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.

Human rights in Ukraine in 2016: main trends

Yevgeniy Zakharov
The Ukrainian people under trying circumstances defend their freedom. Our war is just, and therefore we cannot be like the aggressor, with whom we are fighting. During the war the wounds in human souls are inevitable. But let not our hands to cause these wounds. Do not let hate reign over us.



Year 2016 for Ukraine was no less complex than the previous year. The occupation of the part of the territory of Ukraine and the armed conflict in the south-east of the country has become one of the main sources of systematic and massive violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms and, in general, the limiting factor for the development of Ukraine in the spirit of the revolution of dignity. Other key factors hampering our progress included the resistance of the state system to reforms, maintaining tight binding of business and government, disregard for the rule of law and human rights, populism triggering political corruption and irresponsibility of the authorities, conviction of the large groups of politicians and social activists that the challenges can be solved by simple ways, such as the use of force and coercion. These are very serious blunders which may come to a bad end.

In 2016, as in 2015, in Ukraine there were four different realities with human rights: in the occupied Crimea; part of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts controlled by the self-proclaimed DPR and LPR; part of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts along the state-controlled demarcation line (hereinafter the gray zone); and in other regions of the country. The human rights situation was mosaic: some areas showed improvement and in some areas the violations of human rights became more widespread and serious, but in the whole country we state the deterioration of the situation with human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In the controlled area it took the form of the mass violation of economic and social rights which put the majority of the population of the country on the brink of survival. A significant increase in utility tariffs, price of food and medicine was not compensated by the state even for socially disadvantaged strata of the population. The subsidies cover only a part of utility bills. At the same time, the real earnings declined. The poverty of working people became commonplace, and not only for the employees of the government-financed organizations; the small business operating in the hryvnia zone also impoverished very much, many entrepreneurs had to reduce or even close their business. Consequently, the unemployment increased.

In the gray zone, where every night shelling is possible people live here and now. Here not all residents have heating, gas, water, they often use cast-iron moveable wood stoves and drink well water; moreover, there are settlements (in the gray zone they total 336), where there are no spared houses, such as in Krasnohorivka. Everyone is waiting for the end of the war, but it still goes on, and almost every day there are new dead and injured persons. And the prospects for ending such an unbearable life are not visible.

In Crimea, they continued with the policy aimed at depriving the Crimean Tatars of ethnic and religious identity. The repressions against the Crimean Tatars intensified; it becomes more and more obvious that the Russian authorities tend to "tie" them to terrorist groups. The Russian court has recognized the Majlis of the Crimean Tatars as a terrorist organization without any reason. The number of Ukrainian citizens -- the Kremlin’s prisoners -- in the Crimea continues to grow. It cannot be denied that any manifestation of Ukrainian identity in the Crimea immediately triggers repressions.

The progressive occupation of the Crimea, resulting human rights violations, state of human rights in the self-proclaimed republics, territories and the gray zone in more detail are discussed in separate sections of the report. The most serious problems with human rights are discussed below.


 The increase in violence and hatred


In 2016, in Ukraine the extraordinary violations of human rights caused by the military conflict continued: killing and torture of prisoners, hostage-taking, torture, disappearances as a result of use of force, ideologically-motivated violence. For example, people who expressed pro-Ukrainian position could be repressed, stolen, they could be killed as it happened with many of them. It takes place with thousands of people.

Previously, these human rights violations were performed by militants and Russian servicemen. In response some our soldiers, particularly volunteer corps, having seen such attitude, began to operate symmetrically. They also killed prisoners. There also happened instances of torturing prisoners and some of them were beaten to death. The verbal noun vidtyskannia form vidtyskaty[1] became popular. For some reason it was considered normal to "brody" property from a separatist if he was a separatist indeed. It might be a car or a house. This is not a crime, if it is a question of an enemy… The conditions of war give rise to a dangerous illusion of moral justification of violence if it is aimed at those who are alleged enemies, although in fact, they might be not. The loyalty to violence as a means of obtaining justice finagling the law becomes a common phenomenon.

