war crimes in Ukraine

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“Ukrainian Guantanamo” that doesn’t exist. De jure

Andriy Didenko
Despite being declared illegal in early 2008, there is all too much evidence that the notorious "special units" or anti-terrorist units used to intimidate and ill-treat prisoners


There are current 157, 868 people in Ukrainian penal institutions, or every 290th Ukrainian. A member of virtually every fifth family is behind bars. The author of this article has also experienced imprisonment in Ukraine.  The law should still remain in force for those imprisoned, yet what is the actual situation?  In order to find out we will describe one of the aspects of life inside which prisoners most remember. This concerns an almost mythical special force unit which many have heard of, yet about which little is known. However those in prison know about such special unit officers all too well.

… There were just minutes remaining to New Year, preparations for the festive table were almost complete, only the table was somewhat unusual and in fact the whole festivities were more like a sad parody. Instead of salad on the table there was a kind of specific substance made up of potatoes from the borsch at lunchtime, finely chopped fish and onion. All this was flavoured with some tins of sprats in tomato sauce, carefully mixed then spread out on pieces of bread. There was a cake as well, a huge one with aspirations of grandeur, with “1996” slightly crooked on the top. The cake was in fact made out of bread, not the simple type sold in the outside world, but “special baked item”.  You can make various artistic creations from this bread and if you squeeze it, water comes out. The colour is more like that of soil, than that of the bread we’re all used to. So that the “cake” took on the right appearance, they add melted sweets and sugar.  Happy New Year, fellow inmates!

The events described took place in the Kryvy Rih SIZO [pre-trial detention centre] known as “bublik” because of the bagel-like shape of the building. No one who’s been there will forget the experience –brutal treatment, beatings, inhuman conditions are everyday practice.

Prisoners who spent time in the SIZO punishment cell have particular memories: every evening the local control and operational officers, decked in camouflage gear, with masks on their face, carry out a “lights out” in the punishment cells. They open the cell doors in turn, drive the prisoners into the corridor, and begin beating them, tormenting, humiliating, driving to the psychological limit and filling them with hopelessness.

However, in anticipation of New Year the inmates of the overcrowded cell try not to think about bad things.

There are just minutes to New Year… Suddenly in the corridor there’s a strange, ominous rumbling noise. Suddenly the cell opens and a firecracker is hurled into the room. There’s a powerful bang and the room is filled with smoke. The inmates have no time to come to, when there’s a burst of rifle fire followed by the command: “Everybody get down on the floor!”.

The horrors in the Kryvy Rih SIZO lasted all through the New Year night from 1996-1997. For several hours the inmates of the cell lay quietly on the floor, awaiting their turn, cold sweat streaming and in horror listening to the groans and cries of prisoners from other cells, the explosions of firecrackers and rifle fire. The cell was too small for them all to be able to lie on the floor, so they lay on top of one another in uncomfortable positions, awaiting the worst.

Beatings and mockery of prisoners; constantly waiting for the torture to begin; wetting yourself while being beaten, these were all the “norms of life” in the bublik to which you almost become accustomed.

A former officer of a State Penitentiary Service special unit:

- How do you prepare for the action? What kind of weapons are you issued with and do you undergo instruction?

- If the institution doesn’t have enough of its own men for a search, they call in officers from other institutions, or a special unit, or we all work together. They don’t issue weapons for the search, we wear masks. If necessary, we take weapons from officers in the department for overseeing security although it doesn’t as a rule come to that, normally they use their fists and kick.

On 1 July 2010 the European Court of Human Rights [the Court] issued an extremely important judgement in the Case of Davidov and others vs. Ukraine in which it found that Ukraine had violated the European Convention on Human Rights [the Convention]. This involved the mass beating of prisoners in the Zamkova Penal Colony No. 58 in Izyaslav (Khmelnytski region). The prisoners were twice – on 30 May 2001 and 28 January 2002 - brutally beaten by a special unit of the State Department for the Execution of Sentences. This was how the Department carried out its training exercises. The Court concluded that the prisoners had been subjected to ill-treatment, had been frightened and humiliated during the training exercises, which had been carried out without the prisoners’ consent and without any legal grounds. it found that the Government had not fulfilled a number of its obligations under the Convention.

More than a year has passed since that judgement yet there has still been no thorough investigation of the circumstances outlined in the Court’s judgement, and none of those responsible have been held to answer.

There was a lot of publicity over a similar beating of prisoners at the Izyaslav Colony No. 31 in January 2007.

