Prisoners trapped in the area under militant control
Among the countless victims of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, one group has gone unnoticed. Tens of thousands of prisoners serving sentences, as well as people in detention, are held in the areas under the control of Kremlin-backed militants. In an important study, Andriy Didenko explains that for various reasons it transpired that specifically the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts have the largest number (20%) of penitentiary institutions in the country. Of the 36 institutions, 27 are in territory under the control of the militants.
The former head of the Penitentiary Service Serhiy Starenky reports that there is no contact at present with 14 of the 20 institutions in the Donetsk oblast. He estimates that counting both oblasts there may be up to 15 thousand prisoners and people remanded in custody.
According to the Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko, attempts are underway to evacuate the prisoners, however this is “no easy matter since the terrorists are using them as hostages”. He says that some of the prisoners at the Luhansk women’s colony have already been evacuated.
On the other hand, Petrenko says, in colonies and SIZO [detention centres] directly inside the zone of military action, there have been deaths of prisoners and members of staff. The situation is worse, however, in the Donetsk and Luhansk SIZO “where people don’t have the possibility to either move around the territory, or seek cover from the shelling in basements.”
Conflicting reports about the conditions
Starenky asserts that the food situation is critical and that only around 30-35% of the staff have remained. He also suggests that there are questions about many of these people.
Didenko quotes three prisoners. One says that they have almost not been given any food for the last two months, and claims that the staff are hiding in the basement. He says that the terrorists turned up, did some shooting, took two life prisoners away. After that, he claims, the personnel ripped off their insignia and pretended to be prisoners.
The National Guard he says shoots from tanks, but at least they aim properly which is some comfort whereas “those so-called insurgents” have placed weapons all around and are hiding behind the prisoners.
Another says that members of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic [DPR] turned up, beat and ill-treated the prisoners, slashing some on the buttocks with a knife, and killing two prisoners.
The third, from Colony No. 97 in the Donetsk oblast asserts that all the management of the colony have sworn allegiance to the DPR.
This is only a brief summary of the men’s accounts which Oleksandr Bukalov from Donetsk Memorial believes should be treated with caution. Bukalov, who has for many years monitored the situation in Ukraine’s prisons and SIZO, points out that one should view with respect the fact that many members of staff who, unlike the prisoners, have freedom of movement are still coming to work. He is not aware of any large-scale desertion by prison staff to the militant camp.
He sees the main problem as lying not in a lack of food, etc. but in the large number of personnel who have left.
The authorities must ensure prisoner and staff safety. There are, he estimates, from 8-10 thousand (though maybe 12 thousand) who need to be transferred to prisons that can take them, perhaps in the Zaporizhya or Dnipropetrovsk oblasts.
There are a number of issues, he says, which need to be considered. The problems must be resolved with the public informed and able to monitor their actions.
Yury Bilousov, head of the National preventive mechanism under the Human Rights Ombudsperson says that they are also monitoring the situation and are in regular contact with the Red Cross who are trying to get to the institutions involved.
The DPR announced on Sept 18 that they were taking under their subordination 7 colonies and the Donetsk SIZO. They claim to even have their own department for the execution of sentences within what they call the DPR interior ministry, under the leadership of Oleksy Ryazanov. They inform that they intend to take control of all 15 colonies; 2 corrective centres; 3 SIZO and 56 penitentiary inspectorates of the region.