One year ago today, Ihor Indilo, a Ukrainian student living in Kyiv, was celebrating his birthday. That night, a verbal altercation erupted between him and one of his neighbors at a boarding house. The neighbor happened to be a police officer and Ihor was taken to the police station for questioning. In the morning his parents were called to pick up their son’s body from the morgue.
Initially the police said Ihor died from asphyxiation. Only after a forensic expertise discovered that Ihor had severe head and body injuries did the officer involved suddenly “remember” that Ihor had fallen once in the interrogation room and then again inside his cell. Charges of abuse of authority were brought against three officers, but one year later the courts remain silent.
Unfortunately Ihor’s story is not unique. In the very same police station in Kyiv, Vladimir Shulga, a businessman and a witness in the poisoning of former President Yushchenko, was found dead in March 2008. That same year, Timur Fedas, 33 year old was beaten in his cell and subsequently died from head injuries. The police officer that interrogated Timur has never been brought to justice. The situation of police abuse on the national scale is deplorable. In a recent poll 23 percent of police officers acknowledge the use of violence as one of their main tactics.
Violence by Ukrainian police is an ongoing problem and one that has been difficult to eradicate. One way to reduce the risk of police abuse is by setting up an independent mechanism that would make regular, unannounced visits to detention facilities. During 2008–2009 the Ukrainian home affairs ministry made some headway toward this goal when it established a department for human rights monitoring which undertook more than 600 visits to police stations and prisons. A significant number of police abuses were uncovered and conditions during pretrial detention improved.
But in March 2010 the newly appointed home affairs minister Anatoly Mohylyov closed down the human rights department and disbanded the mobile monitoring groups. Since their closure, the number of suspicious deaths in police custody has increased from 21 in 2009 to 50 just one year later. The Kharkiv Institute for Social Research estimates that about 800,000 Ukrainians have suffered from police violence in 2010, up from 600,000 in 2009. Yet lots of abuse goes unreported.
In 2005 the European Union asked the Ukrainian government to combat torture and ill-treatment under the EU-Ukraine Action Plan [pdf]. The following year the Ukrainian government ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and committed to setting up a national torture-prevention mechanism. Five years later no such mechanism exists as the EU has not done enough to insist that Ukraine take action.
This makes me believe that if the EU were harder on the Ukrainian authorities, Ihor would have likely celebrated his 21st birthday today.
In 2009, a draft law on national preventive mechanism was developed by the Ukrainian authorities with participation of civil society organizations. It provides for public monitoring groups visits to detention facilities coordinated by an independent Committee against Torture. Unfortunately the new government that came to power in 2010 scrapped the plan and delayed further the process.
The EU must push the Ukrainian authorities to adopt the law as soon as possible and provide financial support in setting up the scrutiny mechanism. Otherwise stories like those of Ihor, Vladimir, and Timur will continue to be all too common.