A considerable part of society, feeling hatred for the aggressors and militants, consciously or not, supports violence against separatists. Generally, people rejoice that they are killed. They post photos of corpses in Facebook and rejoice at it. But why are they rejoicing? These militants fell for the bait of money and so they went and were killed. There is nothing good in it for for their families, as there is nothing good in this conflict. They are victims of Russian aggression like Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers who defended Ukraine. And this hatred is very dangerous for our future. Very disturbing is the fact of rising silent, internally aggressive habituation to daily deaths during a war, in a road accident, as a result of actions of criminals. Death ceases to amaze.

The unjustified excessive violence only harms the Ukrainian society and leads to a lack of humanity and compassion in the actions of state agents. Treating its citizens in such a way the state will forever remain a stranger to them.

Restriction of freedom of expression


In 2016, Ukraine improved its international rating concerning the freedom of speech and climbed several points up the list; however certain core organizations note a 15% decrease of the number of violations of freedom of expression in comparison with 2015 and, in my opinion, the scope of freedom of expression in 2016 went down as well. Here are two striking examples. Firstly, Savik Shuster failed to revive his program of political talk show: neither national TV channels, nor media moguls invited Schuster and his team to their territory. Secondly, the first rally in Kyiv organized by the new political movement led by Mіkheїl Saakashvili was ignored by all national channels. The only exception was made by Espreso-TV Channel and all politically-minded country watched only this evening broadcast.

The Ukrainian media failed to become a business, and the independence of journalists completely depends on the degree of civility of the owner, which allows or stops coverage of certain positions, broadcasts of sponsored programs, to use their media against political and economic opponents.

Improving the position of Ukraine in the international ratings of openness of the states (Global rating of the right to information, the UN rating of e-governance development, rating of openness of government data), increasing the number of requests for information to the authorities and lawsuits to the court on the protection of the right of access to public information may be seen as a progress in the field of freedom of information. However, the discrepancy between the state-controlled information about events in the conflict zone in the east of the country and realities, confidence that the public officials can decide what to tell Ukrainians and what to keep secret, even resort to blatant manipulation of the facts shows that the reality is in fact not as rosy as it may seem. For example, the militants of separate regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are continuously charged with the destruction of houses in the cases, when in reality they had been destroyed by Ukrainian artillery; there are inaccuracies in the presentation of information on the dead and wounded, etc.


The growth of poverty and social inequality


In Ukraine, the per capita income gap between rich and poor has widened even more. This is a dangerous trend not only for the future of the country, but even for the existence of the state. If in 2006 this difference made 1:10, in 2016 it was 1:30, while in the EU it is 1:5.7. Consequently, the moral principle of John Rawls formulated in his book A Theory of Justice—inequality is beneficial for all: if someone grows rich, then all others should benefit from it a bit as well--does not apply to Ukraine. In budgetary institutions the difference between minimum and maximum wages has also increased. For comparison, in Western Europe, this bracket makes 1:4, in the United States 1:5, these data are open and defined by law. In 2006, in Ukraine, this bracket was 1:40, in 2017 it may go up to 1:100. In fact, starting from January 1, 1917 the minimum monthly official salary will make ₴2000 in accordance with the law "On civil service", minimum salary will make ₴3200 while according to the bill passed by the Verkhovna Rada deputies in the first reading the judges of the Constitutional Court will get ₴380000 per month. This amount includes extra pay for the scientific degree of PhD to the tune of ₴46,000, while an ordinary professor and PhD receives ₴6,000 per month (V. Pynzenyk)! These People’s Deputies should be ashamed of themselves! This is nothing else but bribery of the judges, manifestation of political corruption!

From the beginning of 2017 the monthly salary of members of the Higher Qualification Commission of Judges was set at ₴225,000, some senior executives also receive very large salaries not to be compared with the salaries of common men. This difference is particularly abhorrent against the background of yearly adoption of the annual budget by the same parliament, which suspends laws on benefits for the majority of categories of persons entitled to benefits. I am not against high pay for a high quality professional work, but such sums are hardly permissible in the poorest country in Europe with an average income of ₴3,000 a month! According to UN standards, over 80% of the population of Ukraine are poor, and according to Ukrainian statistics the relative poverty level exceeds 23%.

