Ukraine takes Russia to European Court of Human Rights over 71 Kremlin hostages
Ukraine has lodged a vital inter-state application with the European Court of Human Rights over Russia’s persecution of 71 Ukrainians illegally held prisoner in Russia or occupied Crimea. It is the sixth inter-state application filed against Russia since its invasion of Crimea in early 2014, but the first to specifically address Russia’s ever increasing number of Ukrainian political prisoners, and the abductions, torture and other human rights violations committed against them and other Ukrainians. It is hard to imagine that the Court will not find multiple violations by Russia of the prisoners’ rights.
The application, prepared by the Ministry of Justice in cooperation with human rights groups and the families of political prisoners, has already filled three thousand pages, and as the Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko stressed at a press conference on August 13, it will certainly need to be supplemented with new information.
The material provided to the Court contains information about the role of those individuals most implicated in each of the cases, both at high level and the ‘investigators’, prosecutors, judges, etc. This evidence of involvement in political trials can help convince other countries of the need to introduce sanctions, for example, against ‘judges’ passing knowingly wrongful sentences.
Darya Sviridova is one of the lawyers from the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union [UHHRU] who helped draw up the application. She believes that the international claim will give extra weight to the many individual applications pending consideration, and will also demonstrate the scale, systemic nature and general picture of the persecution unleashed on Ukrainians since early 2014.
The European Court of Human Rights [ECHR] has a huge backlog of individual applications, and has yet to consider even those lodged back in 2014, for example, on behalf of Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko and others. Given the systemic and continuing nature of the violations, and the direct danger to the life and health of a number of the prisoners. Ukraine will be asking the Court in Strasbourg to give priority treatment to this application. Even this will take time, and it is unfortunately not guaranteed that Russia would comply with the judgement. Back in 2015, Russia passed a ‘law’ allowing it to not comply with ECHR judgements if the Constitutional Court obligingly ruled that this would not comply with the country’s Constitution. Russia is currently flouting an unequivocal ECHR judgement by holding a large number of Ukrainians thousands of kilometres from their homes.
While such disregard for the Court has so far received relatively little attention, that will surely not be the case if Strasbourg finds major and systemic persecution of Ukrainians on the grounds of their political views; their religion and / or their civic or human rights activities.
Article 2: the right to life
For the moment, the application does not directly accuse Russia of violating the right to life, enshrined in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia has committed itself to observe. There are, however, at least three political prisoners – Oleg Sentsov; Volodymyr Balukh and Oleksandr Shumkov – on hunger strike, and also a number of prisoners whose medical conditions make it downright dangerous for them to be in detention (65-year-old Asan Chapukh, 57-year-old Bekir Degermendzhy and 20-year-old Pavlo Hryb, to name only three).
Article 3: prohibition of torture and ill-treatment
During the press conference, Ivan Lishchyna, Ukraine’s Representative to the European Court of Human Rights, spoke of the sense they had while preparing material that this was all like the trials during Joseph Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s, where people were tortured into ‘confessing’ to anything, however insanely improbable.
There is ample evidence that similar methods have been used against a large number of the prisoners.
Ihor Kotelyanets spoke about the torture his brother, Yevhen Panov was subjected to for three days from 7 August 2016, with this including mock executions; electric shocks and clamps attached to his genitals (more details here). Similar accounts have been given by at least two other men arrested on supposed ‘Crimea saboteur’ charges. The mere fact that at least four of the political prisoners have later been convicted of charges quite different from their supposed ‘confessions’ suggests that the latter were given under duress.
In one case, that of Serhiy Lytvynov, Russia was even forced to admit that his ‘confession’ had been tortured out of him. This was thanks to the late Viktor Parshutkin who did a wonderful job, with the help of Ukrainian human rights activists, in demonstrating that Lytvynov had ‘confessed’ to war crimes that could not have happened since the names and addresses were all fictitious. Russia’s Investigative Committee then came up with equally cynical and implausible charges, and a ‘court’ obediently sentenced him to 8.5 years.
