The Russian government controlled the level of violence in eastern Ukraine, intensifying the conflict when it suited its political interests. Russian forces continued to arm, train, lead, and fight alongside some Ukrainians. Russia-led forces throughout the conflict methodically obstructed and threatened international monitors, who did 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 2, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) fielded 1,247 persons supporting a special monitoring mission (SMM), which issued daily reports on the situation and conditions in most major cities.
As of mid-June the HRMMU reported that fighting had killed at least 10,500 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 1, the Ministry of Social Policy had registered 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The media and human rights groups continued to report widespread abuses in areas held by Russia-led forces.
Killings: As of November 1, the OSCE reported 212 civilian casualties (43 deaths and 173 injuries) since January 1, compared with 476 total casualties (86 deaths and 390 injuries) for all of 2017.
In its September report, the HRMMU noted that the continued use of indirect and explosive weapons by both sides of the conflict remained the primary concern regarding protection of civilians, that significant numbers of civilians continued to reside in villages and towns in close proximity to the contact line, and that both government forces and Russia-led forces were present in areas where civilians resided. For example according to HRMMU, four civilians were killed and two others were injured by shelling by government forces in Dokuchayevsk, in the “DPR,” between April 22 and April 28. According to press reports, on May 17, a 13-year-old boy and his father were killed in their yard in the village of Troitske in government-controlled territory during shelling by Russia-led forces.
The HRMMU also regularly noted concerns about the dangers to civilians from landmines, booby traps, and unexploded ordnance. According to the Ministry of Defense, 7,000 square kilometers (2700 square miles) of government-controlled territory and 9,000 square kilometers (3500 square miles) of territory controlled by Russia-led forces in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts needed humanitarian demining. According to the Ministry of Defense, as of mid-July, mines and explosive ordinance had killed more than 2,550 civilians, including 242 children, since the start of the conflict.
According to the HRMMU, on April 7, four members of one family died in Pishchane in the government-controlled area of Luhansk region when their vehicle ran over an antitank mine. On September 30, according to the OSCE SMM, three children were killed and one injured when they inadvertently triggered a landmine on the outskirts of Horlivka in Donetsk Oblast, in an area under the control of Russia-led forces. Three boys between the ages of 12 and 14 died at the scene and a 10-year-old boy was taken to a local hospital with multiple injuries.
As of September 1, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that over 1,500 individuals had gone missing in the conflict zone since mid-April 2014. According to the National Police, 1,861 persons went missing in the conflict area since April 2014. On July 12, parliament adopted a bill, “On the Legal Status of Missing Persons,” to address the situation of individuals unaccounted for as a result of armed conflict, hostilities, public disturbances, and natural or manmade disasters. The law calls for the creation of a unified registry of missing persons and a commission to coordinate the activities of government agencies involved in tracing and identifying missing persons and providing support for their families. Russia-led forces had no such system and no effective means of investigating missing persons’ cases. According to human rights groups, over 1,000 bodies in government-controlled cemeteries and morgues, both military and civilian, remained unidentified as a result of fighting, mostly from 2014.
Abductions: There were reports of abductions on both sides of the line of contact. A preliminary report by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) following a June visit noted: “There is almost total impunity for acts of enforced disappearances on both sides of the contact line, mainly due to a lack of interest and political will. In Kyiv as well as in Russia-controlled territory in Donbas, the WGEID perceived little interest in pursuing cases unless the perpetrator is identified as someone supporting the opposite side. Bringing to justice anyone from its own side appears to be perceived as ‘unpatriotic.’
The HRMMU’s March report reported four cases on government-controlled territory in which individuals were allegedly abducted by a group of unidentified, masked individuals, either in civilian clothes or camouflage without insignia or emblems, in a public space, during daytime. According to the HRMMU: “The victims reported being blindfolded or hooded, handcuffed and transported to an unknown location (building, basement, garage) where they were allegedly subjected to beatings, violent threats (including of rape), mock execution, or rape, while being coerced into confessing to cooperating with the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) or armed groups. This lasted from a few hours to a few days or weeks, during which the victim remained blindfolded or the perpetrators covered their faces. The victim would then either be transferred to the SBU or “released” on a public street where they would be immediately arrested by the SBU. At that point the detention would reportedly be properly registered, relatives were notified of the detention, and the detainee was notified of suspicion and interrogated.”
According to the head of the SBU, Russia-led forces held 113 Ukrainian hostages in Donbas. Human rights groups reported that Russia-led forces routinely kidnapped persons for political purposes, to settle vendettas, or for ransom. According to the HRMMU, on January 15, the “ministry of state security” (“MGB”) of the “DPR” announced that it had detained 246 individuals on “suspicion of espionage and state treason” in 2017. No data was available from the “LPR.”
Civilians were most often detained by Russia-led forces at entry-exit checkpoints along the line of contact. As of mid-May, the HRMMU documented five cases in which individuals were detained while attempting to cross the line of contact. In such cases, relatives could not obtain information about the whereabouts of the detained persons, particularly during the initial stage of detention. There were several cases in which individuals were held incommunicado for more than a month.
For example on March 28, a man was detained by the “MGB” while crossing Stanytsia Luhanska checkpoint into the “LPR.” His mother sought information from the “MGB” and “general prosecutor” for weeks but was informed only on April 19 that her son had been detained under “preventive arrest” procedures (see section 1.d.). During the first two days of his arrest, he was allegedly severely beaten, forced to stand on his toes while his wrists were handcuffed to a ceiling, and subjected to electric shocks. The abuse stopped when he “confessed” to a crime. Russia-led authorities released him after 64 days of detention.
