Secret places of detention: What is Ukraine’s Security Service hiding from UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture?
Last week, Ukraine again was at the center of an international scandal. The delegation of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) suspended its visit to Ukraine after being denied access to places in several parts of the country where it suspected people were being deprived of their liberty by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).
The delegation began its work in Ukraine on May 19.
The visit was due to end on May 26, but the delegation claimed it had to be suspended as the SPT mandate could not be fully carried out.
The UN delegation monitored all penitentiary institutions planned to be visited in Ukraine.
However, the delegation was prevented from carrying out unscheduled monitoring of the SBU departments in Mariupol and Kramatorsk by representatives of the security service.
“ This denial of access is in breach of Ukraine’s obligations… It has meant that we have not been able to visit some places where we have heard numerous and serious allegations that people have been detained and where torture or ill-treatment may have occurred,” said Malcolm Evans, head of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture delegation.
The UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture usually tries to avoid public attention, so its press release was like a bolt from the blue.
Sure thing, just one similar case happened in Azerbaijan in 2015.
The next morning, the SBU’s actions were condemned by Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Human Rights Hryhoriy Nemyria and Ukrainian Ombudsperson Valeria Lutkovska.
LAME EXCUSES FOR DENIAL OF ACCESS
In response, Chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine Vasyl Hrytsak stated that the UN delegation was reasonably denied the access to the premises of SBU’s district departments in Mariupol and Kramatorsk because no detainees or prisoners were held there.
“I personally signed the documents allowing visits to remand prisons, where the people are kept under guard. But this does not mean that foreign monitors should visit the SBU’s district departments in the ATO area. If you arrived, for example, in the USA and wanted to visit the basements or the rooms of the CIA or the FBI, would you be allowed to do so?!” Chairman of the SBU wonders.
The SPT delegation would not be allowed to visit the CIA and FBI basements indeed, as the United States, unlike Ukraine, is not a party to the Convention against Torture and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (therefore, the death penalty is still used in the United States).
By his statement, Vasyl Hrytsak only demonstrated his ignorance of the international law, namely the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, ratified by Ukraine in 2006.
According to Article 12 of this Protocol, our country undertakes to grant the Subcommittee free access to places of detention. Not only remand prisons, this refers to “any place where persons are or may be deprived of their liberty, either by virtue of an order given by a public authority or at its instigation or with its consent or acquiescence…“
By the way, the visits of the UN Subcommittee are confidential and the information about their results is not spread without the consent of the government.
However, the actions of the SBU implanted suspicions of torture against the detainees in Ukraine throughout the world.
“The obligations a State has towards the Committee on the prevention of torture are absolute; firstly, because the ban of torture is absolute and secondly because the SPT has the absolute right to, at any given time, visit any detention facility it wishes in the concerned State,“ said Florian Irminger, the Head of Advocacy and Human Rights House Network.
Ukrainian Deputy Justice Minister Natalia Sevostyanova tried to find another excuse, saying that the SBU did not grant UN Subcommittee delegation access to its departments in Mariupol and Kramatorsk because there was a Russian citizen in its membership.
It provoked indignation of Rebecca Harms, the President of the Greens/EFA at the European Parliament, who sent the letter to the Ukrainian Government the next day.
“The justification of the Security Service of Ukraine for prohibiting access of the SPT to detention sites because one mission member was allegedly a Russian citizen is incomprehensible to me and discredit the Subcommittee, according to whose official documents none of the mission’s members was Russian,” she wrote.
It is easy to make sure of this by visiting the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, where the delegation membership could be seen: Sir Malcom Evans (United Kingdom), Ms. Mari Amos (Estonia), Ms. June Caridad Pagaduan Lopez (Philippines) and Mr. Victor Zaharia (Moldova).
“This cancellation suggests that Ukraine is unwilling to fully cooperate with the international community on human rights,” Florian Irminger said.
“ Since the Euromaidan, the Crimean annexation and the conflict in the East, one would except from the government in Kyiv full cooperation with such mechanisms to build a Ukraine committed to human rights and universal values,“ the human rights added.
PROBLEM, WHICH IS PUT A BLIND EYE TO
Apart from reputation losses in the international arena, this scandal has raised the problem of existence of illegal places of detention, controlled by the SBU, which is being put a blind eye to in Ukraine for nearly two years.
“We showed about 600 persons, detained by SBU, whose cases are at the pre-trial investigation or awaiting trial. Instead, the ‘D/LPR’ granted access to only four people. Here’s a statistic. We violated nothing in this respect,” Vasyl Hrytsak said, adding: “No people are held in the SBU’s district departments. The operational personnel work there. There is classification equipment, weapons and documents there.”
