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Victims say police force confessions

Human rights advocates and lawyers say the high rate of official case clearance has nothing to do with achieving justice and finding who actually committed the crimes. Nearly 70 percent of all registered crimes in Ukraine are officially solved, a rate much higher than in the United States and in Europe, where authorities report success in far less than half of the cases.

What’s behind the impressive statistic from the Interior Ministry? Fantastic detective work which police in other nations should emulate? Advanced investigative techniques perfected by Ukrainian law enforcers?

No. Human rights advocates and lawyers say the high rate of official case clearance has nothing to do with achieving justice and finding who actually committed the crimes. Instead, the rate has much to do, they allege, with inhumane methods used to force confessions from suspects: beatings, predetention abuse, withholding of food and even torture.

With adherence to democratic standards at the core of requirements to join the European Union, the nation’s judicial system – a troubling holdover of its Soviet past – could be a stumbling block on the path to Western integration.

Some say the situation is even getting worse. Among them is Oleh Veremeenko, a Kyiv lawyer and member of the Interior Ministry’s Public Council, formed to investigate abuses and suggest solutions.

“The problems intensified a year ago when the responsibility for investigating crimes against persons – such as murder, rape and beatings – was transferred from the prosecutor’s office to the police force,” Veremeenko said. “However, no additional human resources were allocated or any kind of training provided.”

The abuse doesn’t stop at the end of police officers’ fists, either. All too often, human rights groups argue, the entire judicial system – including prosecutors and judges – become willing accomplices to the brutality and injustice, sending countless numbers of innocent people to prison.

Brutal cops

Veremeenko, the Kyiv lawyer, spoke at a press conference in August on behalf of his client, Yevhen Novytskiy. Veremeenko said 19yearold Novytskiy has spent 15 months in pretrial detention for a murder that he did not commit and for which he has not been convicted.

His client’s nightmare began on Feb. 11, 2007, after a Kyiv man was beaten to death and suspicion fell on Novytskiy because he had earlier lent Hr 150 to the victim’s son.

Veremeenko said Novytskiy confessed after a week of beatings by Kyiv police officers. According to his lawyer, the punishment was administered when Novytskiy spent three days in pretrial detention and three more days in a unit for drunks. Veremeenko said police officers slammed his head against a concrete wall, broke a tooth and injured his knee. Even now, the lawyer said, his client has trouble walking.

Veremeenko said that he has tried to take the police officers involved to court ever since the incidents. A session is scheduled to take place in October.

Another man, Valentyn Koliychuk, attended the press conference on police tortures to tell his own story of assault from traffic police near Zhytomyr.

“I was brutally dragged out of my car and received several blows to the head. I lost consciousness,” Koliychuk recounted. “The moment I gained consciousness, I was lying in the back of the police car in handcuffs. Some policemen were damaging my car, while others were ‘taking care of me’ — striking me on the head, face, back and buttocks. After the detention, policemen tried to present me as a drunk by pouring vodka over me. But a blood test at Zhytomyr hospital – taken without my permission – proved the absence of alcohol.”

Koliychuk claims to have suffered a concussion, damaged kidneys and other injuries.

“When I tried to sue the representatives of the traffic police, the case was immediately closed due to lack of evidence. The criminal case against me was closed for the same reasons,” he added.

Familiar stories

Other alleged victims’ stories were told at the press conference. Their testimony fit a larger pattern, according to governments and organizations that study the problem.

The U.S. State Department makes annual human rights assessments of each nation, including Ukraine. The findings are based on reports from human rights groups, news accounts and other sources.

“Problems with the police and the penal system remained some of the most serious human rights concerns,” the State Department said in its 2007 assessment of Ukraine.

“Police frequently employed severe violence against persons in custody. Problems included torture in pretrial detention facilities; harsh conditions in prisons and pretrial detention facilities; arbitrary and lengthy pretrial detention.”

The report cited several cases examined by human rights groups and journalists, including the Jan. 20, 2007 death of Petro Khudak, 46, while in a detention center in the IvanoFrankivsk oblast; the Nov. 29, 2007, arrest of a police officer in the Sumy oblast for the death of a witness during interrogation; and the Kharkiv Group for Human Rights Protection’s report last year that three police officers went on trial for allegedly beating to death Oleh Dunych in 2005.

Some reports estimate that up to 80 percent of detainees are subjected to torture to extract confessions.

“Law enforcement personnel used force and mistreatment routinely and with impunity to extract confessions and information from detainees,” the State Department said.

The reasons for the abuse are clear: poorly trained officers lack the ability to gather evidence legitimately and so they “depended on confessions to meet ambitious quotas to solve cases.”

Unfortunately, “the law does not clearly prohibit statements made under torture from being introduced as evidence in court proceedings,” the report continued.

Flagrant violations

Critics claim the violations and legal loopholes add up to a legal system that punishes unfairly and regularly flouts the law, and police officers who act with impunity.

“An ineffective system for investigating allegations of abuse and detainees’ lack of access to defense lawyers and doctors did little to check this practice,” the U.S. report said. A judiciary that lacks independence and “serious corruption” in all government branches compounds the problems.

By law, authorities may detain a suspect for three days without a warrant, but such restrictions are routinely ignored.

The law requires that a trial begin no later than three weeks after criminal charges have been formally filed with the court. But the overburdened court system rarely met this requirement, the State Department said, and existing procedure also allows pretrial detentions for up to nine months in the absence of a court review. In 2005, the most recent year for which statistics were available, 1,250 of the 9,528 prisoners released from pretrial detention following court rulings had spent over one year in detention awaiting trial.

At the August press conference, Veremeenko noted that most Ukrainians cannot afford a private lawyer and that public defenders are ineffective and underpaid, earning some $4 per day.

“The Constitution includes procedural provisions intended to ensure a fair trial, including the right of suspects or witnesses to refuse to testify against themselves or their relatives. However, these rights were limited by the absence of implementing legislation, which left a largely Sovietera criminal justice system in place. The defendant is formally presumed innocent, but the system maintains high conviction rates, similar to that of the Soviet era,” the State Department found.

Other problems include violations of confidentiality between clients and attorneys, the State Department said, and violations of the confidentiality of victims and witnesses, who are routinely intimidated by criminal groups to withdraw or change their testimony.

The press for solutions

So, is it possible to fix the system? Experts say reform of its many aspects is long overdue. To start with, Ukraine needs bettertrained and betterpaid law enforcement officers.

“Unlike prosecutors who are required to have a degree in law, police investigators often have no higher education at all,” Veremeenko said. “Their meager $300 monthly wage often attracts those who have failed to find employment elsewhere.”

Volodymyr Polishchuk, a Kyiv police spokesperson, attended last month’s press conference. While Polishchuk did not acknowledge any specific incidents of abuse among Kyiv officers, he admitted that a “more demanding selection process” and better pay would help.

Another quick fix is to drop unrealistic quotas for solving crimes.

“Ukraine should stop its race for unreal percentages of crime [clearance],” said Arkadiy Buschenko, lawyer and head of the executive committee of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Group.

“We have to look around and realize that 50 percent of [solved] crimes is a huge figure even for the western world. If impunity of police officers continues to exist, all other attempts to reduce the number of tortures will be futile.”

Blame also lies with prosecutors and judges who also seem interested in showing a high rate of case clearance, he added.

“It’s a direct responsibility of the prosecutor’s office to investigate any case of tortures,” he said. “They are not doing their job. They would rather have court victories than deal with the problem of tortures and inhumane treatment.”

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