Combined Russian-separatist forces, armed, trained, and supplied by the Russian Federation, continued a violent, armed conflict against the Ukrainian government, despite two ceasefires signed in Minsk by Russian and Ukrainian officials in September 2014 and on February 12. Military activity was the most intense in the first two months of the year, as combined Russian-separatist forces launched offensives near Mariupol, the Donetsk Airport, and Debaltseve. Combined Russian-separatist forces continued attacks on Ukrainian positions using heavy weaponry throughout the year despite the declaration of two subsequent ceasefires.
International organizations and NGOs, including AI, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the UN high commissioner for human rights issued periodic reports of human rights abuses committed in the Donbas region by separatist and government forces. As of November 1, the OSCE fielded 937 persons supporting a special monitoring mission, which issued daily reports on the situation and conditions in most major cities.
According to the UN’s HRRMU, fighting and violence in the Donbas region deprived more than five million residents of the ability to access education, health care, and housing, and the opportunity to earn a living. As of November 15, the HRMMU reported that fighting had killed at least 9,078 persons, including civilians, Ukrainian armed forces, and armed groups. This figure included the 298 passengers and crew on board Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, shot down in July 2014 over Donbas. Additionally, more than 2.5 million residents left separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts since the start of the conflict. As of November 15, the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy had registered 1,578,925 IDPs, although civil society groups believed the actual number of IDPs was much higher. According to UNHCR there were approximately 1.1 million Ukrainian refugees in other countries, including approximately 912,000 in the Russian Federation.
Media and human rights groups continued to report widespread human rights abuses in separatist held area. In a report issued in May, the HRMMU stated there was a “collapse of law and order” in separatist-held areas and that “serious human rights abuses” occurred, including killings, torture, looting, and extortion.
Killings: International monitors and the media reported arbitrary and unlawful killings in the Donbas region. International and human rights organizations noted the government took steps to investigate abuses by its forces but claimed it was hampered by a lack of resources and access to crime sites.
The HRMMU, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), and human rights groups did not cite any instances of extrajudicial killings committed by Ukrainian or progovernment forces during the year in connection with the conflict in the Donbas region. Several cases from 2014 remained under investigation, however, including the discovery of the bodies of two separatists that had been bound and shot in the head in autumn 2014.
During the first two months of the year, combined Russian-separatist forces launched sustained attacks against Ukrainian positions, in particular at the Donetsk Airport, in the area near Mariupol, and at Debaltseve. As a result both sides shelled civilian areas. On February 10, a rocket attack launched from separatist held areas near Kramatorsk killed seven civilians and injured at least 16 in government-controlled Kramatorsk. Following the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve on February 20, shelling subsided somewhat. Civilians continued to be killed and injured by mines and unexploded ordinance.
Separatists and Ukrainian authorities accused each other of indiscriminate shelling of civilians, in particular killing 13 civilians and injuring 12 in a mortar attack on a bus stop in the southwestern part of the city of Donetsk on January 22. An artillery attack killed eight civilians and injured 19 in Horlivka on January 29. Combined Russian-separatist forces targeted civilian populations while launching artillery attacks from civilian areas. For example, on January 13, combined Russian-separatist forces launched a rocket attack on a Ukrainian checkpoint at Volnovakha, hitting a bus, killing 13 civilians and injuring 18.
Between January 16 and February 20, separatists launched a protracted assault on the city of Debaltseve during which separatists and elements of the Russian military continuously and indiscriminately shelled the city. According to the UN, the shelling killed more than 500 civilians. Of a preconflict population of approximately 25,000, only 7,000 persons remained in the city after the assault. On January 24, combined Russian-separatist forces attacked residential neighborhoods in Mariupol using Grad and Urgan rockets, killing 30 civilians and injuring 108. The high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini, condemned the attack.
In a May report, AI documented summary executions of captured Ukrainian soldiers by separatists. For example, according to AI, separatist commander Arseny Pavlov, also known as “Motorola,” executed Ukrainian soldier Ihor Branovytsky after a battle at the Donetsk Airport on January 21. Witnesses reported Branovytsky was alive after the battle and heard Pavlov admit to shooting Branovytsky. A Ukrainian death certificate stated that Branovytsky died of two gunshot wounds to the head. In an April interview with the Kyiv Post, Pavlov bragged that he had executed 15 Ukrainian soldiers.
