war crimes in Ukraine

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Smoke without fire?

During 1997 many mass media abroad published materials on hard conditions in Ukrainian prisons, colonies and detention blocks. Referring to facts made public by the Kharkov Group of human rights protection and other Ukrainian right protecting organizations the mass media mentioned, in particular, that units of OMON (a Russian abbreviation for ’special militia units’) cruelly beat convicts just for training combat techniques while having planned manoeuvres in penitentiary establishments. What are the sources of our information?

On 29-30 April of 1997 the UNO Committee against torture heard the third periodic report of Ukraine on the observance of the UNO Convention against torture and other cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment and punishment. The Conclusions and Recommendations of the Committee state in particular that the conditions in Ukrainian preliminary prisons (where people are kept before the trial) can be characterized as inhuman and degrading, inflicting spiritual and physical suffering, as well as damage to health. In drawing these conclusions the UNO Committee used the commentaries to the Government report which were prepared by Amnesty International, the Kharkov Group for human rights protection, the Donetsk Memorial and other Ukrainian NGOs. The MA commentaries state that

’... a special instruction of the Ministry of Interior permits training of OMON units in penitentiary establishments, and this instruction allows training on convicts with the purpose of preparation for emergencies and suppression of acts of civil disobedience... In 1996 such ’manoeuvres’ occurred in about 20 colonies of various regions of Ukraine. The ’manoeuvres’ seem to be held in Zaporozhye Region in September 1997; many convicts were brutally beaten: they were ordered to lie down and then given the boot, they were knocked down by water jets. Convicts of colony ?? 309/70 located in Berdichev complained to the Prosecutor’s office, which started a criminal investigation of this training of OMON.’

The commentary of the Kharkov Group stated the following:

’It is unknown which legal documents and instructions justify the so called "military training" of the Ministry of Interior, when combat techniques are trained on convicts: according to unofficial sources, such training was held in 20 colonies’.

After the third periodic report of the Ukrainian delegation, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine charged the Ministry of Justice jointly with the Ministry of Interior (MI), the General prosecutor’s office and the Ukrainian security service, to prepare the Commentaries of Ukraine to the Conclusions and Recommendations of the UNO Committee. In preparing the Commentaries the above listed agencies also elucidated the question of training OMON units in penitentiary colonies. In letter No.52-5-3576 of 4 August 1997 the Ministry of Justice stated that the MI secret instruction, which permits such training, does not exist. The letter contained the following explanation:

’By MI order No.49-91 special units are organized in six regions. The units, on the average, consist of 25 men. The main task set before the special units is ensuring law and order in penitentiary establishments, timely suppression of group illegal actions on the side of convicts, taking preventive measures for protecting the personnel from criminal attempts, etc. During 1991-1997 these units were used for thorough searches of the territory of colonies and prisons, for withdrawal of forbidden objects, for suppression of mass disorder and collective disobedience, for liberation of hostages and capturing escaped prisoners.’

According to the MI report, no special units entered any colony in

Zaporozhye region or colony ??-309/70 in Zhitomir region, neither in

1996 nor in the first half of 1997. The General Prosecutor’s office informed that in September 1994 the Prosecutor’s office of Zhitomir region investigated a criminal case about the alleged arrival of a special unit in April 1994 in colony ??-309/70 and the consequent beating of several convicts. The case, the procurator’s office added, after a thorough investigation was closed on 28 February, 1995, for lack of corpus delicti, according to Article 6.2 of the Penal-Procedural Code of Ukraine. In contrast to the MI report the Prosecutor’s office admitted that in 1996-1997 there were cases of introducing special units to colonies of Zaporozhye region with the purpose of the prevention of group disobedience of convicts and liberation of hostages. However, the actions of the special units were closely controlled by the commandment of the MI Regional Directorate. However, no contacts with convicts were allowed. The role of convicts and hostages were played by the colony wardens and servicemen. No complaints of cruel or degrading treatment from convicts were received by the prosecutor.

