war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

The Thing in itself

Different sides presented their view of the penal system in Ukraine to one of the only journalists who perceived the public need for information about the spectacle which took place at – and outside – a press conference on 22 February

In philosophy the “thing in itself” is something’s true essence which we can only guess at, influenced as we are by our time and space-linked perception. Human rights defenders must also guess, although for somewhat different reasons, in trying to fathom the real essence behind the veneer coating Ukraine’s penal system, holding around 160 thousand prisoners, with over 1.4 thousand serving life sentences. 

It is extremely difficult to gain objective information, so glowing reports from the State Department for the Execution of Sentences have to be viewed in conjunction with information received by human rights groups or the media about cases of torture and ill-treatment, etc.

Pavel, who served a six-year sentence in a Kharkiv region penal colony, says that all of the prisoners had been beaten and that if they dared complain, that was a “death sentence”.

He recounts how in 2004, when it became too difficult to bear, he secretly connected into the administration’s telephone network and rang his mother, asking her to write to Oleksandr Moroz and Yulia Tymoshenko begging them to help. On 14 June 2004, a reply came from Yulia Tymoshenko, then four days Pavel was put in the punishment isolation cell for 15 days. He claims that a week later they used “handcuffs”, which is when two officers have your hands in the handcuffs pressed to your back and then squeeze so that they cut into the flesh. This happened three years ago, but the former musician says that he still doesn’t have feeling in his hands and can’t play a musical instrument.

Human rights groups say that such cases are not isolated, yet it is difficult to do anything since the penal system is secretive and legislation designed to make prisoners totally in the power of the administration.  For this reason from time to day protests flare up against penal personnel. There have been at least five such cases in the last three months.

On 3 February information was received about a hunger strike by around 10 prisoners in protest at alleged brutal treatment by the administration in Colony No. 123 in the Vinnytsa region.

On 25 January there were reports of an attempted suicide by three prisoners in Donetsk Penal Colony No. 124, again over conditions ( )

On 13 January there was a report that two prisoners in Colony No. 47 had covered themselves in prison and tried to set themselves alight in protest at inhumane treatment.

On 17 December 2007 human rights defenders reported that a group of prisoners in the so-called “Monastery” of Izyaslav Penal Colony No. 58 had gone on hunger strike over conditions

On 10 November the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group reported that following an attempted escape by several prisoners serving life sentences in Penal Colony No. 60 ( Luhansk region) during which one person had been killed, a spetsnaz [special force] unit had been brought into the colony (  )

This case received a great deal of publicity because of the use of the “anti-terrorist” spetsnaz unit created through Order No. 167 within the State Department for the Execution of Sentences [the Department].  Human rights groups stress that this unit is used to carry out searches and beatings of prisoners. According to Yevhen Zakharov, Head of the Board of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union: “It all follows the same pattern: a spetsnaz unit with men in masks and full combat gear is brought in and beats up those prisoners brought to them.  The prisoners are then not given medical treatment unless they sign a piece of paper saying that they have no grievances against the administration and convoy”. 

Human rights groups hailed a victory on 24 December when the Ministry of Justice cancelled the State registration of Order No. 167, yet Mr Zakharov reports that on 31 January a unit of 25 spetsnaz fighters is again believed to have beaten up 16 prisoners at Penal Colony No. 46

As is standard in such cases, the Department denies reports of beatings, hunger strikes and self-mutilation, and suggests that the surge of such allegations proves the openness of the penal system. The Deputy Head of the Department’s Kyiv and Kyiv Region Division, Oleksandr Pavlov maintains :“All that was hidden a lot more before, and it has now all become open, everyone speaks of that. We aren’t saying that everything is fine, however the system is open and reforms are underway. However that doesn’t mean that anything goes. There are such things as security, regime, isolation”. Another employee of the system, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the level of transparency had increased over the last three years, leading to more attention from the press and civic organizations. He asserted that the public were more involved in re-education of prisoners.

Representatives of civic organizations categorically disagree with claims that the system is open.

