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Why illegally detained civilians are left without social protection from the state

We spoke with Kateryna Levchenko, the head of the legal department of the Association of Relatives of Political Prisoners of the Kremlin, regarding a comprehensive analytical report on the functioning of Ukrainian legislation, the social parliament, and the legal protection of individuals who have been deprived of their personal liberty due to Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine, as well as the protection of their families.

Why illegally detained civilians are left without social protection from the state
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The Association of Relatives of Political Prisoners of the Kremlin has thoroughly examined the application of the law and is prepared to elucidate why these occurrences are happening and, most importantly, how they can be rectified.

Research Report

Kateryna Levchenko: I would like to address certain limitations of our report. We concentrated on identifying gaps in the definition of individuals eligible for legal aid. Unfortunately, as the law was enacted prior to the full-scale invasion, it does not accurately encompass all the categories of citizens who have been unlawfully detained in connection with Russian aggression. This constitutes the first major section of our report.

The second section focused on the procedure for establishing the facts and the current functioning of the interdepartmental commission established under the Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories. The third section addressed the social rights and guarantees provided by the state for individuals for whom the facts have been established.

We began by examining the challenges encountered by the applicants, which are systematically faced by all. Regrettably, the Ministry of Reintegration did not collaborate with us in preparing this report. Despite our numerous requests for public information, all remained unanswered. Even information that had been previously or subsequently disclosed in public meetings was withheld from us. The justification provided was that such information was for official use, which, in our view, constitutes an unjustified withholding of information by the state.

We were solely interested in statistical information that could not harm individuals or disclose their personal data. For instance, we sought data such as the number of applications received by the Ministry to establish the facts and the number of positive decisions made.

Read also: Helping civilians in illegal detention and their families — NGO «Egida-Zaporizhzhia»

According to legislation, who are considered civilian hostages?

Kateryna Levchenko: Presently, the law delineates two overarching categories: prisoners of war and civilians. Within the civilian category, we can identify two broad subgroups. The first comprises individuals detained for political reasons, commonly referred to as political prisoners.

Another category of individuals—although this term does not explicitly appear in the law itself—is fully aligned with both the Criminal Code of Ukraine and the definition under international humanitarian law – these are the civilian hostages.

Why do we refer to them as civilian hostages? Because their deprivation of personal freedom serves a specific purpose: to compel Ukraine or third countries to undertake or abstain from certain actions as a condition for their release.

They are considered hostages when demands are made not directly from them, but from the state, third states, or other entities. The individuals themselves are not the direct targets of the demands. We understand that in newly occupied territories, people are abducted and unlawfully detained, with demands imposed upon them. Hence, from a legal perspective, they are not considered hostages.

It’s highly beneficial if an interdepartmental commission acknowledges this circumstance concerning them. However, if we strictly interpret the law, they do not fall under the definition of hostages. In essence, there is a need to broaden the scope of individuals unlawfully deprived of their liberty within the law.

At the time this decision was made, prior to the full-scale invasion in January 2022, this terminology was entirely warranted. Given the Anti-Terrorist Operation in progress, it was reasonable to classify civilians captured by Russia as hostages. The so-called Minsk negotiations were ongoing, and these dynamics were actively shaping events. However, these processes have since ceased.

Even concerning the civilians released during this period of two years, we remain unaware of the demands made by the Russian Federation upon Ukraine. Hence, regarding those individuals released in exchanges, it is plausible to assert that they were civilian hostages.

Read also: 108 days in Olenivka and no compensation for captivity from the state

Ensuring social rights

Kateryna Levchenko: Currently, financial assistance is in place. It is provided annually to the family of an unlawfully imprisoned individual while they are in custody. Additionally, upon release, the person is entitled to receive a one-time payment of one hundred thousand hryvnias.

What can be said about this assistance? It was stipulated in separate resolutions concerning political prisoners as early as 2018. The amount of assistance has remained unchanged for six years. It is not indexed in any way and is not linked to any other social benefits.

This assistance has not been revised for six years. For instance, consider a person deprived of personal liberty who has a dependent wife and children. If we divide this allowance, they receive a little over eight thousand per month.

We must comprehend that this assistance is not solely for their subsistence. It’s intended to cover expenses related to legal aid, including lawyers’ fees. Additionally, if it’s for transmissions, which can be quite costly, this money still needs to be converted into local currency.

