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Firm action against police impunity needed in Ukraine, concludes Commissioner Muižnieks

Visit to Ukraine

Kyiv 10/02/2014
Press conference at Ukrinform, Ukraine - Iryna Vyrtosu, HR Information Center Press conference at Ukrinform, Ukraine - Iryna Vyrtosu, HR Information Center

"Excessive force was used against protesters by law enforcement officers and others working with them in recent months in Ukraine. It is important to prevent any further violence and to ensure accountability for the serious human rights violations which have already occurred." This was the conclusion of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, after a visit to Ukraine (Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhya) from 5 to 10 February 2014.

Hundreds of people have been injured, some of them seriously, during the armed interventions by riot police and subsequent confrontations between the end of November 2013 until the end of January 2014. There were also several deaths linked to the events. The Commissioner noted that, though the majority of demonstrators had behaved peacefully, there were groups which resorted to violence. A number of policemen had been injured as well, some of them seriously.

The Commissioner and his team interviewed dozens of people who were injured and/or deprived of their liberty in connection with the demonstrations and violence. The medical expert in the delegation also had discussions with various health professionals who had treated people with injuries, and was able to review certain medical records. The scope and severity of this ill-treatment is illustrated by the large numbers of head injuries sustained by protesters and that at least 10 people lost at least one eye from rubber bullets. "It is not necessary to crack people's skulls and knock out several of their teeth in order to apprehend them. At the same time, it is not necessary to aim rubber bullets at persons' heads in order to bring a crowd under control or counter violence by protesters. The use of water cannons in sub-zero temperatures is also unacceptable."

Certain of the Ukrainian authorities acknowledged that the crackdown by special riot police ("Berkut") against peaceful protesters on 30 November 2013, the widely-viewed video of a naked protester being humiliated by Berkut outdoors in freezing weather, and the apparently deliberate use of force against journalists only exacerbated the already tense situation.

Certain cases of apparent abductions – accompanied by serious beatings and ill-treatment - by unidentified persons are of major concern to the Commissioner. One such case resulted in the death of a protester who was reportedly left in a forest after being severely beaten.

The Commissioner and his delegation encountered allegations and other evidence of police cooperation with civilians popularly designated by the catch-all term  "titushki" who were frequently armed with truncheons, bats or "traumatic" (riot-control) firearms and wearing masks. In Zaporizhzhya, the police acknowledged that certain Cossack associations contributed to "maintaining order" and riot control equipment could be distributed to them. Officials of the Prosecutor General's Office also indicated that certain groups of people may have taken it upon themselves to "assist" the police during the current period of unrest. In Dnipropetrovsk the delegation was shown a photo of a senior police official surrounded by non-uniformed masked men bearing wooden sticks and yellow armbands. Some delegation members interviewed a civilian man being treated for head injuries at a hospital, who said that he worked for a private security company and was ensuring security for the regional administration in the area concerned.

"The use of non-official persons to police demonstrations is highly dangerous, as it destroys public confidence in law enforcement, makes accountability impossible, and is completely counterproductive in the context of the need to deescalate tensions," said the Commissioner. "An immediate stop must be made to any such practices."

Prosecutorial authorities informed the Commissioner that investigations had been launched against law enforcement officials - 4 in Kyiv, 2 in Dnipropetrovsk, and 1 in Zaporizhzhya for exceeding authority, hindering the work of journalists, or unlawful arrest. Those authorities indicated that very few complaints of police misconduct had been received by them. Given the considerable amount of information indicative of ill-treatment and the infliction of violence against protesters brought to the Commissioner's attention, he has reason to believe that the lack of complaints received by the prosecutorial authorities may be a reflection of the lack of trust by the public as to how effectively their complaints will be treated by this institution. Certain of the Commissioner's official interlocutors recognised that thus far, investigative / prosecutorial authorities have been mainly engaged in pursuing accountability against participants in protests for organising "mass disorders" or "occupying buildings".

"The Ukrainian authorities have a responsibility to condemn unequivocally the police misconduct which occurred on a wide scale and ensure effective investigations into the violations which occurred, as well as to impose dissuasive sanctions", underlined the Commissioner. "Of course, unless structural problems of the administration of justice are addressed, the long-standing problem of police impunity will continue to undermine public trust in institutions. Combating impunity presupposes a judiciary which is truly independent and shielded from outside pressure, as well as full respect of the principle of equality of arms. The functioning in practice of the new Criminal Procedure Code, as well as the absence of effective safeguards against ill-treatment (e.g. notification of custody and access to a lawyer), also need to be addressed as a matter of urgency."

Finally, the Commissioner stressed that there is a need to fill the legislative gaps in the area of freedom of peaceful assembly, as pointed out in the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Vyrentsov v. Ukraine.

Read this article in Ukrainian