According to Oleksandr Bukalov, Head of the Council of Donetsk Memorial, “It is very difficult to gain information about the real situation. Our organization tried to carry out a study and corresponded with the Department for more than 6 months. They asked for everything barring a blood test to decide whether to allow it, and in the end decided against giving permission. My colleagues from Chernihiv received similar responses.”

Yevhen Zakharov says that reports of torture and ill-treatment are not received through legal channels since no complaints leave the confines of the penal colonies by lawful means, with all correspondence being read. It’s impossible to check since the prisoner who leaked the information will be immediately punished.  He adds that the worst treatment is meted out to those who try to stand up for their rights and complain.  They get punished, put into punishment cells, on the most nonsensical pretext, like not making their bunk up properly, or not being dressed in uniform. They pile on a whole lot of such infringements and then increase the sentence for persistently failing to comply with orders.

The human rights groups’ complaints that they are not allowed into prisoners are rejected by employees of the Department as unfounded.  Mr Pavlov states: “They’re not authorized to carry out investigations. It’s the Prosecutor General, the SBU [Security Service] and Ministry of Internal Affairs. If any infringements have really occurred, this immediately becomes known to the public. 

Another member of the Department, refusing to give his surname, claimed that human rights groups are paid by bandits who don’t like the fact, as he claims, that the Department management is trying to build a system without corruption. .

Yevhen Zakharov agrees that criminal elements wage a battle with penal administrations. He stresses that human rights groups are very careful when dealing with reports from penal institutions and that only about one fifth are made public. He adds that they stress that they are unable to verify the information, however must respond when they hear of prisoners being held in cages in freezing conditions or press huts [where a prisoner is beaten by other prisoners specially enlisted by the administration for the purpose]. One of such press huts in No. 100 in the Kharkiv region was known as the “music chamber” since they played music to drown out the noise when beating up a prisoner. After a scandal when this cell was discovered by experts from Europe, it was closed, however recently disturbing reports have again started coming from there.

Oleksandr Betsa, a specialist on penitentiary issues, is convinced that the fault is in a badly though-out staffing policy beginning with the appointment of the Head of the Department Vasyl Koshchynets down to total staffing rotations which have led to managerial positions, especially in the regions, being given very often to outsiders understanding little as regards the specific work of the department and coming from quite unrelated departments. He says that for the first time since Independence there have been cases where the penal employees themselves have come out against the management. He points also to the huge divide between the pitiful salaries of those at the bottom, with the pay of management in the Department which can be more than thirty times higher.

Low pay often leads ordinary-level personnel to stoop to unlawful behaviour, this leading to rampant use of blackmail, selling of privileges, smuggling in of drugs and alcohol.  “The public cannot bring order into the system since these abuses are hidden in the name of the President and by the law”. Mr Betsa’s last words were drowned out by dozens of demonstrators who seemed to be employees of the penal system who had gathered around the UNIAN press centre to protest against the human rights defenders’ press conference.

“What do those dilettantes have to say?  They have spent a single day in a penal institution”

“They’re not allowed in”

“That’s there problem. There are requirements and a regime. The people in prison don’t want to carry out the demands, they don’t want to work, they want to relax in penal institutions at the taxpayer’s expense, and for that reason they resort to self-mutilation, so as simply to not work. “

“And who are you?” I ask a demonstrator.

- “I can leave my telephone number, you show me the article and then I’ll tell you my name.” Having understood that this attempt to censor the material wouldn’t work, the demonstrator lost interest in talking to me.

Another demonstrator who also preferred to remain anonymous said that there were always problems but not those spoken of at the press conference. He claimed that the real problems were about pay and conditions for staff, and lawless free for all that the prisoners could enjoy. According to him, the human rights groups through drawing attention to prisoners lead to the latter.  He and a colleague both asserted that the human rights defenders were being paid to do this.

Abridged from an article by Tetyana Pechonchyk at:

It should be mentioned (and this is not quoting the demonstrators!) that there were a large number of camera crews at the UNIAN press centre that day.  They filmed the picket, yet did not report it, which leads human rights groups to feel concern about other vital human rights – the right of access to information and to freedom of expression. Whether or not instructions were received to not cover the story can only be a matter of speculation, but given the number of demonstrators and wasted camera footage, some questions seem in order.


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