On August 17, a Russian state-run television channel broadcast an interview in which abducted journalist Stanislav Aseyev (pen name Vasin) was forced to confess falsely to spying for Ukraine. In June 2017 Russia-led forces kidnapped Aseyev in Donetsk and accused him of espionage.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Both government and Russia-led forces reportedly abused and tortured civilians and soldiers in detention facilities, but human rights organizations consistently sited Russia-led forces for large-scale systematic abuses. Observers noted that an atmosphere of impunity and absence of rule of law compounded the situation. 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 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.
As of mid-August the HRMMU documented nine cases in the Donbas area where government military or SBU personnel captured alleged members of armed groups and held them in unofficial detention facilities before their arrests were properly registered. Four detained individuals involved in such cases reported being tortured, mistreated, subjected to sexual violence, and threatened with physical violence.
For example according to the HRMMU, on June 20, a resident of Khartsyzk was held for nearly 35 hours in the government-controlled Bakhmut and Kramatorsk police departments without being officially arrested or charged and without access to a lawyer. During this time, people in military uniforms reportedly punched him, beat him with objects, and threatened him with a knife, demanding a confession. He was interrogated and pressured to agree to a plea bargain and was charged with participation in an armed group.
According to the HRMMU, the lack of effective investigation into previously documented cases of torture and physical abuse remained a critical human rights concern. For example, the HRMMU’s September report described one case in which a detainee submitted several complaints alleging that in 2015 government forces held him for eight days at the Krasnoarmiysk Automobile Transportation Company without registering him and subjected him to mistreatment. The Military Prosecutor’s Office at the Donetsk garrison initiated criminal proceedings on the complaints but closed the investigation twice. While the courts ordered the investigation reopened both times, there was no progress and, following the release of the detainee in December 2017, the investigation was reportedly closed again.
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. During the year new accounts of abuse emerged from detainees released in a December 2017 prisoner exchange. For example, Leonid, a resident of Debaltseve, was held captive for 509 days after being detained in 2015. He was detained while attempting to move to the territory controlled by the government. Agents of the “DPR Ministry of State Security” beat him, then put a plastic bag on his head, handcuffed him, and took him to a former factory building in Donetsk. The Russia-led forces equipped a prison with a torture ward in the basement of the former factor where Leonid was also tortured. Leonid was also interrogated and tortured in the premises of the “Ministry of State Security” (MGB) in Donetsk. During interrogation, perpetrators used electric shock, beat him, humiliated him, attempted to rape him, and threatened to torture his relatives. According to the SBU, the agency has documented 500 cases of torture of Ukrainian citizens by Russia-led forces. During the year the HRMMU documented multiple reports of individuals arbitrarily arrested by “MGB” personnel, tortured, and held incommunicado in a former cultural center turned into detention facility called Izoliatsiya. During their detention, the individuals were allegedly subjected to electric shock and other forms of abuse. The HRMMU believed that at least 40 individuals, including civilians, were held in Izoliatsiya during the first half of the year.
With the exception of one very restricted visit by the UN SRT (see section 1.c.), international organizations, including the HRMMU, were refused access to places of deprivation of liberty in territory controlled by Russia-led forces and were therefore not able to fully assess the conditions in the facilities.
The UNRMMU continued to document reports of sexual and gender-based violence by both sides during the year. A December 2017 report by the Justice for Peace in Donbas Coalition (JFPDC) reflecting interviews with hundreds of former detainees from detention centers documented abuses by both sides over the course of the conflict, but noted that sexual violence was more widely used by Russia-led forces than by government forces or progovernment battalions. On the government side, the report documented incidents of rape, threats of rape, and sexual harassment and humiliation.
In areas controlled by Russia-led forces, the JFPDC indicated that that sexual violence was more systematic and especially widespread in illegal “unofficial” detention facilities, where in some cases women and men were not separated. The report noted that at least one out of every four detainees of these illegal prisons (both women and men) was a victim or witness of gender-based violence. The documented forms of abuse included rape, threats of rape, threats of castration, intentional damage to genitalia, threats of sexual violence against family members, sexual harassment, forced nudity, coercion to watch sexual violence against others, forced prostitution, and humiliation.
Both sides employed land mines without fencing, signs, or other measures to prevent civilian casualties. As of September the HRMMU reported that mines, booby traps, and explosive remnants of war accounted for 58 civilian casualties (six killed and 52 injured). Risks were particularly acute for persons living in towns and settlements near the contact line as well as for the approximately 35,000 persons who crossed the contact line daily.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: On May 24, an international team of investigators from Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, and Ukraine presented the results of their investigation into the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in Donbas. The investigation concluded that the surface-to-air missile system used to shoot down the airliner over Ukraine, killing all 298 persons on board, came from the Russian military. The report largely confirmed the already widely documented role of the Russian government in the deployment of the missile system and its 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.
Russia-led forces in Donetsk Oblast banned Ukrainian government humanitarian aid and restricted aid from international humanitarian organizations. As a result, prices for basic groceries were reportedly outside the means of many persons remaining in Russia-controlled territory. Human rights groups also reported severe shortages of medicine, coal, and medical supplies in Russia-controlled territory. Russia-led forces continued to receive convoys of Russian “humanitarian aid,” which Ukrainian government officials believed contained weapons and supplies for Russia-led forces.