There were no reports by the HRMMU or human rights organizations of extrajudicial killings of civilians by separatists during the year. Observers, however, identified previously unreported cases of extrajudicial killings from 2014 that authorities have not yet investigated. For example, the HRMMU reported that in August 2014, separatists in Peremozhne, Luhansk Oblast, kidnapped and executed a man and woman accused of aiding Ukrainian soldiers. Authorities discovered their bodies in January and performed an autopsy in June. Combatants reportedly summarily executed an additional four persons in the same town also in August 2014. Russian-backed separatists have not conducted investigations into any of these killings.
According to a September report by the Justice for Peace in Donbas Coalition of Human Rights, a coalition of human rights NGOs, 33 percent of military personnel and 16 percent of civilians interviewed told human rights monitors they had witnessed extrajudicial killings and deaths resulting from torture at the hands of separatists.
Abductions: Separatists, government forces, and criminal elements engaged in abductions. Human rights groups reported that separatists routinely kidnapped persons to settle vendettas or for ransom.
The HRMMU noted a persistent pattern of arbitrary and incommunicado detention by Ukrainian law enforcement (mainly by the SBU) and by military and paramilitary units (first and foremost by the former volunteer battalions now formally incorporated into the security services). A May report by AI documented several abductions of civilians by progovernment battalions that took place in 2014, including a case in which three building contractors were detained by militia members and transferred to an SBU detention facility, where they were allegedly beaten, suffocated, and subjected to mock burial and other abuses.
A September HRMMU report cited an interview with a woman abducted twice by separatist groups, once from July to October 2014 and again from February to July. During her periods of captivity, she reported severe beatings, threats against her relatives, and an attempted gang rape.
Separatists also abducted journalists attempting to cover the conflict. On January 9, separatists detained Maria Varfolomeyeva, a pro-Ukrainian journalist from Luhansk. According to Reporters without Borders, her captors subjected her to series of carefully staged and videoed confessions.
On January 5, separatists released journalist Serhiy Sakadinsky, seized in August 2014. Sakadinsky was the editor of Politika 2.0. His wife reported that his captors beat him and broke his hand during his captivity.
The politically motivated trial of military pilot and member of the Verkhovna Rada Nadezda Savchenko, abducted from eastern Ukraine in 2014, continued in Russia as of year’s end (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees, of the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia).
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Government and separatist forces reportedly abused and tortured civilians and soldiers in detention facilities. Reported abuses included beatings, physical and psychological torture, mock executions, sexual violence, deprivation of food and water, refusal of medical care, and forced labor.
The HRMMU reported a “persistent pattern” of physical abuse and torture by government forces. Throughout the year the HRMMU and AI interviewed individuals who claimed to have been tortured, beaten, and subjected to mock executions during the course of the “antiterrorist operation.” A December HRMMU report documented “recurrent allegations” of mistreatment during arrest and interrogations by the SBU, including interviews with several individuals detained on suspicion of taking part in terrorist acts. SBU authorities beat them heavily, restrained them in painful poses for long periods, and subjected them to suffocation while in custody.
According to data presented in a September report by Justice for Peace in Donbas, a coalition of human rights NGOs, captors abused 86 percent of military men and 50 percent of civilians captured by the separatists, while captors subjected 50 percent of women, including pregnant and elderly, detained by pro-Russian rebels to physical abuse or torture. Their report stated that detainees lacked any safeguards against abuse and detention centers lacked clean water, adequate sanitation, heat, and bomb shelters to protect from an attack.
Separatists repeatedly beat Lieutenant-Colonel Serhiy Kuzminykh and eight Ukrainian soldiers captured on January 20 following fighting at the Donetsk Airport. One video from January 21 showed Ukrainian soldiers being thrown from a tank and beaten by Mikhail Tolstykh, also known as “Givi.” In the video Tolstykh forced the soldiers to eat the epaulettes he cut from their uniforms.
