"The dramatic events that have been unfolding in Ukraine since November 2013 brought to the fore a number of long-standing, core human rights challenges that the Government has to address, in particular as regards the excessive use of force by the police, the independence and impartiality of the judicial system and the lack of a legislative framework governing peaceful assembly", said Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, releasing a report on his visit to Ukraine carried out from 4 to 10 February 2014.
The Commissioner acknowledges that the ongoing crisis may overshadow the urgency of addressing the shortcomings highlighted in his report. He stresses that, for the human rights situation to improve, it is necessary to defuse current tensions in the country. To this effect, it is crucial that its territorial integrity and sovereignty be effectively respected.
By providing an independent analysis of the primary human rights issues observed until February 28, the report intends to provide a road-map to assist the Ukrainian authorities in addressing core human rights issues as soon as a peaceful climate has regained ground in the country.
"By the time of my visit, at least 5 deaths were linked to the violent events, and there had been some reports of abductions – including from hospitals - which are of grave concern. An even more serious escalation of violence began on 18 February 2014 resulting in over 80 deaths and hundreds of injuries. The authorities must shed full light on these events and bring those responsible to justice. This is necessary not only to meet Ukraine's international obligations, but also to respect the suffering and dignity of all victims and their families."
The Commissioner's report refers to many cases of physical ill-treatment by law enforcement officials - including cases of severe beatings - inflicted in many cases by the now disbanded riot police unit, Berkut. In addition, many protesters were injured in the head or face because of the use of rubber bullets, showing a clear pattern of excessive use of force by the police which was completely unnecessary and disproportionate to control the protesters, including the violent ones. "Immediate action must be taken to combat torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials, and clear guidelines limiting the use of force by police should be established".
The Commissioner received information indicative of cooperation between police and auxiliary forces - mostly ununiformed persons armed with truncheons, bats or "traumatic" firearms and wearing masks - in controlling the demonstrations. "The authorities must stop any co-operation with persons assembled on an ad hoc basis for the policing of demonstrations and other law enforcement functions, and immediately distance themselves from such groups. Reliance upon them greatly undermines public confidence in the police service as a neutral institution whose main function is to enforce the rule of law and to protect the rights and freedoms of all persons in the country."
Numerous reports about ineffective safeguards against ill-treatment were also received. These concerned a failure to provide an opportunity for detainees to notify relatives of their custody, lack of access to a lawyer and undue obstacles for obtaining forensic medical expert opinions. Inaction of judges and prosecutors in the face of defendants' visible injuries and allegations of ill-treatment were also reported. "All this shows the pressing need to increase the independence and professionalism of the judiciary, also with a view to regaining public trust. Solid and concerted efforts aimed at reforming the judiciary are needed to protect it from any undue influence. It is also necessary to reform and depoliticise the Prosecutor's Office. Clear and transparent criteria and procedures for the selection, appointment and promotion of individual prosecutors, including of the Prosecutor General, should be based only on the qualifications and merits of individual candidates."
Lastly, Commissioner Muižnieks recommends improving the framework governing freedom of assembly, calling on the Parliament to enact appropriate legislation in accordance with the standards enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.