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OSCE expert report: Arbitrary detention of Ukrainian citizens by Russia has occurred on a “massive scale”

Stephanie Liechtenstein
News08 May 2024

A new OSCE expert report documents the practice of arbitrary detention of Ukrainian civilians by Russia since 2014, which according to the experts constitutes a violation of international law and may even amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The report has found that “the practice of arbitrary deprivation of liberty of Ukrainian civilians has occurred on a massive scale and has revealed signs of a systematic, consistent, deliberate pattern of conduct targeting specifically Ukrainian civilians.”

The report states that since spring 2014, “a large number of Ukrainian civilians have been arbitrarily deprived of liberty by the Russian Federation – acting directly through its organs or, in 2014-2022, through its proxies in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.”

The experts say that due to the armed conflict they were unable to provide an exact number of Ukrainian civilians in detention but they say that the number is “large and can be measured in the thousands.”

The experts say that since the launch of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the practice of arbitrary detention “has become pervasive in all the areas that have got under the temporary occupation of the Russian Federation”. They add that the practice “appears to be a defining feature” of Russia’s policy.

The 86-page report, written by Prof. Veronika Bílková (Czech Republic), Dr. Cecilie Hellestveit (Norway) and Dr. Elīna Šteinerte (Latvia), states that the most commonly indicated reasons that Russia has given for the detention of Ukrainian civilians seem to be associated with “perceived support” for Ukrainian armed forces, the “rejection” of Russia’s war against Ukraine as well as “the intention to spread fear in the population of the temporarily occupied territories.”

The experts believe that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that both the war crime of ‘unlawful confinement’ and the crime against humanity consisting of ‘imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law’ have been committed by individuals involved in the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of Ukrainian civilians, including members of the Russian armed forces or occupying authorities.”

Torture and extrajudicial killings

The report also highlights that Ukrainian civilians arbitrarily detained by Russia have been “subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, sexual violence and other forms of serious mistreatment.” The experts say that they have also recorded cases of extrajudicial killings of arbitrarily detained Ukrainian civilians.

Moreover, the expert report states that “detainees have died due to the injuries suffered as a result of torture and other cruel, inhuman degrading treatment or punishment.” According to the experts, “there are also reports of detainees dying due to ignoring health problems in the penitentiary facilities as well as Crimean political prisoners being sent for forced psychiatric examinations.”

The experts say that it was not within their mandate to identify concrete individuals who should be held criminally responsible for any of the actions, but they stress that this will be a task for national and international judicial bodies in the future.

Russia ‘disrespecting special status’ of three imprisoned OSCE staff members

The report also mentions on several occasions the three staff members of the former OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) who have been in detention in eastern Ukraine since April 2022.

The OSCE vehemently denies the charges against Vadym Golda, Maxim Petrov and Dmytro Shabanov, all Ukrainian nationals, and says that they were performing official duties for the OSCE “as mandated by all 57 participating States.”

The experts say that the three OSCE officials enjoy privileges and immunities under international law and that their continued detention is “incompatible with OSCE commitments arising in respect to Russia.”

According to the expert report, Russia “has disrespected and continues to disrespect the special status of three staff members of the OSCE SMM, detaining them for almost two years now and subjecting them to trial for activities carried out while working for the SMM.”

Expert recommendations

The report concludes with a comprehensive set of recommendations addressed to Russia, Ukraine, other states and international organizations.

Most importantly, the experts call on Russia to “immediately cease” the practice of arbitrary detention of Ukrainian civilians and to release all those in captivity.

The experts also call on Ukraine to “continue with its efforts, at all levels of authority, to seek information about and compile lists of all Ukrainian civilians detained by the Russian Federation” and to “continue providing medical, psychological, social and other support to all civilians and their families who have been released” following their arbitrary detention by Russia.

The experts also recommend to other states as well as to international organizations that they should support Ukraine in its efforts to “locate” Ukrainian civilians who have been arbitrarily detained and to “verify data” on Ukrainian civilians arbitrarily detained by Russia.

At a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council on April 25, Romania read out a statement on behalf of 45 states who invoked the Moscow Mechanism and called on Russia “to immediately cease the practice of arbitrary deprivation of liberty of Ukrainian civilians and unconditionally release all those thus detained, as recommended by the Mission.”

Russia considers the report’s results ‘null and void’

Russia commented on the report, saying that in its view it is “aimed at promoting anti-Russian – and therefore pro-Ukrainian – narratives.” Russia said it believes that the experts “did not bother to try to create any semblance of objective picture.” Russia also said that it considers the results of what it described as a “rudimentary and obsolete” OSCE mechanism as “legally and politically null and void for Russia.”

The current report builds on three previous OSCE expert reports launched under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism in 2022 and 2023. The three previous reports looked into potential war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, into the humanitarian impact of the Russian war against Ukraine, and into allegations of forcible transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

In producing the report, the experts used written material and analysis by international organizations, including by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for National Minorities, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as reports by media and NGOs. They also held meetings with a wide range of stakeholders during their visit to Ukraine this March, including the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, the Ministry of Interior, and others.

The mission also conducted anonymous interviews with victims and witnesses.

The three experts wrote letters to both the Ambassadors of Ukraine and Russia to the OSCE to invite them to cooperate with the mission and to share information that could help the experts to fulfil their mandate.

While Ukraine cooperated with the experts, Russia chose not to, as was the case with the three previous expert missions launched under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism.

On Feb. 29, 45 OSCE participating States with the support of Ukraine triggered the so-called OSCE Moscow Mechanism and established a mission of experts to “build upon previous findings and establish the facts and circumstances surrounding possible contraventions of relevant OSCE commitments, violations and abuses of human rights, and violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as well as possible cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, associated with or resulting from the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of Ukrainian civilians by the Russian Federation.”


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