Since the upheaval in Ukraine began four months ago, the number of kidnappings of journalists and activists has been on the rise, though they’ve always been part of the Ukrainian political landscape.
This week, the country’s new government signed an agreement to move closer to the European Union. Analysts say if Ukraine wants to partner with Europe, it will have to end its culture of impunity and start bringing people to justice.
In halting English and her native Russian, 25-year-old Ukrainian Alexandra Riazantseva describes what happened when she and her friend Katya drove from Kiev to Crimea in mid-March. The women wanted to take letters of support to Ukrainian soldiers trapped on bases there by pro-Russian forces.
They were stopped at the border. Riazantseva says the pro-Russian militia saw her tattoo in memory of the men killed in Kiev’s Maidan square, where she had been protesting.
“Me and Katya go to Crimea, and we have a huge problem,” she says. “Soldiers hate us. They want to kill us.”
Riazantseva says she grew up in Crimea and her whole family still lives there, but it didn’t seem to matter. She says she was thrown into a military prison, where she was beaten, interrogated and taunted for three days. Her hair was cut off.
Riazantseva says they called her Pussy Riot, after the female Russian band whose members were jailed by President Vladimir Putin for blasphemy.
She thought she would die. “At this moment I … felt like, bye-bye with my life,” she says. But Riazantseva’s father, a former Soviet military colonel who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya, exhausted all his contacts to find her and get her out.
Bogdun Ovcharuk of Amnesty International in Kiev says kidnappings have increased since the uprising started four months ago. But there was a culture of impunity across this country long before the conflict.
“Torture and abductions we’ve seen for many years, and mostly the police were responsible for those tortures and abductions,” Ovcharuk says. “The main issue of concern is that none of those abductions have been investigated, and no guilty persons have been brought to justice.”
Ovcharuk says Amnesty has long called on Ukrainian governments to create a mechanism for carrying out independent judicial investigations.
“For many years, we’ve been digging for cases of police abuse,” he says. “We’ve been digging and then shining the light on these cases, and the government was silent.”
Since the uprising, Ovcharuk says there’s more information and everyone’s talking about cases, but still no investigations. After president Victor Yanukovych fled the country with his dreaded Berkut militia, the problems of kidnappings moved to Crimea.
Whether it’s Kiev or Crimea, Ovcharuk says it’s a cultural problem that needs to change. He’s not sure if Ukraine’s new government is up to the task.
Last week, a member of Ukraine’s parliament walked into the offices of the state television network and roughed up the top executive because the station had broadcast Putin’s speech about Russia annexing Crimea.
The video of the far-right parliamentarian slapping around the TV bureaucrat exploded on YouTube, especially in Russia, where it was a present for Putin; perfect proof that Kiev’s new government was, as he said, a band of right-wing extremists.
Ovcharuk says the TV incident was an appalling assault on freedom of expression. He says the Ukrainian government’s weak condemnation is not enough.
Lesya Orobets, another member of parliament, agrees. Orobets protested against former president Yanukovych at Maidan square. She says Russian propaganda should be stopped, but that’s not the way to do things.
Orobets says there’s now a huge outcry for a new political culture of justice and accountability in Ukraine.
“Frankly speaking, they were using the methods that are unacceptable,” Orobets says. “People do continue to ask questions: ‘How do we differ from those who stepped down together with Yanukovic?’ ”