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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Death squads in Ukraine?

The impunity and mayhem of bandits results from failure to reform Ukraine’s law-enforcement system
4 February, 2014 - 11:01
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

Activist Ihor Lutsenko has miraculously survived after tortures, while Yurii Verbytsky has died as a result of them. It is still unknown what has happened to a third, so far undisclosed, activist who was kidnapped together with them.

Kidnappings, even in hospitals, and tortures in suburban woodlands are the signs of not just gangsterism. These purposeful actions of a purely political nature are aimed at not only intimidating Maidan activists, but also showing complete impunity and the impossibility of fighting against this kind of misdeeds.

The well-coordinated actions of the police and plain-clothed kidnappers and torturers suggest that Ukraine is home to illegal formations known as death squads. “All indications are that Bulatov may have been kidnapped by the same people who captured Ihor Lutsenko and Yurii Verbytsky,” journalist Yurii Butusov writes in his Facebook blog. Military expert Oleksii Orestovych said the same in the “Clear Text” program on Lviv’s ZIK TV channel.

We will come back to this point later. Meanwhile, let us recall some history of the so-called death squads.

Although the term is of Latin American origin (Sp. “los escuadrones de la muerte”), it was first used in 1930 with respect to Iron Guard (Garda de Fier) units in Rumania. They used to browbeat and kill their political opponents en masse. But death squads became a byword in the 1960s-1980s, when similar units were formed in many countries of Latin America, in some cases not without foreign assistance. For example, it became known in the US that this kind of units in Salvador and Honduras had been formed, funded, and trained by American military advisers and the CIA. This caused a scandal and reduction of US aid to those countries.

This activity is a closely guarded secret, with both the state and the thugs denying any links with governmental bodies. Death squads are usually various paramilitary organizations, special-purpose army and police units, or just groups of mercenaries.

Although death squads operated in Latin American countries for almost two decades, this was of negligible benefit to the ruling regimes and in fact produced quite opposite results. Military juntas, authoritarian and dictatorial regimes were overthrown, and most of the continent’s countries held democratic election one way or another.

The activities of “death squads” in Ukraine are particular in some respects. Orestovych has pointed this out. Lutsenko says in turn that his kidnappers spoke Ukrainian with a characteristic accent. The Russian-speaking Ukrainians never speak so in the learned official language. Besides, they displayed blatant ignorance about the current events. The questions they asked in the intervals between tortures showed that they either had come here not long ago or were foreigners.

If we drop the totally absurd allegations about “NATO snipers,” we can suppose they may have arrived from a neighboring country only. And it is not surprising at all. The leadership has deliberately refrained from reinforcing the security service, particularly the counterintelligence, which has made Ukraine a virtual paradise for foreign secret services. With due account of very close ties between our security service and Russia’s FSB, it is not surprising that the neighboring country’s agents hold sway in Kyiv and other cities.

It will be noted that the Russian FSB – successor to the VChK-OGPU-NKVD-MGB-KGB – knows only too well how to nurture and use units referred to as death squads. Back in the 1930s, this kind of units used to be dispatched to European countries to liquidate White emigration activists, Ukrainian and Baltic nationalists, and even foreign Trotskyites and anarchists. In 1937, Aleksandr Orlov (Nikolsky), a well-known NKVD agent who later defected to the West, organized, with the assistance of Spanish communists, the kidnapping and murder of Andreu Nin, leader of the anti-Stalinist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Sp. Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista, POUM). During the Chechen wars, Russian secret services would form death squads to actively counter the so-called terrorists. In most cases, they abducted and assassinated human rights activists and journalists who investigated into the abuses of corrupt officials and the sale of weapons to resistance fighters. This often affected the ordinary people who accidentally witnessed these reprisals.

