Ukraine: Abuses and war crimes by the Aidar Volunteer Battalion in the north Luhansk region

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL
BRIEFING
8 September 2014
AI Index:
EUR 50/040/2014
Ukraine: Abuses and war crimes by the Aidar (Allegiance
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_Defence_%28Ukraine%29)
Volunteer Battalion in the north Luhansk region

It’s not Europe. It’s a bit different... There is a
war here. The law has changed, procedures have
been simplified... If I choose to, I can have you
arrested right now, put a bag over your head and
lock you up in a cellar for 30 days on suspicion of
aiding separatists.
--Aidar battalion commander to Amnesty International researcher

Members of the Aidar territorial defence battalion, operating in the north
Luhansk region, have been involved in widespread abuses, including
abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and
possible executions.
The Aidar battalion is one of over thirty so-called volunteer battalions to
have emerged in the wake of the conflict, which have been loosely
integrated into Ukrainian security structures as they seek to retake
separatist held areas.
In the course of a two-week research mission to the region, an Amnesty
International researcher interviewed dozens of victims and witnesses of
the abuses, as well as local officials, army commanders and police
officers in the area and representatives of the Aidar battalion.
Our findings indicate that, while formally operating under the command
of the Ukrainian security forces combined headquarters in the region
members of the Aidar battalion act with virtually no oversight or control,
and local police are either unwilling or unable to address the abuses.
Some of the abuses committed by members of the Aidar battalion
amount to war crimes, for which both the perpetrators and, possibly, the
commanders would bear responsibility under national and international
law.
Part of the region where the Aidar battalion currently operates – such as
the conurbation of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and Rubizhne and the
town of Shchastya - was under the control of the separatist forces of the
so-called Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) from mid-May to late July.
During this time, separatist forces are reported to have committed a
wide range of abuses against civilians, including abduction, theft and
murder. Amnesty International has documented such abuses by
separatist armed groups in other regions.
The Aidar battalion played a significant role in the Ukrainian advances in
July, most prominently in the recapture of the town of Shchastya, 24
kilometers north of Luhansk city. It has lost many of its combatants in
the fighting. Up to several dozen were killed in an ambush south of
Shchastya after the announcement of the ceasefire on 6 September,
2014.
While hailed by many nationally as a committed fighting force, the Aidar
battalion has acquired locally a reputation for brutal reprisals, robbery,
beatings and extortion.
Amnesty International is calling on the Ukrainian authorities to bring
Aidar and other volunteer battalions under effective lines of command
and control, promptly investigate all allegations of abuses, and hold
those responsible to account.
The Ukrainian authorities cannot afford to replicate in the areas they
retake, the lawlessness and abuses that have prevailed in separatist-
held areas. The failure to eliminate abuses and possible war crimes by
volunteer battalions risks significantly aggravating tensions in the east
of the country and undermining the proclaimed intentions of the new
Ukrainian authorities to strengthen and uphold the rule of law more
broadly.
Abuses by the Aidar battalion
Amnesty International documented dozens of cases of abuses allegedly
committed by members of the Aidar battalion in Novoaidar district,
Starobilsk, Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, and Shchastya between late
June and late August.
Typically, the fighters abducted local men, often businessmen or
farmers, whom they accused of collaborating with the separatists and
held in makeshift detention facilities before either releasing them or
handing them over to the Security Service (SBU).
In nearly all cases documented by Amnesty International the victims
were subjected to beatings at the moment of capture and/or during
interrogations, and either had to pay ransom for their release, or had
possessions, including money, cars, telephones, and other valuables
seized by the battalion members. Many of the witnesses and victims
approached by Amnesty International were reluctant to share details of
the incidents, fearing retaliation from Aidar battalion members. The
names of victims and witnesses in illustrative cases detailed below have
been changed.

On 25-27 August, Aidar battalion members abducted 4 miners from
Novodruzhesk, a small town north of Lysychansk. One of the men,
“Andriy” (not his real name), undergoing chemotherapy for lung
cancer, told Amnesty International that he was outside his home at
3pm on 27 August when a group of Aidar battalion fighters arrived in
a minibus. Two men with automatic weapons, in camouflage
uniforms approached him and ordered him to lie on the ground. He
said:
They broke my jaw... When I lay down as they shouted ‘lie on
the ground!’, one of them kicked me... They wound tape over
my eyes and tied my wrists, also with tape.
They put me in a minibus with my neighbour ...They drove for
about 20 minutes, then brought me into some kind of a room. I
could not see where or what it was as my eyes were covered
with tape the whole time... They held me there for a day. They
gave water, one biscuit, led me to the toilet when needed.
There were about 12-15 other detainees there. We were
forbidden to talk... I was interrogated twice: ‘where were you?
What did you do?’, but not beaten any more. But I heard
others being beaten in the next rooms.”
Andriy said the captors drove him to a stadium in Severodonetsk and
released him, still blindfolded.
His wife said she went to the local police
who eventually managed to return to the family some of the possessions
taken from him by his abductors, 2 passports and a telephone, but not
his car documents, driving licence, keys, wallet and bank cards. They did
not open a criminal case into the incident. On 28 August there was an
attempt to debit money from his bank card. Amnesty International saw
the text message sent automatically to Andriy’s phone, informing him of
the attempt.
Family members of two of the other detained men, seeking information
on 28 August at Severodonetsk police station about their whereabouts,
told Amnesty International that police and soldiers in Lysychansk told
them about a secret detention facility in Severodonetsk, but
Severodonetsk police denied its existence - as indeed they have to
Amnesty International. An acquaintance just released from the same
place had recognised one of the two men there, and recounted that
detainees were forced to recite the Ukrainian national anthem and
beaten if they failed.