Izyaslav Colony No. 31

On14 January 2007 almost all prisoners of the colony (over 1, 200 men) declared a hunger strike in protest at arbitrary disciplinary penalties, beating and humiliating treatment by staff; bad food and medical care. On 22 January a special unit in masks and fighting gear was deployed. The special unit officers brutally beat up over 40 prisoners who were taken to the headquarters specially – those who had announced the prisoners’ demands to the commission. The prisoners had fractured ribs, bones, broken noses and had teeth knocked out, etc. They were then divided into two groups and transferred to the Rivne and Khmelnytski SIZO in the same clothes they were wearing. All their things were left in the colony.  In the SIZO the prisoners were again brutally beaten. They were later transferred to other colonies. Employees of the Department deny the claims regarding the hunger strike and beatings and say that 40 prisoners were taken to other colonies since No. 31 was overcrowded. The complaints from the prisoners and their parents to the Prosecutor’s office and other bodies of power have received the response that the actions of the Department staff were legitimate.

A former officer of a State Penitentiary Service special unit:

- How do the beatings take place – spontaneously, or on the instructions of the Administration?

- During the instructions they point out that you are not allowed to beat them. However the special unit officers , according to their version, beat the prisoners to prevent any opposition from them. The staff know and allow the beatings. That’s the norm.

An officer of the State Penitentiary Service

The existence of the State Penitentiary Service special units is not regulated at legislative level, however each State enforcement agency is supposed to have a special purpose unit which should be used in extreme situations. There are such units in the SBU [Security Service], MIA [Ministry of Internal Affairs], Border Guard Service, State Penitentiary Service, etc. These units cooperate and share experience. For example, in order that SBU special unit officers feel confidence during actions subduing armed criminals who have seized a living area in the colony, or when the MIA special unit crushes a terrorist act on the colony’s territory.

Yet over recent years, terrorists acts in corrective institutions have taken place extremely rarely, and the State Penitentiary Service officers are used solely as an instrument for intimidating prisoners and applying unlawful violence. Nor does the experience they gain from colleagues in the SBU or MIA make them more tolerant.

A former officer of a State Penitentiary Service special unit:

- Tell us how it all takes place

-  The special unit officers and the penal staff taking part in the search gather in front of the entrance to the colony. Then they enter the grounds.  The special unit officers go separately. Two remain on the street, the others go inside. Only one day officer remains in the premises being searched, the other prisoners are taken outside.  The two (remaining)) keep control over those prisoners who are outside. When the special unit men enter, they immediately beat those outside so that they don’t express dissatisfaction at the search.  They break things, throw furniture around. They beat prisoners up spontaneously, give kicks to all the prisoners they come upon. The prisoners try to hide. Sometimes after such searches the prisoners complain, however they’re told where to go and that the operational unit has no control over the special unit.

The beating in the Izyaslav Colony now has an official name – the Case of Karabet and others v. Ukraine and the Court is presently in communication with the Government of Ukraine over it. The case is essentially identical to that of Davidov and others v. Ukraine.

Does Ukraine really need such shame of an international order?  Who has an interest in this? What benefit does anybody have from bestial and unmotivated torment of prisoners?

Researcher Irina Yakovets

The Department carries out measures to prevent and stop crimes of a terrorist nature on penal institutions, in accordance with Regulations established by Department Order No. 167 from 10 October 2005  On 14 January 2008 the Order and Regulations were revoked as not being in line with European standards. Now the Order doesn’t exist, yet the special units remain. That is a direct violation of domestic legislation and Ukraine’s international obligations. The result: the UN Committee against Torture pointed out that it was concerned by known cases where an anti-terrorist unit with officers in masks had been deployed inside prisons with prisoners being intimidated and ill-treated.

You would think that the State’s reaction was obvious. However legally the State Penitentiary Service’s special unit has not existed now for three years, yet the practice whereby people in prisons and colonies are beaten up by the “non-existent” armed military formations continues. The victims of such “mask shows” can be both convicted prisoners and remand prisoners whose cases are under investigation, i.e. some whom the court will acquit.

Just before the May holidays, around 40 special unit officers, armed with rifles, grenades and other weapons, were brought into the Simferopol SIZO.  The State Penitentiary Service confirms their deployment, saying that “institutions of the State Penitentiary Service have been placed on heightened security in the Crimea in connection with the May holidays – from 30 April to 10 May, inclusive, with this heightened regime coded “Shield”,

We thus see a continuation of the practice described at the beginning: from the New Year show at “Bublik” 16 years ago to the Simferopol SIZO during the May holidays special units of the State Penitentiary Service are deployed to be in the institution “until a separate instruction”.

