetsk, accusing her of spying. The Donetsk native admitted to gathering donations for government forces but denied being a spy. Dovhan said the separatists turned her over to mercenaries whom she believed were from North Ossetia in Russia; they tortured her and intimidated her with threats of gang rape. Her captors wrapped her in the country’s flag and forced her to stand at a Donetsk intersection with a sign identifying her as a spy. Passersby berated, slapped, spit on, and kicked her; press and social media subsequently carried photographs of her abuse. She was freed August 28, after two foreign journalists interceded with rebels on her behalf.
Separatist forces subjected hostages to humiliating and degrading treatment. In August separatists marched prisoners, who were bound at the wrists and some of whom were wounded, through the streets of Donetsk at bayonet point while a crowd assaulted and abused them. Separatists also conducted arbitrary “trials” without due process of criminal suspects that resulted in physical punishment. In November separatists in Alchevsk, Luhansk oblast, conducted a much-publicized show trial of two individuals accused of rape. The separatists allowed the audience to determine sentences by show of hands; one of the accused was sentenced to death.
Child Soldiers: There were reports children as young as age 14 served as spotters and fighters with separatists and foreign fighters in Donetsk. On October 1, Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency reported that Alexsander Zakharchenko, the self-proclaimed “prime minster” of Donetsk, stated there were child fighters as young as 14 in his armed rebel unit, Oplot. He also claimed that 15-year-old children had served as spotters during fighting with government troops for Saur-Mohyla hill.
On October 23, a posting on the Donetsk separatist website included a video interview with two boys, ages 16 and 17, under the headline, “Sixteen-year-old Youths Signing up to Fight for Novorossiya.” The boys, dressed in camouflage, said they were ready to volunteer. In a related video post, a separatist representative, Pavel Savkun, praised the teenagers as heroes and claimed adolescents first attend a study center to take courses in fighting and warfare. “The rebel Motorola unit has many young ones, including 17- and 18-year-olds,” Savkun stated in the video, “They go freely. May praise and honor be upon them.”
Other Conflict-related Abuses: On July 17, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur flying over Ukraine, crashed in rebel-held territory in Donetsk oblast near the Russian border. All 298 passengers and crew on board died. On September 9, the Dutch Safety Board stated in a preliminary report the plane broke apart due to “impact from a large number of fragments, suggesting it was shot down from the ground.” Intelligence analysts from Western countries assessed the aircraft was shot down by a surface-to-air 9K37 “Buk” missile fired from separatist-controlled territory in Donetsk. Separatists denied possessing such missiles, and Russian officials denied providing rebels with military materiel. Separatists, however, had previously declared they had 9K37 “Buk” missiles and launchers. At the time of the crash, separatists announced they had shot down a Ukrainian AN-26 transport plane but retracted the claim after it was evident a civilian airliner had been shot down instead. An investigation into the crash continued at year’s end.
On November 2, the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk staged unauthorized “presidential” and “legislative” elections, which resulted in the election of Aleksander Zakharchenko as head of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and Ihor Plotnitsky as head of the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic.”
The elections were contrary to the September 5 Minsk Protocols, were not authorized under Ukrainian law, and were not monitored by impartial observers. Separatists allowed voting through the internet and regular mail. Relatively few polling stations were open, many residents could not or would not cast ballots, and some voters cast multiple ballots. Armed separatists were present at the election stations, often standing next to ballot boxes. Separatists encouraged voting by offering ration cards and subsidized food. Paramilitary fighters from Russia were eligible to vote.