The purpose of describing this part is to draw attention to the fact that these payments should be indexed, aligning with current economic realities. Currently, they have depreciated by almost 53%. Additionally, we need to consider real-life factors. Instead of aiming for equalization, we should tailor support to meet the needs of each family. Some individuals may have dependent parents, children, or people with disabilities.

The drawback of the legal acts regulating the provision of this assistance is their failure to define a priority order. In other words, the first family member of a captive to apply to the Ministry of Reintegration is granted priority in receiving the help.

In reality, a situation may arise where a person illegally deprived of personal liberty has a wife and dependent children, as well as, for example, a cousin. In such cases, it’s possible that the cousin might receive the assistance first. Consequently, when the wife and children apply for assistance, the Ministry of Reintegration may respond with, «This year’s assistance has already been provided. Please apply again next year». Currently, there are no defined criteria; priority is solely based on speed of application.

We believe that this loophole in the legal act is a significant flaw. Social assistance should prioritize the closest relatives who lived with the person illegally deprived of personal liberty.

Read also: The «Chameleon» — a course about avoiding captivity and the psychology of survival in captivity

Do other types of assistance work

Kateryna Levchenko: We must clarify that, no, they do not work. Let’s address the most pressing issue – medical care. Primary medical care is provided to civilians who have been released on exchange. Upon their release, they are promptly taken to a medical facility, where they receive primary medical care before being discharged.

If they have already left that institution and subsequently reapply for assistance, they no longer have any benefits or guarantees.

Almost all of those who were illegally imprisoned have survived torture, resulting in significant health problems. They endured inhumane conditions, including insufficient food, water, and basic facilities for normal life. However, medical care does not adequately address the needs of these individuals.

No legal act provides for dental care, which is often a very acute issue, especially when it becomes necessary as a result of torture and inadequate conditions of detention.

There must also be proper psychological assistance provided by specialized professionals who are trained to work with survivors of illegal detention and torture.

Unfortunately, the state’s position is that, according to the Constitution, citizens are equal: if there is free medical care available, they are encouraged to use it. However, referring a person who has experienced months or years of deprivation of personal freedom, along with violence, often including sexual violence, to a family doctor who is not prepared to work with such cases is inadequate to their needs.

Read also: «We must insist on the unconditional release of everyone» — regarding the Strategy for the Release of Civilians

Recognition of the fact of unlawful detention

Kateryna Levchenko: The most problematic category of people to prove are those who were illegally detained in the occupied territories, including Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Chernihiv, and Kyiv regions. These individuals were released by the occupiers themselves, and as a result, their imprisonment could last from several weeks to several months, or even more than a year. They were often subjected to slave labor and might not have been officially accused of any crime. Additionally, they could have been held in areas completely unsuitable for human habitation, such as garages, basements, and warehouses.

This category is the least protected by the state. It is exceedingly difficult for them to prove the fact of their deprivation of personal liberty, as the Russian Federation neither confirms this nor provides any documents. For them, piecing together the very fact of deprivation of personal freedom must be done painstakingly, gathering small pieces of evidence.

The state does not offer assistance here in any form. It does not facilitate the opportunity for these individuals to be heard, nor does it support the testimony of witnesses. The state insists on official documents from those illegally deprived of their personal liberty, which, unfortunately, these individuals are not always able to provide.

We understand that this is not always an easy task for some people. It’s important to acknowledge that individuals released from illegal detention are not always in the right emotional and physical condition to actively pursue their investigator and compel them to conduct investigative actions.

Additionally, the Ministry of Reintegration and the Interagency Commission do not provide a reasoned refusal to those who are rejected. In no way are we attempting to discredit the Interagency Commission, nor do we claim that everyone who applies to them must receive confirmation of the fact. However, we do assert that applicants are generally treated improperly.

That is, they are not provided, to begin with, with the normal consultation they want to have in their application, or the information they want to include in their application. There is no explanation that in their application, they must detail what happened chronologically, describe their activities before being deprived of personal freedom, and specify where they were held. Basic explanations of how to draft such a statement are lacking. Additionally, there is no clarification regarding the documents the Interagency Commission requires. Not a single applicant who sought to be heard by the Interagency Commission was given such an opportunity, despite the law providing for it.

Read also: How the state intends to release civilian hostages

In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

The program is hosted by Ihor Kotelyanets and Anastasia Bagalika.

This publication is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.

USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east.

For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.


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