On 6 May 2011 it was learned that special unit officers had beaten up prisoners. The scale of the repression, the number and names of those beaten are not known. One of the versions for why the special unit was brought into the SIZO is that prisoners from the Simferopol SIZO who are suffering from tuberculosis filmed the conditions in which they were being held and this video reached the media.

On 5 July 2011 prisoners at Colony No. 89 in Dnipropetrovsk were beaten by special unit officers with the scenario being typical. The Prosecutor’s Office confirms that officers from a special unit of the regional Department of the State Penitentiary Service were deployed in a search however justify the actions of these torturers. They state: “On 5 July, in accordance with the work plan of the Dnipropetrovsk Corrective Colony No. 89 and agreed with the management of the regional department, planned wide-scale searches were carried out among prisoners and the institution’s premises. The main aim of the search was to identify and remove things and objects which prisoners are not allowed to use. An additional number of staff officers from other institutions, as well as an inter-regional special purpose unit, were used for carrying out the search”.  The Prosecutor’s Office confirmed that 19 prisoners had bodily injuries, but refused to initiate a criminal investigation, not acknowledging that the injuries had been caused by the special unit officers’ beatings.

A special unit officer

- How long did the actions you were involved in last?

- The search is carried out over 2 hours. That is strictly observed. Patients with tuberculosis are taken out for one hour. All get beaten, whether they’re ill or healthy.

From a study of cases like this we see that the Prosecutor’s Office takes a one-sided stand, never admitting any fault with the State Penitentiary Service special unit. We thus have the existence of an uncontrolled “Ukrainian Guantanamo” which does not exist de jure. This is despite Ukraine’s having signed way back in 2006 the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture which obliges the State to create one or several national preventive mechanisms against torture [NPM] within a year. This instrument envisages heightened influence by civil society on the actions of the authorities. Representatives of NPM have the right to make unimpeded visits to any places of confinement where people are held against their will under the State’s control. Ukraine has not yet fulfilled its obligations.

The Head of the Department for the Execution of Sentences, Vasyl Koshchynets (2007):

Over 9 months of this year, personnel from special purpose units of the State Penal Service have taken part in 9 anti-terrorist tactical – special training exercises in accordance with the plans of the Security Service Anti-terrorist Centre.  It was deployed 43 times in carrying out searches of prisoners and premises, inspections of living and work zones in penal institutions and SIZO.

So what has changed in Ukraine since those New Year events at the Kryvy Rih “bublik” in 1996 or the beating of prisoners in the Zamkova Colony No. 58 in Izyaslav (Khmelnytski region) in 2001-2002?  What has Ukraine done to implement the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the Case of Davidov and others v. Ukraine? We are forced to state: nothing! The State Penitentiary Service special unit has simply been removed from the legal realm, having been turned into an illegal presence, this making it even harder to exert control over its activities.

What is international practice regarding the use of special units in places of imprisonment?

Yevhen Ikhlov, Analyst for the Russian NGO “For Human Rights”

There are special units for quelling unrest in places of imprisonment all over the world. The specific feature of the Russian Justice Ministry’s spetsnaz is that it takes its origin from a spetsnaz which has a combatant and punitive experience in local conflicts. This fundamentally changes the picture regarding the purpose of spetsnaz. – it being a contingent which sees its purpose not only in ensuring the quelling of revolt, but also as a weapon against elements not obedient to the State – in this case the criminal community – analogous to the “insubordinate natives of the Caucuse.s”  Hence the frequent use of the RF Justice Ministry’s spetsnaz in prophylactic beating and humiliation of prisoners, this being entirely analogous to the purges in Chechnya. How they train the spetsnaz for punitive functions is seen in the video «Фабрика тортур»  [“Torture Factory”] made with the participation of the Yekaterinburg human rights worker and prisoner of conscience, Alexei Sokolov”.

Victoria Sergeyeva, Russian Section of Penal Reform International

“In Russia these units exist legally – there are Regulations on the Federal Service for the Execution of Sentences special units, an internal document agreed with the Justice Ministry. In 99% of cases the use of this unit is of course not warranted. In developed European countries, as a rule, the problems which arise in penal institutions, are resolved by the prison staff, and in the case of serious disturbances, by the local police. in Sweden, for example, where there is the slightest problem, the staff call the police since they themselves do not have the authority to use force against prisoners. In England there is a small special unit which is stationed in London. It is called out only in the case of very serious conflicts, mass revolts, for example, This unit to a large degree ensures the safety of staff, and does not beat prisoners simply to frighten them”.

What happens within Ukraine’s penal system the reader can conclude for him or herself.

The original in Ukrainian was published at

as part of a project run by the Kharkiv Human Rights Group on supporting journalist investigations, with the financial support of the International Renaissance Foundation.


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