However, there are reasons to doubt the veracity of statements by Hrytsak.
The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, working in Ukraine since March 2014, has repeatedly informed about existence of such places. These places remain inaccessible for the National Preventive Mechanism and the international organizations.
Fiona Frazer, the Head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, stated that unofficial places of detention were in Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Mariupol and Kramatorsk.
The UN described messages coming from victims of torture and their relatives as veracious.
They are convinced that the SBU officers deprive the detainees of any contacts with their families and access to a lawyer and this is the widespread practice in Ukraine.
Thus, the information of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) indicates that 20-30 people were illegally kept in custody without communication with the outside world in the premises of the SBU’s Kharkiv regional department as of February 2016.
Most of them had not been arrested and charged in a lawful manner, despite the fact they were held for alleged links with armed groups.
“These detainees are kept in these conditions until they are released to the armed groups within the simultaneous release (exchange) of detainees,” the OHCHR report reads.
Kharkiv lawyer Oleksandr Shadrin cited the examples of his clients, whom he defended in court. Thus, Ihnat Kromsky was held in the temporary detention facility of the SBU in Kharkiv region, which does not officially exist, for 95 days since September 12, 2014. Other his client, Yulia Kolesnikova, spent 38 days there. “During that time, she lost 20 kg and aged badly,” the lawyer said.
The OHCHR report reads the case of 74-year-old woman, whom the SBU officers arrested on December 8, 2015, at her house in Shchurove village, Donetsk region, while they were looking for her son. She was detained at the SBU building in Mariupol, charged with ‘terrorism’, and beaten. The UN Monitoring Mission visited her in Mariupol remand prison on December 24-25 last year.
After OHCHR communicated this case to the Office of the Military Prosecutor, a criminal investigation was initiated into her allegations of ill-treatment.
OHCHR also documented the case of three women, who were detained in May 2015, in a town under Government control in Donetsk region. The victims included the wife of an armed group commander and her daughter. The latter was allegedly severely tortured, and both were allegedly threatened with sexual violence.
In another case, documented by the OHCHR mission, a ‘pro-federalism’ activist from Odesa was pressured to sign a confession after being tortured at the Odesa SBU. During his interrogation, he was reportedly suffocated with a plastic bag covering his head and was beaten. The SBU officers then allegedly took him to the lobby of the SBU building where he was shown his son whom they had also arrested. His son was taken to a separate room and the father “could hear his harrowing screams.”
A former member of the illegal armed group informed OHCHR about his ill-treatment by Ukrainian forces (allegedly SBU) in September 2014, in the town of Sloviansk, Donetsk region. After his arrest, he was reportedly kept in the basement of the local college and regularly beaten. He was later transferred to the town of Izium, where he was kept in a basement, together with 12 other detainees.
He claimed having witnessed a summary execution while there.
On 26 January 2016, three men were convicted of ‘terrorism’, allegedly on the basis of confessions they were forced to sign after being subjected to severe torture in the Regional SBU in Zaporizhzhia. The SBU informed OHCHR that officers resorted to ‘proportionate’ and ‘justified’ force when detaining the men, but did not address allegations of their torture while in SBU detention .
IMPUNITY AS A RULE
The UN says the authorities are unwilling to investigate allegations of torture.
It is particularly so in the cases where victims of torture are people detained for reasons related to national security or are considered to be separatists.
“Torture can be prevented only on condition if the detainees appear before the court immediately,” the OHCHR report reads.
In practice, there are delays which often lead to loss of crucial evidence that torture did occur.
“Unfortunately, there is no political will to combat torture and illegal detention today,” Oleksandr Shadrin said. “If even a few hours of illegal detention are considered to be a serious threat to human rights in Europe, some people suffer illegal detention in Ukraine for more than a year!“
Our state is most likely to pay soon for these violations in the European Court of Human Rights.
One such appeal, “Maretsky and Others v. Ukraine”, has already been filed with the ECHR.
HOW TO BREAK THE DEADLOCK?
By denying access of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, Ukraine showed the whole world it does not comply with its international obligations and has something to hide.
The only way out for us now is to invite the UN delegation to return to Ukraine again and show them all they want to see. We also need to explain that the reason for denial of access is incompetence of the SBU management who was not aware of Ukraine’s international obligations. Meanwhile, Vasyl Hrytsak does not concede his mistake.
Hopefully, the situation will finally change and torture and illegal detention in the SBU’s illegal places of detention will be stopped at last as there is a legitimate way and the mechanisms for detention and arrest.
We want to believe that an effective investigation into the occurred incidents will be conducted. We hope that society will realize that nobody, even “terrorists” and “separatists”, can be tortured.
Otherwise, do we differ from the “DPR”?
Photo credit: 24tv.ua