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English Section

‘Will Putin's war criminals in Ukraine be punished?’

18.02.2020 13:31
It’s been six years since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Ukraine still has no law on war criminals and the prosecution of crimes against humanity.
Independence Square, Kiev, Ukraine, December 2013.
Independence Square, Kiev, Ukraine, December 2013. Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

After efforts by human rights campaigners, a parliamentary committee on the rule of law has recommended that Ukrainian lawmakers (the Verkhovna Rada) should approve such a bill.

Under such a move, Ukrainian criminal law would be adapted to the norms of international criminal and humanitarian law, and allow for the legal classification of crimes committed in a war zone and on occupied territories. It would also prevent people who have committed such crimes from being protected by an amnesty.

Ukrainian criminal law does not list war crimes or crimes against humanity, says Jurij Rud, the head of a department which supervises criminal cases involving crimes committed during an armed conflict.

Prosecutors hampered

Rud said: “Russia's armed aggression has been continuing since February 20, 2014. During this time there have been thousands of confirmed instances of violation of international human rights norms. Currently the [Ukrainian] penal code allows investigators and prosecutors to work only on grounds of one article. That is why there have been recorded reports of such crimes only in 132 cases… nine individuals have been charged and there has been only one sentence.”

Konstantyn Zadoya from the Department of Criminal Law and Criminology at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev, points out that in this situation law enforcers and prosecutors have almost no legal instruments to properly qualify crimes committed during Russia's armed aggression in Donbas and Crimea.

He said: “For instance the persecution of Crimean Tartars in Crimea. Persecution is a separate qualification of crimes against humanity but it is not named in the penal code as a separate crime. Even if other grounds are found to prosecute deeds which are crimes according to international law… this will not take into account the context of an organized crime. Crimes against humanity are not common homicide and torture, but homicide and torture carried out during a systematic attack on civilians. These are not individual acts of violence, but violence as part of the overall policy of a state or organization.”

The scene of the shooting of Mikhail Zhiznevsky, an anti-government protester who was killed in clashes with police in Kiev in January 2014

Overcoming fear

Oleksandr Hryshchenko, a Ukrainian veterinary surgeon, was imprisoned by terrorists in Lugansk, eastern Ukraine, then released.

Hryshchenko is one of a few former prisoners able to overcome their fear and recount the crimes committed against him and crimes against other people he witnessed. The crimes were carried out in a torture room created in the basement of student quarters at the Eastern Ukrainian National University.

He said: "What I saw and experienced there seemed like a never-ending nightmare. I just could not understand how you could arrest a man who had not broken any law, and without any evidence accuse him and torture him. It is difficult to describe how you felt seeing human reproductive organs covered with wounds from the bites of trained German Shepherds, the mistreatment of tortured and wounded people, the use of prisoners as a punch bag, broken ribs and bruises...”

Hryshchenko said that Putin's terrorists are committing war crimes against Lugansk residents whom they suspect of the slightest loyalty to Ukraine.

‘I witnessed how people were tortured and thrown into prison’

He added: “I witnessed how people were tortured and thrown into this prison on the slightest suspicion of loyalty to Ukraine or of helping the Ukrainian armed forces. Often the only reason was a phone call about someone’s views. Nobody bothered to check such information. Two people crossing the street in front of the car of the commander an illegal armed group – even that was a reason for imprisonment. He didn't like that. He gave orders for these people to be caught, placed face down on the asphalt and brutally punished.

“I saw a young woman regularly taken out at night, supposedly for interrogation, but everyone knew she was simply being raped in the next room. I saw an underage girl repeatedly taken to the front as a gift to terrorists to fulfil their sexual needs.”

Wilhelm Smolak, Kiev correspondent for public broadcaster Polish Radio’s Ukrainian Section, has spoken to the people behind efforts to put new legislation into place in Ukraine. Click on the 'play' button above to listen.