Who Is Paying the Price For Police Impunity In Ukraine?

14 October 2011, 14:57

In May this year a judge at the Kyiv appeal court ruled that an investigation should be opened into the allegations that Aleksandr Rafalsky was tortured in 2001 to force him to confess to murder, a crime for which he is currently serving a life sentence. For Anatoly and Tamara Rafalskiy this represented the penultimate stage in a 10 year battle to prove their son’s innocence. On the basis of this and two other court decisions, including the Supreme Court, the Kyiv Prosecutor’s office should now investigate the torture allegations. There has been no response from the prosecutor.

When I visited Aleksandr Rafalskiy in Vinnytsya in April he described what police officers did to him: “They took my arms and tied them and my legs as well.  They put wires on my fingers and on my ears, bare wires, and then on my groin and on my legs. They started up the generator on the street – the wires went through the window of the first floor – these wires – lots of wires – were attached to me. They did that three times…When the ambulance came they cleaned up the foam from my mouth.”

The determination and courage of the victims and their relatives, who are fighting for justice is inspiring and moving. I have been working with Anatoly and Tamara since 2004, when their son was convicted, to support them in their struggle to find justice. They are just one of many thousands of families in Ukraine whose lives have been blighted by the criminal actions of police officers. 


The Ukrainian state is failing to protect those on its territory from human rights violations at the hands of law enforcement officials.  When I met Anna Strogan in Kharkiv in March she told me how her husband had been detained by police officers from Kievskiy police station in Kharkiv in August 2010 after an argument with a neighbour. Hehad been taken to a wood where police officers beat him, electrocuted him and then used smelling salts not to revive him, but to torture him by pouring the toxic liquid down his throat. He was then held incommunicado in a flat in Kharkiv. She did not know where her husband was: “These three days were horrible for me, because I did not know where my husband was, I did not know what they were doing to him….Knowing our police, I could only imagine. My feelings were very blurred; I felt anger, hate towards the police, towards our authorities, despair that we are such vulnerable people.”

Yakov Strogan complained about the torture he had suffered at the hands of the police, and publicized his complaint at a press conference, but within a month in apparent retaliation he was arrested again, beaten and formerly charged with murder.

As long as the police officers who committed these acts are not brought to book, the state is giving them the message that they can commit such human rights violations with impunity. The only way to break the cycle of impunity is to give a clear message that such acts will not be tolerated by ensuring that every perpetrator is tried before a court of law. The state has a particular responsibility towards people that it takes into custody, and police officers who fail to protect the rights of those they detain must be punished.

This is not happening in Ukraine. In the first place victims or their relatives struggle to get their complaints of torture investigated. In almost all cases the first complaint to the prosecutor’s office, even when based on well-founded medical evidence, is rejected on the basis that there is “no evidence of a crime”.

People then lose precious time appealing against prosecutors’ refusals to open investigations into their complaints. This can sometimes take years and as the years go by, the chances of them ever being offered reparation fades.

Once an investigation is opened it must be carried out promptly, thoroughly, impartially and independently.  Prosecutors in Ukraine have close functional links with police officers and it is often difficult for them to impartially investigate crimes by police officers. The General Prosecutors Office has admitted that “there are situations when procuracy officials show bias and a lack of objectivity when checking complaints against police officers”.


What happened to Sergei Fesik clearly shows the close links between prosecutors and police officers which make impartial investigations difficult and put complainants at risk. Sergei Fesik complained to the prosecutor that he had been detained by police officers for no apparent reason, but just because he was unable to immediately show them his ID. He was beaten when he tried to phone his family to ask them to bring his ID to the police station. A criminal investigation was started and in September he was called to an interview at the prosecutor’s office. The investigator from the prosecutor’s office typed up the notes of the “interview” in front of Sergei Fesik without asking him any questions, and then claimed that his printer did not work and asked Sergei to come with him to the police station next door to print the report. At the police station Sergei Fesik was presented with a report stating that he had been beaten by unknown people on the street and that he had only accused the police because he was drunk. He refused to sign the statement, and the police officers present started to shout and threaten him. Fearing that he would be beaten again he signed the report.  He has since complained again, but has received no information about the case.

The current system is clearly failing.  This is why Amnesty International is recommending the creation of a fully resourced independent agency to investigate all allegations of criminal misconduct and serious wrongdoing by police officers.

The creation of such an independent agency would send a strong signal to law enforcement officers that abuses will not go undetected and unpunished.  The majority of hardworking, conscientious police officers have nothing to fear – and everything to gain – from the creation of an institution that would go a long way to restoring public confidence in the police. 

The percentage of allegations of torture or other ill-treatment that result in criminal prosecutions is unacceptably low. In a meeting in March 2011, we were informed by the Ombudsperson that only 60 cases of torture or other ill-treatment by police officers had been passed to the courts by the prosecutor general’s office in 2010. Some police officers who torture or ill-treat detainees never face disciplinary or criminal proceedings because of flawed investigations.


Svitlana Pomilyaiko was invited to Ordzhonikidze police station in Kharkiv on 8 November 2008 to be questioned as a witness to a theft of computers from the tile factory where she worked. Once she got there she was tortured in an attempt to force her to confess to the theft. Svitlana Pomilyaiko told me that she was placed in a chair with her arms handcuffed behind her back and police officers first tried to force her to sign a confession statement by threatening her that something would happen to her 17 year-old son. When she refused to sign, two officers held her down by her shoulders and legs while a third tied a plastic bag over her head to induce suffocation. “I thought I was going to die and I thought how silly to die like this”, she told me.  She was able to bite through the plastic bag and when the police officers noticed, they beat her and put a second plastic bag over the first.  She lost consciousness several times and remembered waking up the last time and seeing a police officer playing patience game on the computer. Despite the fear and humiliation she was subjected to she refused to sign the statement. 

It has taken her almost three years to fight to have a criminal investigation opened, and the three police officers who had tortured her have still not been disciplined or prosecuted in any way. The internal inquiry resulted in the dismissal of their superior officers, but the three perpetrators continue to work in the police force, and one has since received a service medal.  

Ukrainians deserve better than this.  It is not enough to make statements that torture must be stopped. Each and every complaint against a police officer must be carefully and scrupulously investigated. The complaints made by Anatoly and Tamara Rafalskiy, by Sergei Fesik, Yakov Strogan and Svitlana Pomilaiko must be investigated and the perpetrators punished; until that happens the problem of torture and ill-treatment in Ukraine will not be solved. 

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