On 25 August, at around 4 p.m., members of the Aidar battalion
abducted Yevhen a 31-year-old local businessman, near the TV tower
outside of Starobilsk.
Yevhen told Amnesty International that three men in masks, who arrived
in a black VAZ car, approached him when he stopped for a bathroom
break at a disused petrol station, searched his car, took UAH 30,000
(roughly 1700 Euros) they found in it, and accused him of being a
separatist. He said:
“They pulled a mask over my head, and drove me for about 20
minutes. They brought me to a place that seemed to be a garage,
and started interrogating me, demanding I confess to being a
separatist.
“They interrogated me three times. Each time, they beat me: with
rifle barrels, in the kidneys with the blunt end of an axe, and other
things. They threatened to take me out to a field and execute me.
“After a day had passed they came in again and said I had been
detained by the Aidar battalion, but was now in the hands of
‘Alpha’ [a unit belonging to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU)],
but I could see they were the same people.”
Yevhen said that eventually the captors asked him how much money he
was willing to pay for his release, and, when he said that they had
already taken all he had, decided to let him go. He filed a case with the
police, but was not able to recover his confiscated possessions – the
money, his car, two mobile phones, and golden jewellery.

On 23 August in the afternoon, members of Aidar battalion raided the
house of Olena in the village of Olexandrivka near Severodonetsk.
82-year-old Olena told Amnesty International that she was at home with
her daughter, her son-in-law, and her grandson. The family heard
gunfire and saw a number of vehicles approaching the house on their
security camera. Olena said:
“I just opened the gate, and they rushed at me. From fright I let go
and it swung shut. They began firing. One jumped up on a car. I
made a run for it, into the garage. They were firing. Bursts of
automatic fire. A racket. Rat tat tat tat.
In the garage they had already got me... I crawled my way to the
door, cried out and fell at the threshold. My daughter came out
shouting: “What’s going on? What are you doing? Call an
ambulance, quickly.”... Blood was spilling. My daughter staunched
it.”
Olena told Amnesty International that the armed men searched the
house, and wanted to detain her grandson, accusing him of being a
separatist. She managed to convince them not to take him away, but
they took some money that they found in the house, and her grandson’s
four-wheel drive car.
Olena was quickly sent in a taxi to Severodonetsk hospital and, as
doctors informed Amnesty International, underwent 7 hours of surgery.
Her significant abdominal injuries were from shrapnel rather than bullets
– there were ragged entry and exit wounds. Her colon was severed. She
had two smashed ribs removed.
Response of the authorities
Amnesty International raised its concerns regarding abuses committed
by members of the Aidar battalion directly with its commander for
Severodonetsk and Rubizhne. He confirmed that the battalion used a
“simplified” procedure for detentions and indicated that the battalion
indeed had its own facility in the Severodonetsk area for holding
detainees. He acknowledged that there could be instances of beating
during arrest, confirmed that detainees were blindfolded throughout the
detention, that his troops had held Andriy, and that he personally
supervised the handover of his bag of documents to the police.
He did not acknowledge any acts of theft by the battalion and saw no
need to introduce any measures to address them. He acknowledged that
his troops took the car of Olena’s grandson as it was temporarily
needed, and stated that an order had been given for its return. However,
Olena’s family later informed Amnesty International that police in Troitsk
(in the far north of Luhansk region) detained the car and a man driving
it, after it had apparently been illicitly sold.
Police and military authorities in Severodonetsk informed Amnesty
International that there are 38 criminal cases opened into actions
allegedly committed by the members of the Aidar battalion, mostly
involving incidents of robbery. Reports on this spate of crimes were
submitted up the line to the Ministries of Defence and Interior, without
tangible result thus far. Local police told Amnesty International that they
were well aware of the widespread criminal actions by the Aidar
members but were unable to do anything beyond the registration of
criminal cases.
A high ranking military official in the area informed Amnesty
International that after receiving his reports the Ministry of Defence sent
two commissions in early August to inspect the Aidar battalion. Their
recommendations for its re-organisation and the regularisation of
procedures, have yet to be acted upon.
Recommendations
Amnesty International urges the Ukrainian authorities to:
-
Clarify the legal status of the Aidar battalion and other volunteer
units;
-
Integrate the volunteer battalions into clear chains of command,
control and accountability.
-
Conduct prompt, thorough, impartial and effective investigations
into all allegations of abuses committed by members of volunteer
battalions, including, specifically, abuses committed by the Aidar
battalion in the north Luhansk region;
-
Effectively protect victims and witnesses of abuses under
investigation against reprisals;
-
Ensure that all those involved in military and law-enforcement
operations, including members of volunteer battalions, are made
fully aware of the provisions of national and international law
applicable to their actions and their potential personal and
command responsibility for their breach.

Source: www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR50/040/2014/en

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