Unfortunately, this outrageous practice still continues in independent Ukraine. Moreover, “death squads,” often manned by law-enforcement career officers, have been operating practically undisguised. The list of victim is quite long. For example, the high-profile Gongadze case is known all over the world. It will be recalled that the journalist was kidnapped in September 2000, taken to the forest, beaten up, and strangled to death. Does it not resemble something? And the rehearsal of Gongadze’s murder – a similar abduction and beating of the public activist and journalist Oleksii Podolsky in June 2000? It was the time of Kuchma’s presidency. Podolsky was lucky to survive. The trial of Oleksii Pukach, the mastermind of the surveillance over and murder of Gongadze and the beating-up of Podolsky, is still going on. Those who ordered the murder still remain unpunished. And what about “Kravchenko’s eagles” who were doing short work to the second president’s political opponents? The impunity and mayhem of bandits, including those who wear the police uniform, results from failure to reform not only the security service, but also the entire law-enforcement system, including courts and the prosecution. In spite of promises, all the presidents of Ukraine have not lifted a finger to change this terrible situation. Now we can see clearly all the danger of this situation to this country and its citizens.

Another goal of death squads, both of local and foreign origin, is to see to it that kidnappings, bloodshed, tortures, and murders rally special-purpose units and the entire police together. This makes it impossible for at least a part of policemen to cooperate with protesters.

This raises quite a logical question: how can we oppose death squads? For it is not only about total mayhem, lawlessness, and contempt for human life and dignity, but also about the existence of a Ukrainian state. The point is not in a mythical split along the East-West line. Let this pipe dream comfort Moscow political scientists and spin masters. What represents a far greater danger is activity of foreign security services on the territory of our state and lack of resistance on the government’s part. On the contrary, this activity is even being encouraged to some extent. We must not forget that the foreign troops stationed on our territory may begin to “enforce peace” at any moment, as it was done in Georgia in 2008.

If the authorities are unable to put an end to the terror of death squads, any individual has every right to use any means to protect themselves, their relatives and property. Thomas Paine wrote about this right of the people long ago in his famous pamphlet Common Sense. This right is enshrined in not only international, but also Ukrainian laws.

In the current situation, we should institutionalize the People’s Self-Defense, elect its commander, form the staff, and coordinate our actions with similar bodies in the regions. The next step should be patrolling streets in Kyiv and other cities in order to decisively suppress banditry and robbery.

Arming self-defense units and patrols is a special question. It is a last-resort measure that must be only used if death squads continue to operate. The practice of Latin American countries and other states, where such units acted one way or another, proved that these groups quickly ceased to show force as soon as they encountered armed resistance. There is no question of armed protection so far, but should the authorities lose the remnants of reason, this may become the case.

Of special importance is the spotting of squads from foreign states. Should such persons be apprehended, they must be brought to criminal justice under the Ukrainian law and never be extradited to the state they come from.

The inspirers of death squads and those who did and do resort to lawlessness must know that encroachment on the sovereignty of Ukraine and on the life and dignity of our citizens will be punished in full compliance with the law. This is the demand of elementary justice, for what people have come out on the Maidan. After all, voluntas populi suprema lex – the people’s will is the supreme law. This will has been expressed quite clearly. But is the president aware of this?






Valentyn NALYVAICHENKO, Member of Parliament, UDAR party:

“Those who are thirsting for and are doing their best to provoke a state of emergency with the help of disguised thugs must clearly know one thing. If this country’s leadership imposes a state of emergency, it will have to immediately inform the United Nations Secretary General and all the member sates of the grounds, causes, and limits of this measure in Ukraine.

“This also means that investigation will be launched under international control into all the crimes against people, including tortures and murders of peaceful activists in the Boryspil forest, disappearances of people, riot police shootings at peaceful civilians, and other offenses which cannot, under international law, be concealed or left unpunished, for they are not subject to the statute of limitations.

“It is a duty of every UN member state in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Under any circumstances, UDAR will demand that an international inquiry be held, punishment be meted out to the officials who organized repressions against Ukrainian citizens, and cases of the sponsors of the thugs and riot police, who are now terrorizing peaceful people, be referred to the Hague tribunal.

