Kiev, UKRAINE – It’s not an easy topic for Olena Rybak to talk about, but determined to tell the story of her husband’s death, she begun to speak.
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“I know the exact time he must have been taken, 18:12. I tried calling him then but he didn’t answer. I was waiting for him at home but he never came ... The torture they did against him was so cruel.”
It was on April 17, 2014, barely a few days after separatist fighters had taken over parts of Volodymyr Rybak’s hometown of Horlivka in east Ukraine, that the city official was followed on his way home and bundled into the back of a car. Two days later he was found dead.
“His body was covered in burns and stab wounds, both his hands were broken and black,” Rybak said as she relived the moment she had to identify her husband at the morgue. Her husband, a former officer in the police force and a known pro-Ukrainian figure in the community who had participated in the 2014 Euromaidan protests, was tortured to death.
“There was another torture method that his body showed signs of, a torture that I was told was called ‘the swallow,’” Rybak continued, describing a disturbing form of torture involving barbed wire.
After suffering from severe trauma, beatings, stab wounds and finally a hammer blow to the head, Rybak died and his body was tossed into a nearby river.
As the conflict in Ukraine stretches into its third year, at least 112 prisoners – both civilian and military – remain in separatist detention. Torture methods, similar to what Rybak endured and what led to his death, remain commonplace.
The head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, Oleksandra Matviychuk, told Haaretz that from the CCLU’s own surveys and interviews with former prisoners, the organization believes that around 90 percent of military and 50 percent of civilian detainees held by separatists are subjected to some kind of physical or psychological torture. From testimonies gathered from 165 former detainees, electric shocks, having cigarette butts put out on skin, beatings and rape have all been used as torture methods.
“Among the victims are women, minors and the elderly,” Matviychuk said.
One detainee who was imprisoned at the beginning of the conflict, and was pregnant at the time, claimed beatings were routine.
“We were beaten by everything, rifle buts, kicked, we were beaten all over the body,” the former prisoner, who wishes to remain anonymous, said. “As I was watching and crying when others were being beaten, they put tape over my eyes. It was my third month of pregnancy and as a result of the beatings I started bleeding.”
Separatist rebels, however, are not the only group to have been accused of prisoner mistreatment. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a joint report in July with research findings showing that both the separatists and the Ukrainian government were complicit in the abuse and torture of detainees in their care. In one case, the authors of the report discovered that both warring sides had detained the same person at different times during the conflict.
“People in eastern Ukraine who are being seized and hidden away by the warring sides are at the mercy of their captors,” said Tanya Lokshina, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch and one of the coauthors of the report. “The vacuum of the rule of law in separatist-controlled areas deprives people who have been detained of their rights and basically leaves them helpless.”
While prisoners taken by government and pro-government forces tend to be detained in more traditional prison-like facilities, the separatists have been known to use a variety of unsuitable spaces as detention centers. Office buildings, cellars, garages, dog cages and sanitary sewers have all been recorded by the CCLU as previous detention sites used by the so-called breakaway regions in the east, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.
Yevhen Shlyahtin, a former separatist prisoner from the city of Stakhanov, told Haaretz that during his one-month detention he was packed into a basement with approximately 200 other detainees.
“There were beatings every day during interrogations, some caused unconsciousness, on one day they broke all my fingers,” Shlyahtin said of the treatment he suffered at the hands of the separatist prison officers. “Other prisoners were treated the same way as me, one day a man was beaten by clubs to death. All of the people I was with were civilians. Some children, women and teenagers – all sorts of people. The reasons for their arrest were different. Some had violated a curfew in place at the time, others were arrested because they were rich, or because of their pro-Ukrainian government views.”
An estimated 10,000 people have died and 1.5 million displaced as a result of the hostilities between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists in the east. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that at least 1,000 people have gone missing, either presumed dead or captured but whereabouts unknown.
For families with relatives who remain in separatist detention in the Donbas, there is the worry that as the conflict drags on, international attention will continue to wane and the chances of prisoners being released in the near future will dwindle.
Vladimir Zhemchugov is one of those 112 prisoners remaining in separatist hands. The Russian-backed rebels caught the 45-year-old Ukrainian businessman in September 2015 after he was injured stepping on a trip wire that left him without vision and arms. In an interrogation video that can be seen on YouTube, Zhemchugov is accused by the Luhansk People’s Republic of coordinating with the Ukrainian army in the creation and laying down of trip wires and mines in the east.
Elena Zhemchugova, Zhemchugov’s wife, said that although her husband admits complicity in military acts in the video, she believes the allegations are not true and instead that they were obtained under duress. Rather, her husband had told her he was in the east carrying out humanitarian duties, volunteering and helping internally displaced persons and distributing food.
“Just imagine, he has no hands or eyes, how can he live?” Zhemchugova said. “If the Luhansk People’s Republic is a republic, if it is a separate country like they have declared themselves to be, they have to care about human rights. I don’t understand how they can keep him imprisoned when he is in this state.
“I’ve been in touch since last year with officials working on the Minsk peace negotiations,” Zhemchugova explained, referencing the ongoing peace talks involving the breakaway regions, Russia, Ukraine and international partners that has seen some limited prisoner releases so far. “And back in November Vladimir’s name was coming up, but since then, the separatists stopped talking about him, the Ukrainian side stopped talking about him and his name has disappeared from any negotiation talks.”
The worry now is that the longer Zhemchugov and others like him who have been injured – either before detainment or during as a result of torture – are kept imprisoned, the larger the likelihood that their health could deteriorate to life-threatening levels.
“According to the Minsk agreements these people should have been released [already],” Matviychuk told Haaretz. “The appeal to Russia and the Russian-controlled separatists to free the hostages without reference to other clauses of the Minsk agreements must be communicated in an imperative tone. People might not survive until the next round of negotiations.”