This has so far been the only occasion when Russia withdrew at least the more serious charges in the face of hard facts. In May 2016, a ‘court’ in Chechnya sentenced Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh to 22.5 and 20 years’ imprisonment, respectively, although the charges were not only absurd, but also in conflict with historical fact.
Russia is also obliged to investigate any allegations of torture, but invariably finds that there were no grounds. The courts have also ignored the political prisoners’ retraction of testimony given under torture, even where, as in the case of Klykh and Karpyuk, the ‘confessions’ are positively surreal, with both men, for example, claiming that they were fighting in Chechnya in 1994/95, together with the then Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and a number of other prominent Ukrainian politicians. There was also stubborn denial of the torture of Oleksandr Kostenko, despite the fact that his arm was broken after he was arrested in occupied Crimea in early February 2015.
Men are being held in detention in the Simferopol SIZO [remand prison], where the conditions are appalling enough to constitute torture.
Article 5: the right to liberty and personal security; Article 6 – the right to a fair trial; Article 13 the right to an effective remedy; and Article 18 Limitation on use of restrictions on rights. The last of these is invoked where there are strong grounds for believing that particular charges, while not openly ‘political’, were brought for political reasons. For example, the criminal prosecution of Crimean farmer and activist Volodymyr Balukh was clearly prompted by the Ukrainian flag over his home, and by his renaming of his home in honour of the slain victims of Maidan.
The list of violations here is huge, and it is no wonder that the application needed three thousand pages.
Numerous occasions where people have been held incommunicado for weeks, months or, in the case of Mykola Karpyuk, well over a year. In all such cases, the men are believed to have been subjected to torture;
Ongoing detention without any justification at all, often in cases, such as that of Pavlo Hryb and Bekir Degermendzhy where this can place their life in danger;
Refusal to allow access to independent lawyers, as well as the mounting harassment and even persecution of such lawyers in occupied Crimea;
The use of ‘secret witnesses’ in cases where there is otherwise no evidence against the defendants;
Ongoing detention and convictions even where Russia has absolutely no jurisdiction, for example, over the so-called 26 February 2014 case, used to imprison Crimean Tatar Mejlis leader Akhtem Chiygoz, and the long sentences against Oleksandr Kostenko and Andriy Kolomiyets on unprovable charges of ‘inflicting pain’ on Berkut officers during Euromaidan in Kyiv.
The general lack of any chance of a fair trial in such political cases where the sentences are handed down to the court, with the latter breaching their oath by complying.
Article 8 Right to respect for private and family life
Since ECHR has already found Russia in violation over Russians held far from their homes, it is certain that it will find that all Ukrainians held in Russia are victims of such violation.
Article 9 Freedom of thought, conscience and religion and Article 10 Freedom of Expression
Once again the scope is large, and on the increase. Virtually all faiths, except the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, have come under pressure since annexation, however only one group – that of Muslims – can so far be viewed as imprisoned for their faith. Officially they are accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a peaceful pan-Islamist organization which is legal in Ukraine. Men quite literally face up to life imprisonment although they have committed no crime at all, with the ‘evidence’ typically given by ‘secret witnesses’.
Russia is increasingly using Hizb ut-Tahrir charges to imprison men actively reporting on repression in occupied Crimea and supporting political prisoners and their families, especially via the Crimean Solidarity initiative.
It is only a question of time before the wave or arrests in Russia of Jehovah’s Witnesses begins in occupied Crimea.
At the press conference, Justice Minister Petrenko stressed that when it comes to Ukrainians, they had demonstrated a lack of any justice or rule of law in the Russian Federation, and in occupied Crimea.
Russia has quite brazenly abducted a number of Ukrainians, and has staged ‘trials’ which are legally nonsensical by their very essence, as well as being fatally flawed. Where Ukrainians are concerned, especially those openly opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression against Ukraine, there is hope of justice only at the European Court of Human Rights. This, therefore, makes the latest application of immense importance.
Ukrainians held illegally in Russia or occupied Crimea