Some facts are suicidal and glaring. The average size of the budget financing of a convict makes 9 hryvnias 50 kopecks, and the cost of a bed-day Nutrition for the mentally-sick in 2016 made 12 hryvnias 21 kopecks, including 7 hryvnias 99 kopecks for adult mentally ill and 21 hryvnias 91 kopecks for children. The cost of the bed-day psychoactive drugs makes 11 hryvnias 61 kopecks, including 8 hryvnias 50 kopecks for adults, 7 hryvnias 62 kopecks for children. These figures show that article 3 of the Constitution declaring that the life and health is the highest social value and the assertion and protection of human rights is the primary responsibility of the state is nothing but sheer hypocrisy. There is therefore no reason whatsoever to speak of any kind of human rights!

The general neglect of the poor by the state combines with stigmatizing of some of their categories. The Ministry of Justice has created the Integrated Registry of Debtors for Utility Service Payments from which you can learn about such debt for any person printing his/her family name, name, patronymic, date of birth and individual tax number. Given the availability of these data in Ukraine, one can easily get access to the personal data of a person. In general, our state oversimplifies its social relations with the population of the country and reduces them mainly to supervision boasting its successes in this field. Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs Pavlo Rozenko proudly announces the creation of teams in each region, which will be checking in 2017 whether all workers receive no less than the minimum wage of ₴3,200 and are not paid cash. The SSU identifies pensioners who arrive from the Separate Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts for their pensions, and the Ministry for Social Policy is hunting for migrants at their place of residence.

Violation of the rights of Ukrainians, residents of Separate Regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and gray zone


On the territory of self-proclaimed republics, as well as in 2014-2015, it is quite impossible to realize civil and political rights and freedoms. There are simply no opportunities to express alternative views. The “authorities” of breakaway republics even persecutes people for posting their blogs and they are accused of extremism, treason, espionage and other fictional crimes and force (one can only guess in which way) them to repent publicly. The willful actions of “People’s Police” thrive and one cannot lodge a complaint against it. The people disappear without a trace. There are also mass violations of social and economic rights. The price of food here is significantly higher than in the controlled territories (except for bread, which is subsidized in DPR and LPR) and the pension and salary are much less than in the controlled territories. The unemployment in some areas is as high as 70%. Thus, living in the breakaway republics is even harder than in the controlled area. For the vulnerable categories-- pensioners, invalids, large families, unwed mothers, who survive only thanks to charity—it is especially hard.

All these daily survival problems were exacerbated by the discriminatory actions of the state with respect to internally displaced persons (IDP), who had returned to the outside uncontrolled territory or processed documents of migrants to get a certificate for their pension. In February 2016, the SSU sent to the mayors of the cities the IDP list who did not reside at the address specified in the settler’s certificate, and that it was necessary to stop welfare payments and the payment of pensions until the confirmation of residence at the address given in the immigrant’s application. As a result, large numbers of people were forced to line up to confirm their place of residence and get their pensions and other social payments. Mind you that the state should pay the earned pension irrespective of the place of residence and therefore such actions are simply shameful. For more details about these events see the section "SSU and human rights."

And what about the very long lines at the entry-and-exit check points (EECP) along the demarcation line! It looks like they have been created intentionally. The existing procedure for a few EECP crossing is defined by the government; the equipment and unqualified personnel at the EECP also lead to the emergence of such long-hour lines in the absence of living conditions. This inevitably gives rise to staking claims to the Ukrainian government regardless of political views, as well as contributes to the manifestation of corruption among Ukrainian border guards and customs.

The Kharkiv Human Rights Group has visited the EECPs along the demarcation line in Luhansk Stanitsa, Zolote, Maryinka, Zaitseve, Hnutove and noted that the conditions and EECP crossings vary significantly and require improvement far and wide. The EECP logistics also needs improvements in order to cut the minimum waiting time for crossing, increase the number of inspectors, step up thruput in response to the line increase, and create normal conditions for the people waiting for their turn. It is necessary to eliminate the causes for complaints on the part of the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, who live both in the controlled and uncontrolled territories and cross the demarcation line at EECP.

Only at Hnutove EECP the crossing for vehicles and pedestrians all was clockwork (up to one hour for the vehicles and 20 to 30 minutes for pedestrians). The Hnutove EECP can serve as a positive example of a well-designed logistics.

In addition, it is worthwhile to abolish unduly restrictive transportation of food and other commodities across the demarcation line that inevitably give rise to corruption.