The Russian-backed separatists particularly targeted certain religious groups for abuse. According to the HRMMU, in February a Ukrainian Orthodox priest who was delivering food to soldiers and civilians in the government-controlled town of Artemivsk (Donetsk region), mistakenly drove to a checkpoint controlled by separatists. The separatists forced him to lie on the ground, and several fighters started jumping on his body. They also shot at the asphalt near his head. They then transferred him to a nearby village for interrogation, which lasted several hours and during which his captors beat him. Separatists detained him for 50 days in various places, along with approximately 70 other detainees.
On May 17, separatists reportedly detained four members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, blindfolded them, and took them at gunpoint to the local military headquarters, where separatists severely beat them and subjected them to mock executions. They demanded that the youngest member join combined Russian-separatist forces and that all of the members confess the Orthodox faith as the only true religion. The separatists released the four detainees the following day.
Women reported attempted rape and sexual abuse at the hands of separatists. Women IDPs who left separatist control reported they fled principally because they feared they or their children would be sexually abused.
Both sides employed land mines without measures to prevent civilian casualties. The UNHRMM report from December 10 noted an increased numbers of deaths from exploding ordinance, including land mines. More than half of the civilian deaths recorded between August 16 and November 15 were due to mines. Due to an order by separatist forces for humanitarian aid groups to cease social programing, mine education programs have been sharply limited there.
Child Soldiers: There were no media reports of child soldiers serving with Ukrainian forces, and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) could not confirm the presence of child soldiers in the country. There were, however, media reports that children as young as 12 served as soldiers with separatists. On May 28, OSCE SMM observers noted a child between the ages of 12 and 14 wearing camouflage and holding a rifle at a separatist checkpoint at Makiivka, Donetsk Oblast. On June 17, a spokesman for the OSCE SMM stated that monitors had seen child soldiers in separatist-controlled areas near Shyrokyne. There were multiple instances where child soldiers in separatist-controlled territory posted pictures online of themselves on patrol or supporting combat operations, as well as reports in separatist-controlled and Russian media outlets documenting use of child soldier. On November 10, the German television station ZDF broadcast interviews of two 16-year-olds who had fought on the side of separatists.
Other Conflict Related Abuses: On October 13, the Dutch Safety Board concluded its investigation into the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014 in separatist-controlled Donetsk Oblast. All 298 passengers and crew died. According to the report, a Russian-built 9M38-series surface-to-air missile with a 9N314M warhead shot down the plane. According to the report, the missile was fired from a 125-square-mile area within separatist-controlled territory. At the time of the crash, separatists and Russian media reported that it had shot down a Ukrainian AN-26 but quickly retracted and deleted these reports once it became clear that a civilian airliner had been shot down. Russian authorities and separatists continued to deny that a missile launched from inside separatist territory with a Russian missile system had shot down the plane.
In June, Ukrainian authorities began expediting the delivery of humanitarian aid to separatist held areas through so-called “green corridors.” Beginning on June 29, however, separatists in the Donetsk Oblast ordered humanitarian organizations, including the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to “register” with “authorities.” Starting on July 21, separatists in Donetsk Oblast began restricting the delivery of humanitarian aid to areas they controlled. On September 25, separatists in Luhansk Oblast ordered all humanitarian aid organizations except for the ICRC to cease operations. Separatists displayed increasing hostility towards humanitarian aid groups. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, due to the disruption of humanitarian aid, approximately 150,000 persons were not receiving food aid and 1.3 million lacked access to clean water.
On March 4, a shell struck a hospital in the city of Donetsk, killing four persons and injuring 25. During the year the UNHRMM reported that fighters had attacked hospitals in Adiivka, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Horlivka and that it was concerned medical facilities were hit by shelling. On September 25 and October 12, separatists prohibited the international medical aid group Doctors without Borders from operating in the separatist-controlled areas of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. This prohibition led to a sharp restriction in medical assistance to persons suffering from diabetes, kidney failure, and tuberculosis. In a report released on December 10, the UNHRMM noted that separatists intimidated and harassed employees of hospitals and medical facilities.
Separatists continued to allow convoys of Russian “humanitarian aid,” which Ukrainian government officials believed contained weapons and supplies for separatists. In September the government opened “service centers” close to separatist-held territory where civilians could access banking services and purchase food and medicine.
Residents of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts under separatist control were unable participate in the October 25 local elections held country-wide, since elections could not be held under Ukrainian law and in accordance with international standards.