Seven years after Ukraine’s pro-Russia government was toppled during the Maidan protests, the European Court of Human Rights said police and hired mercenaries committed a wide range of abuses against protesters.
(CN) — On the seventh anniversary of the violent and historic Maidan uprising in Ukraine, Europe’s human rights court on Thursday ruled that Ukrainian police and authorities committed widespread abuses against protesters.
For many in Ukraine, the findings by the European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR, come as a long-awaited verdict by the Strasbourg court to condemn the crackdown on protests by Ukrainian forces as inhuman and a violation of international human rights laws.
The court’s rulings involved 38 people who took part in the protests in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. It declared protesters were brutally beaten, unlawfully arrested and dispersed and kidnapped by police or titushky, civilian mercenaries hired to help police crack down on Maidan protesters. In one of its five rulings, it found the state was guilty for the killing of one protester.
The brutality against protesters was a “strategy on the part of the authorities,” the court said. It also charged that Ukraine failed to properly investigate the alleged abuses.
“The authorities had deliberately tried to disrupt initially peaceful protests, using excessive violence and unlawful detention to achieve that,” the ECHR said in a news release.
The protests broke out in November 2013 after Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian president, scuttled a cooperation agreement with the European Union just days before he was due to sign it. The agreement was meant to draw Ukraine away from Russia and closer into the EU’s sphere.
By January 2014, the protest movement, based around Kiev’s central Independence Square (“Maidan Nezalezhnosti,” in Ukrainian), continued to grow despite the police violence. Riots broke out and the uprising grew even larger with 800,000 people taking to the streets after Yanukovych signed laws restricting the right to protest. On Jan. 22, two protesters were killed in clashes with police.
Over the next month, the uprising gathered momentum and climaxed on Feb. 20 when scores of protesters in Independence Square were killed and injured after police and military fired on them. Yanukovych fled Ukraine and, with the crisis deepening, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and supported the secession of parts of eastern Ukraine. The Maidan uprising and continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine remain among the most volatile political issues in Europe.
In all, more than 100 people were killed during the protests, including 70 by gunfire, and thousands of people – both protesters and police – were injured, the court said.
Among those killed was Yuri Verbytskyy, an activist whose murder was examined by the ECHR. After the protests broke out, Verbytskyy, who was living in Lviv at the time and working as a seismologist, went to Kiev to take part in the demonstrations. On Jan. 21, he was injured in the eye during a clash between protesters and police.
He was taken to a hospital by Igor Lutsenko, a well-known journalist in Kiev who had become a Maidan protest leader whose role was to help injured protesters get to doctors. Lutsenko and Verbytskyy’s brother jointly brought a case against Ukraine to the Strasbourg court.
In the early morning of Jan. 22, Lutsenko and Verbytskyy were abducted from the hospital by men in civilian clothes and severely beaten after they were driven to a remote area, the court said. Then they were taken to a garage and questioned by unidentified men about their involvement in the protests, according to court documents.
During the questioning, both were “subjected to repeated beatings and other forms of ill-treatment over the course of several hours,” the ruling said. It said Lutsenko’s abductors also placed a plastic bag over his head, letting him breath through a small hole, and tied his hands and legs with duct tape. He was dumped on a road near a village about 30 miles outside Kiev.
Verbytskyy’s body was found in a forest in the same area. Lutsenko later told investigators that Verbytskyy’s abductors, who spoke Russian, beat him more severely after they discovered he was from Lviv, a city in western Ukraine where anti-Russian sentiment runs deep. They called him a banderovets, a term used to describe sympathizers of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian fascist leader during World War II, Lutsenko testified.
The conflict in Ukraine is defined by deep animosities between the nation’s Russian and Ukrainian populations and lingering disagreements over Ukraine’s historical narrative. During World War II, many Ukrainians supported Germany while Russians were on the side of the Soviet Union.
Forensic medical reports found Verbytskyy died of hypothermia and suffered multiple injuries to the trunk of his body, limbs, head and face. He suffered fractured bones and ribs and internal bleeding.
Police opened an investigation into the abduction and killing and suspects were identified. The ECHR said a trial against one suspect started in 2015 and remains open whereas the whereabouts of other suspects is unknown. Police also opened probes against the possible involvement by police officers and those proceedings are ongoing, the court said.
Still, the Strasbourg court said the state’s investigations into the murder have been a failure. “To date no independent and effective official investigation has been conducted into these matters,” it ruled.
In another case, the Strasbourg court looked at numerous complaints by protesters alleging they were abused by police during gatherings in Independence Square in November 2013 and February 2014. The court found that their human rights were violated when police fired stun grenades, tear gas and plastic bullets at them. It said several demonstrators were beaten, “some even to the point of losing consciousness.”
Police officers were put on trial for attacks on protesters, the ECHR noted. It said criminal proceedings are ongoing in some cases and that some agents have faced punishment. But the court repeatedly said it found serious flaws in the investigations into police brutality and an “absence to date of an independent and effective mechanism within Ukraine for the investigation of crimes committed by law-enforcement officers and other non-State agents who were allowed to act with the acquiescence if not the approval of the latter.”
Some investigations into the Maidan protests have been turned over to Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigations and criminal proceedings are pending, including against senior government officials and Yanukovych, who is in exile in Russia. Moscow has refused to extradite suspects to Ukraine.
The ECHR also condemned the ill-treatment of a protester and a lawyer, Volodymyr Kadura and Viktor Smaliy. Kadura was part of a group of protesters called Automaidan and Smaliy represented one of the group’s organizers.
On Dec. 5, 2013, Kadura was arrested by police during a traffic stop on suspicion of hijacking a loader and attempting to kill police officers during a protest outside the Presidential Administration building. After he was arrested, he was loaded into a van and beaten, the court said. Police also seized numerous items, including cash, from his home and car during searches. His car and cash were returned to him but many other items, including a camera and a set of handheld transceivers, were never returned, the court said. Later, the case against him was dismissed for lack of evidence, the court said.
Smaliy complained that he was arrested and beaten while he was representing a client at a police station. Unbeknownst to him, the court said, criminal proceedings had been opened against him alleging he had verbally abused and tried to hit a judge. During his arrest, his phone and other items were seized. In February, he was released and the case against him was dropped after the Ukrainian parliament issued an amnesty for people like him in prison deemed “political prisoners.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.