war crimes in Ukraine

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New Order on Berkut riot police powers comes into force

None of the powers now formalized in an order registered with the Justice Ministry has not been used over the last months, however any legitimacy for a unit which has so compromised itself seems at best inappropriate

An Interior Ministry order № 1011 on the uses of the special force Berkut unit from Oct 24 2013, but registered in the Justice Ministry on Jan 11, 2014, has now been signed by the minister, Vitaly Zakharchenko.

According to the new order, Berkut officers may, in carrying out the tasks set them, use physical force, including hand-to-hand fighting; special means and firearms in accordance with Article 12-15.1 of the Police Act.  This formally entitles the police to use teargas; water cannons (used over recent weeks in sub-zero temperatures), armed cars and others.  

Berkut’s tasks, according to the order are “to ensure public order on buildings and territories of particular national economic significance; to ensure citizens’ personal safety, protection and their rights, freedoms and legitimate interests; prevent or stop offences; take part in measures aimed at looking for and detaining people suspected of committing crimes; armed and other criminals who pose a danger to the public; freeing hostages; stopping terrorist acts”.

Berkut, within the framework of its competence, may temporarily restrict or ban access to specific areas or buildings in order to ensure public order, public safety; protect people’s life and health.

The order also states that the minister of the interior or his deputies may temporarily deploy Berkut units in other administrative-territorial unit to take part in the above-mentioned measures, stop infringements of public order and mass disturbances etc. points out that lawyers have previously said that Berkut is functioning illegally since it is a militarized formation without proper registration of the legal bases for its existence.  

In its Analysis of Berkut treatment of peaceful protesters on Nov 30 and Dec 1, the Association of Ukrainian Human Rights Monitors on Law Enforcement [UMDPL] pointed out that Berkut is a high-mobility unit with around 3, 700 officers functioning on the basis not of a law, but of an internal Interior Ministry order which is not even registered with the Justice Ministry, making it effectively governed by the wishes of one official – the Interior Minister. 

The document has now been registered however the UMDPL comments remain relevant.  The analysts consider that there were no legal grounds for deploying Berkut officers to protect public order during the peaceful protest on Nov 30.  The people on Maidan Nezalezhnosti were of different ages and level of physical fitness and were behaving peacefully, talking together or sleeping. Nobody was committing any offence meaning that the circumstances cannot be seen to have warranted the use of force. The group of people could not be called organized and accustomed to showing resistance through force or attack.

On Dec 1 outside the president’s administration there were grounds for deploying Berkut, however the officers should have stabilized the situation. This could have been achieved by isolating only those people who were breaking the law and, in accordance with the Police Act, ensuring the safety of participants of a peaceful gathering. This was not, however, what took place.

UMDPL slammed the cynical, brutal and totally indiscriminate use of violence.

Worth noting that during the special session of parliament on Jan 28, two laws “adopted” on Jan 16 were not touched.  These include amendments to the amnesty law effectively releasing Berkut of any liability for the gross violations on Nov 30. 

As reported, here, the newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnya says that it has been informed of government plans to increase the number of Berkut and Grifon officers by six times.  The methods used by Berkut officers, and the frequency with which they have been deployed over the last two months, make any moves aimed at legitimizing a unit which has so compromised itself questionable.  If the reports that the numbers are set to rise dramatically prove true, this will only fuel concerns.


Halya Coynash

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