The Russian government controlled the level of violence in eastern Ukraine, intensifying the conflict when it suited its political interests, while largely ignoring the 2014 ceasefire and subsequent attempts to reestablish the ceasefire agreed to by all sides. Russia continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside some Ukrainians, and Russia-led forces throughout the conflict methodically obstructed and threatened international monitors, who do not have the access necessary to record systematically ceasefire violations or abuses committed by Russia-led forces.
International organizations and NGOs, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the HRMMU issued periodic reports documenting abuses committed in the Donbas region. As of September 20, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) fielded 1,087 persons supporting a special monitoring mission (SMM), which issued daily reports on the situation and conditions in most major cities.
As of mid-August, the HRMMU reported that fighting had killed at least 10,225 persons in Ukraine, including civilians, government armed forces, and members of armed groups. This figure included the 298 passengers and crew on board Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17, which was shot down in 2014 over the Donbas region. In addition since the start of the conflict, more than three million residents have left areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts controlled by Russia-led forces. As of October 31, the Ministry of Social Policy had registered 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). According to the Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of August 30, there were approximately one million Ukrainian refugees in other countries, including approximately 427,000 in the Russian Federation.
The media and human rights groups continued to report widespread abuses in areas held by Russia-led forces. The HRMMU noted a “collapse of law and order” in such areas as well as “serious human rights abuses,” including killings and torture.
Killings: There were reports of extrajudicial killings by both Ukrainian and Russian-led forces. In its March report, the HRMMU reported the government had made some progress investigating extrajudicial killings, noting specifically that “investigative actions have become timelier; suspects were identified and detained shortly after the incidents. It is of concern, however, that superiors who may have ordered or concealed crimes have not brought to justice.”
The HRMMU reported that on March 10, near Krasnohorivka, law enforcement officials found the body of a man who went missing in Avdiyivka on March 3. Authorities in March detained an SBU officer suspected of committing the killing but later released him on bail.
According to the HRMMU, a young man who made his living carrying luggage for people travelling across the line of contact in Stanytsia Luhanska left for work on April 27 and never returned. In early May his family saw a media report stating his body was found in Luhansk, an area controlled by armed groups. According to the death certificate, the man died of trauma to his head, limbs, and organs.
In its September report, the HRMMU noted, “the placement of military objectives in densely populated areas through military occupation and use of civilian property continued to heighten the risk of civilian lives on both sides of the contact line.” On June 8, a 15-year-old resident of the village of Kamyanka, Donetsk Oblast, was injured in the yard of his house by shelling by Russia-led armed groups.
The HRMMU also regularly noted concerns about the dangers to civilians from landmines and other explosive devices near checkpoints (see below).
As of August 15, the public database of the National Police of Ukraine listed 1,476 individuals who had gone missing in the conflict zone since mid-April 2014. Human rights groups criticized as ineffective the government’s efforts to keep track of missing persons. Russia-led forces had no such system and no effective means of investigating missing person’s cases. According to human rights groups, approximately 1,000 bodies in government-controlled cemeteries and morgues, both military and civilian, remained unidentified as a result of fighting, mostly from 2014.
Abductions: Government forces, Russia-led forces, and criminal elements engaged in abductions. The HRMMU reported a pattern of arbitrary and incommunicado detention by government law enforcement bodies (mainly by the SBU) and by military and paramilitary units, primarily by the former volunteer battalions now formally incorporated into the security services.
In its reports the HRMMU repeatedly expressed concern regarding reports of enforced disappearances and “unacknowledged detention” practiced by the SBU. For example, in May a woman in Mariupol was lured to an Azov battalion position, blindfolded, and transported to an unknown destination. Men hit her and threatened to bury her if she did not cooperate. Perpetrators then informed the police they had captured a member of an armed group. Police interrogated the woman without a lawyer, and she signed a document incriminating herself as a member of the armed group. The next day police filmed her “confession” and brought her to the Mariupol SBU building, where she repeated her confession to two officers. One officer left and the other locked the door and ordered her to undress for a physical examination. He photographed her scars and tattoos without any explanation. SBU officers then took her to her residence and held her there for three days. They then brought the woman to court, where an SBU officer punched her twice in the stomach in the corridor. The military prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into the case.
Human rights groups reported that Russia-led forces routinely kidnapped persons for political purposes, to settle vendettas, or for ransom. The HRMMU documented cases of enforced disappearances in territories controlled by armed groups, including many cases in which individuals were held incommunicado for more than a month. For example, on April 18, “police” detained a man in the “Luhansk People’s Republic” who was reportedly released the same day but never returned home. The following day the “ministry of state security” searched his house and seized some personal belongings. They held the victim incommunicado until May 31, during which time his family was informed that he was arrested by the “border service.” He was then accused of treason and, as of August 15, remained in detention.
In May a “military tribunal” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” ““sentenced religious historian and president of the Center for Religious Studies and International Spiritual Relations Ihor Kozlovsky to two years and eight months in prison. He was abducted in January 2016 allegedly in retaliation for his pro-Ukrainian postings on social media.
In early June, Russia-led forces kidnapped Donetsk journalist Stanislav Aseyev (pen name Vasin) and accused him of espionage. The charge carries a sentence of 12 to 14 years in prison (see section 2.a.).