Comparing these documents with the data available to the human rights protection organizations, it is not difficult to conclude that the same events are meant, the difference being in some discrepancy of the dates mentioned. The secret instruction seems to be renamed to Order No.49-91, and it is not known to which level of secrecy is this order classified. The common grain of truth is that the training did take place, although the evidence of who where the whipping boys differs.

We learned about the events in colony ??-309/70 from the letter of

the inmate of this colony A.Fridson, the Chairman of the League for

protecting convicts’ rights, organized by the prisoners, and from

the letter of N.Kovalev, the responsible secretary of the League.

The League existed from August 1994 to October 1995, and it unclosed plenty violations and facts of cruel treatment of convicts. Among them were the manoeuvres, or rather massive beatings of helpless convicts for training combat techniques of the special unit servicemen. This incident became known by the public, and the Region prosecutors office had to start the criminal case. Gansovsky, an investigating officer, read the documents of the League, questioned Fridson and a number of victims of the training. This provoked a splash of prison administration activity. For the mere fact of pinning a leaflet of the League to the announcement board some members of the League were punished, and Fridson was directed to the prison in Vinnitsa, where he had to stay in prison instead of working in a colony.

Human rights protection organizations received and continue to receive many letters from penitentiary colonies where facts of tormenting convicts by OMON servicemen are described. It is impossible to verify these letters since the penitentiary system is closed for any control by outsiders. To get there for any representatives of the public is possible only with a permission of high authorities, and the letter are unwilling in general and adamant when it concerns violations of the personnel. Nonetheless, the fact that very similar letters come from all parts of the country certainly permits to draw rather obvious conclusions.

Similar reports on beating convicts by OMON were published in the press. For example, in the parliamentary newspaper ’Golos Ukrainy’ of 3 June 1993 an interview with a former convict Konstantin Logvinenko was published. Logvinenko depicted OMON manoeuvres:

’When OMON comes to the manoeuvres, all tremble, hardened criminals and the small fry. Big bulls from OMON rush into a cell, chose the beefiest, drag him to the passage and start chopping on him for a couple of hours. They even don’t take money to let one alone, so much their fists itch. I remember the first day, when we were transferred from the prison for minors to the one for grown ups. OMON "took us for a walk".

The procedure was such: bulls stood one meter one from another with clubs which they used to make us run. Along all the passages. We ran real fast. It rumors that some jailbirds were beaten to death. Who will ever know?’

We receive many similar letters. I shall give one more example. Recently the Kharkov Group has received a letter. Here it is, verbatim:

’We turn to you because we desperately need someone’s help. Maybe you can stop the mass extermination of convicts, who are still human beings. There is a colony in Zaporozhye region, OEI 310/101. It is a real concentration camp, and the facts of mass extermination can be easily verified. In the same region there is another colony, OEI 310/55, which is considered a TB hospital for convicts. The majority of patients of this hospital, ill or dying, are usually directed to our colony, while healthier people are directed to other places. On December 23 we got a shipment from OEI 55, all in all 150 people. The shipment at first was greeted by a speech where it was declared that they had come to die here. Then all of them, young and old, were ordered to lie on the ground, and then the wards started to kick them cruelly without any provocation. They found that someone brought a guitar and broke the guitar on the man’s head. They strangled people with the guitar strings, broke some teeth and heads. 40 people without any reason were put to the lockup rooms. If you can, try to cease this hell.It is not difficult to learn all the details if a commission or a group of newsmen can be directed to our colony. As you understand, we cannot sign our names, but we hope that it is not important, and we hope that sooner or later this torture will be stopped.

Help us, please!!!

Convicts of UIN 310/101

P.S. May be, through mass media you will give us an address, where we shall turn with our complaints. Then our letters and those of our relatives will flow there in a torrent. Again we beg you to do anything to help us’.

While reading such letters one acutely understands his impotence to help. To address a prosecutor’s office is senseless: a standard scrap of paper will come that the facts have not been confirmed; in addition, these unconfirmed facts will be implacably applied to the authors of the complaint. It is impossible - alas! - to organize inspection by independent commission. But that is the only reliable remedy. We must fight for making the penitentiary system more open and accessible for the independent control of observance of laws.
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