SSU is the main violator of human rights among the public authorities


In recent years the balance between defending national security and territorial integrity and respect for human rights was violated by the SSU for the benefit of national security. This can be explained by the need to protect against Russian aggression, but the SSU actions cannot be justified when it violates the international obligations of the state in the field of human rights and national legislation. The SSU always prided itself on keeping within the law. But lately the legitimate activities of the SSU are rather an exception while the illegal actions prevail.

The SSU extensively uses detention without the permission of the investigating judge in the cases when the law provides and violates both the Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Code. The detainee is often denied the right to call and his family and friends have no idea about the arrest and where the detainee is kept. If it becomes known and they invite a lawyer to provide legal assistance, the lawyer is not allowed to see the detainee. The SSU carries out repeated extradition arrests of persons released by court on bail, which violates the European Convention on Human Rights and national legislation.

It is not clear where the detainees are held in custody because the SSU has no temporary holding facilities or pretrial detention centers foreseen by the law and the SSU has no investigation security sectors in Kyiv and Kharkiv and cannot provide for the upkeep of such a large number of detainees and persons under investigation.

In 2014-2016 there were many reports of torture of detainees and persons under investigation in the SSU intending to admit to crime and to ensure cooperation with the investigation. As far as we know, in the past in the SSU they almost never resorted to torture (the public came to know only the case of Yuriy Mozola, who had been tortured to death in SSU Lviv detention prison in 1996).

To found the so called "exchange fund" for the discharge of prisoners of war and civilian hostages the SU detains those who are involved in separatism or terrorism seeking their consent to be exchanged, and holds them to carry out an exchange in an unknown place without communication with the outside world. According to the international law, such acts qualify as crimes: the enforced disappearance is prohibited by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Ukraine adhered to the Convention in June 2015. It is clear that these actions are forced, because there is no other way to release prisoners, however, it does not justify the flagrant violations by Security Service of international agreements in the domain of human rights. The exchange of prisoners has turned into a disgusting political bargaining under conditions of total secrecy, and from the point of view of the right to use the fate of the captives for political purposes it is nothing but hostage bargaining and a war crime under international humanitarian law, and all who are involved in it may be subject to consideration by the International Criminal Court.

Fighting separatism the SSU resorts to criminal prosecution for distribution of newspapers, leaflets, and articles in the Internet and social networks even in those cases when they are not calling for violence. The analysis of more than 100 convictions under article 110 of the CC in the registry of court decisions shows that almost always by request of the investigation detention is applied as a preventive measure, although the actions of the accused had no influence, and they were not socially dangerous. There is every reason to speak about violation of freedom rights and security of person, which is protected under article 5 of the European Convention. In a number of cases keeping in custody was disproportionately long, such as in the case of journalist Ruslan Kotsaba (17 months in the pretrial detention center) or deputy of Krasnohrad Region Rada, Kharkiv Oblast, Yuriy Abakumov (1 year in the pretrial detention center). Both were acquitted by the courts (in the case of Kotsaba the prosecution referred to the Court of Cassation, which is pending trial by the Supreme Special Court). In general, the judicial practice under article 110 of the CC can be considered as humane, as there were only three sentences with a real deprivation of liberty, unless the released convicts were arrested again for exchange. Nevertheless the consideration of several cases gives grounds to assert that the disproportionate interference with freedom of expression (Article 10 of the European Convention) took place. Certainly such a view during our war with Russia is unpopular, particularly among the patriotic community, but it is exactly to the very point where these ardent fighters against separatism will be chased for their own views.

   These problems are discussed in more details in the section “SSU and human rights.”


Gross violations of the right to asylum


One of the biggest problems in the field of human rights in Ukraine is the attitude of the state to asylum seekers. Ukraine has a liberal and well-designed law "On refugees and persons in need of additional or temporary protection"; However, the administrative practice goes on using xenophobic traditions of the Soviet and post-Soviet days, as well as illegal actions of law enforcers concerning the asylum-seekers.

The State Migration Service is continuously refusing to accept documents for refugee status; and if it does accept documents it denies the request in most cases. In 2014-2016 270 asylum seekers sought to obtain refugee status and additional protection and only 15 applicants received the refugee status and 14 were provided additional protection.

The Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice continue extradite Russian citizens to the Russian Federation in violation of the fundamental principle of non-return at the FSS request in the trumped-up political cases. When it comes to extradition of Muslims, these cases do not differ from political cases against Muslims in the occupied Crimea. Only about the Crimean cases the Ukrainian authorities claim political persecution, while in extradition cases against Russian Muslims they resort to extradition arrest without analyzing the risk for the life and health of the requested persons, as well as the motive of persecution even in the case of a request concerning residents of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan under the so-called Russian anti-extremism law, when asylum seekers are at risk of torture or enforced disappearance. The practice of extradition, deportation and forcible return to the Central Asia countries, which are known to use torture to extradited and returned persons.

The position of the SSU decidedly influences the actions of all competent state bodies, as it plays as éminence grise without whose consent nothing happens. The SSU carries out a special check on each and every application for refugee status or additional protection and almost always turns down the request. The SSU is to blame for such illegal actions with respect to migrants as kidnapping, torture, unlawful return or extradition. The high level of corruption in all state bodies involved only promotes the preservation of such practices: they are all interconnected with corruption schemes and, accordingly, mutual responsibility.

Of particular concern is the treatment by the SSU and other government agencies of immigrants from Russia and other CIS countries, who had participated in Euromaidan, armed conflict with Russia on the side of Ukraine and volunteering. The citizenship and refugee status were granted to a few people only, but in the countries of origin these individuals are in danger of political persecution.

The State Border Service does not admit asylum seekers in the territory of Ukraine, often without good reason. Its actions are also often influenced by the SSU. But even if there are reasons to ban entry to Ukraine the Border Service does not perform actions stipulated by law. Here is one example. A citizen of Sierra Leone, G. was detained by border guards at the Kharkiv Airport as he exceeded the term of stay in Ukraine. He flew from Ukraine to Turkey and then he had a ticket to France, but since he had no visa, he was turned to Ukraine. He called the KhHRG office asking for legal assistance because he had long been staying at the airport without any movement. The KhHRG lawyer was not allowed to see him. Only after the intervention of the MIA leadership the lawyer was admitted and Mr. G. was admitted to Ukraine. He stayed at the airport for two weeks; he had nothing to eat and could only drink tap water. When I reported this case to the special meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, National Minorities and International Relations, the representative of the Border Guard said that Mr. G. had violated the law and he could not be admitted to Ukraine, but nobody deprived him of freedom, and the air carrier had to feed him. Such a situation, when a person is deprived of freedom and has nothing to eat for a long time, is a violation of article 3 of the European Convention.




Summing up, I want to remind the text of the appeal of the Action Group "The First of December" "Do not let the blind hatred to reign over us.”

Despite the implementation of recent reforms, the government has failed to establish a system of fair relations. The judicial and law enforcement systems stall and, therefore, a man is left off by himself. This is particularly dangerous for a country at war. When the law is helpless, the security services are tempted to restore justice bypassing the law. As a result, ever more people justify violence as an instrument of administration of justice. Gradually the society grows deaf to the human pain as such.

Unnoticed, this alarming trend has become a threat to the security of every person. This threat has to be apprehended by state agencies inclusive with the SSU and the civil society, because they can really get in the way of danger. We have to stop the degradation of people and social institutions.

Quite a short time has elapsed from the period of Soviet punitive justice. The authorities officially responsible for the fight against crime still resort to habits and practices that lead to violence and selective justice, i.e. to the abuse of power. The extraordinary conditions of war with the Russian Federation and those who it supports in every way, is not an absolution of violence or revenge. Consequently, the country’s leadership has to ensure real public control over the activities of Ukrainian law enforcers and special services. On no account the political or any other expediency must not destroy the law.

The civil society has no smaller tasks. It is a big mistake to assume that in wartime one should reject democratic principles and renounce the basic values of civilization. Otherwise, according to the feedback law, every violent act will merely multiply violence; every injustice, not hobbled by conscience, will bring several new injustices.

The Ukrainian people under trying circumstances defend their freedom. Our war is just, and therefore we cannot be like the aggressor, with whom we are fighting. During the war the wounds in human souls are inevitable. But let not our hands to cause these wounds. Do not let hate reign over us.


[1] In American slang, the closest equivalent is brody meaning “take something from someone in front of them” (translator’s note).

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