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Both government and Russia-led forces reportedly abused and tortured civilians and soldiers in detention facilities. Reported abuses included beatings, physical and psychological torture, mock executions, sexual violence, deprivation of food and water, refusal of medical care, and forced labor.
In government-controlled territory, the HRMMU recorded several cases of interrogation techniques that could amount to torture, including mock executions and use of electric shocks. The HRMMU stated it suspected such cases were underreported because victims often remained in detention or were afraid to report abuse due to fear of retaliation or lack of trust in the justice system.
According to the HRMMU, in April police detained two men in Bakhmut and took them to a location outside the town, where one was held for three days and the other for one day incommunicado. Both were tortured, subjected to electric shocks in the genitals, and questioned about their participation in illegal armed groups in 2014. Both victims were then transferred to a pretrial detention facility and charged with participation in an armed group.
There were reports that Russia-led forces systematically committed numerous abuses, including torture, in the territories under their control. According to international organizations and NGOs, abuses included beatings, forced labor, psychological and physical torture, public humiliation, and sexual violence. International organizations were refused access to places of deprivation of liberty in territory controlled by Russia-led armed groups and were therefore not able to assess fully the conditions of detention facilities. In September the PGO stated that law enforcement authorities were investigating 600 cases of torture of Ukrainian citizens by Russia-led forces.
On July 13, Ludmyla Surzhenko, a 39-year-old woman who allegedly criticized the “Luhansk People’s Republic” in social media, was detained while crossing the line of contact at the Stanytsia Luhanska checkpoint, on the side controlled by armed groups. The “ministry of state security” held her incommunicado for 16 days, during which she was interrogated four times. During one interrogation session, interrogators dislocated one of her fingers with a pair of pliers and threatened to move her to a basement with male detainees. On July 29, they returned her to the same checkpoint on the government-controlled side. Luhansk Oblast police opened an investigation into the case.
The HRMMU’s report Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine, which covered the period from March 2014 to the end of January, stated, “The majority of documented cases of conflict-related sexual violence happened when people, both men and women, were detained by either government forces or armed groups.” It noted that cases of sexual violence were generally underreported due to trauma suffered by victims, stigma associated with sexual violence, and fear of reprisals. According to the report, “beatings and electrocutions on the genitals, rapes, threats of rape and forced nudity were used as methods of torture and ill-treatment to punish, humiliate, or extract confessions.” In its December 2016 report, the HRMMU noted, “The country’s justice system lacks the laws, capacity, and professional experience to effectively investigate and prosecute allegations of sexual violence, resulting in widespread impunity for perpetrators.”
According to the Justice for Peace in Donbas human rights coalition, individuals held in illegal detention facilities in territories controlled by Russia-led forces reported cases of gender-based violence, in particular rape, attempted rape, sexual abuse, forced nudity, sterilization, and torture focused on genitals. Conflict-related gender-based violence against men was almost as regular and widespread as against women; 92 men and 114 women were victims of sexual violence documented by the coalition.
Both sides employed land mines without fencing, signs, or other measures to prevent civilian casualties. In June the HRMMU reported that the presence of a large number of mines and unexploded ordnance in areas close to the contact line in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts continued to pose a serious threat to civilians. The HRMMU noted, “All sides continued laying new mines rather than systematically clearing or marking mines or other hazards, or fencing them off.” The mines resulted in civilians being killed and maimed, often while walking to their homes and fields. In September the OSCE reported that, of the 442 total civilian casualties resulting from the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2016, 26 percent were caused by land mines and unexploded ordnance. These risks were particularly acute for persons living in towns and settlements near the contact line as well as for the approximately 25,000 persons who crossed the contact line daily. On April 23, an OSCE SMM patrol car was destroyed in an explosion believed caused by a land mine near the village of Pryshyb, Luhansk Oblast. The explosion killed an international medic on patrol with the SMM and injured two foreign monitors. The next day in Fashchivka, Luhansk Oblast, a tractor detonated a land mine killing three civilians.
According to the OSCE SMM, approximately 2,703 square miles of territory in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts needed humanitarian demining. In mid-August they reported mines and ordnance killed 27 persons and injured 62 civilians since the start of the year.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: On September 20, the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, and Ukraine signed a memorandum reiterating their political support and commitment to cooperate in an investigation of the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in Donbas. In September 2016 a team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, and Ukraine presented the results of their investigation into the crash. The Dutch-led investigation concluded that the surface-to-air missile system used to shoot down the airliner over Ukraine, killing all 298 persons on board, was brought in from Russia at the request of Russia-led forces and returned to Russia the same night. The report largely confirmed the already widely documented role of the Russian government in the deployment of the missile system, a Buk or SA-11, and the subsequent cover-up. In the report, Dutch prosecutors traced Russia’s role in deploying the missile system into Ukraine and its attempt to hide its role after the disaster.
In 2015 government authorities introduced measures to expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid to areas controlled by Russia-led forces. Russia-led forces in Donetsk Oblast, however, sharply restricted government humanitarian aid as well as aid from international humanitarian organizations. As a result persons remaining in territories held by Russia-led forces experienced large price increases for everyday consumables, especially meat and fresh vegetables. Human rights groups also reported severe shortages of medicine, coal, and medical supplies in territory not controlled by the government.
Russia-led forces continued to receive convoys of Russian “humanitarian aid,” which Ukrainian government officials believed contained weapons and supplies for Russia-led forces.