“Our streets must be immediately cleared of the disguised lawbreakers, the gangs that terrorize people, and the riot police units which are absolutely unable to solve the problem of individual safety.

“The safety of every Ukrainian is the No.1 priority for us.

“It is important to add that dismissal of the Interior Minister and punishment of those guilty of violence is only the first step. This must be followed by a more stringent control over the uniformed services by civic organizations and parliamentary committees. We must restore the key role of parliament in appointing and approving army and law-enforcement chiefs as well as judges.

“Parliament must be given a real right to hear reports of the chiefs of the uniformed services that are budget administrators.

“The latest events have confirmed again the necessity of anticorruption lustration in the law-enforcement bodies. To protect themselves, people are self-organizing, which produces the result. The people have organized their own law-enforcement groups on the Maidan. They behave decently, for they are aware of the trust of and responsibility to those who have appointed them. Accountability and responsibility of the police, as well as electability of local law enforces and creation of decent social conditions for them is a recipe for establishing viable and honest bodies that will really enforce the law in Ukraine.”


Mykola NEDILKO, lawyer:

“The government needs ‘death squads,’ above all, to liquidate its political opponents. This system was actively used during the Kuchma presidency. But while the squads were closed groups at the time and, as we see from Pukach’s testimony, were controlled by deputy ministers of the interior and were formally accountable to the minister, it is now a mass-scale phenomenon. This surely applies to special police units, but I do not know much about the Security Service and the Ministry of Defense. The squads are permitted to do all they want, and there are no laws to curb them. This is confirmed by, among other things, public trials.

“Unfortunately, I cannot say that law enforcers really enforce the law. They beat, injure, and kill civilians. Those who catch and kidnap people and then take them to the forest, where they brutalize and rape them, are not law enforcers. The paradox is that these ‘uniformed turncoats’ are to be suppressed by, above all, special units. Unmasking ‘uniformed turncoats’ is the duty of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Security Directorate and Organized Crime Control Directorate, Security Service units, and other organizations. But they are not doing this. The number of criminal cases opened against uniformed offenders is rather small. Prosecutors are just shutting their eyes, and even if they open some cases, they falsify them.

“So whenever statutory law exhausts itself and can no longer be applied, the so-called natural law – nowhere recorded or enshrined – comes into play. Incidentally, the right to revolution, uprising, and self-defense is a natural phenomenon. The preservation of one’s own life and health is a right in the blood of every individual. This God-given right cannot be canceled. This is why we have this situation on the street – people are tired of tolerating injustice.

“As for the ‘Russian factor,’ I cannot rule out the presence of Russian special units in Ukraine. Now that the country is rising up, there is a shortage of special units to suppress public discontent. For this reason, the government may be inviting such units from a neighboring country. But do you know the big problem? In Ukraine, organized crime has also joined ‘death squads.’ It is a very negative and dangerous factor. This means that law enforces, who are supposed to protect civilians, are in cahoots with organized crime. This has formed a very dangerous ‘combustible mixture’ which is very difficult to control. This forces people to employ radical methods. In a situation like this (a case of utter necessity), people have the right to resort to adequate self-defense – for example to obstruct the vehicles that carry riot policemen to Kyiv for clamping down on protests.

“There is a rotten system not only in the police, but also in the prosecution service and courts. Prosecutors do not react properly to crimes. Courts do not pass impartial sentences based on the laws, the Criminal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Constitution. There are turncoats among prosecutors and judges, too. They can also be found in the executive authorities, the oblast and district administrations. Campaigns are being held to legitimize the actions of ‘uniformed turncoats.’ ‘Death squads’ cannot act by themselves because they are perpetrators only. But there are masterminds who form these squads and give the command ‘Get’em!’ They must also be unmasked and brought to justice.

“The current situation in this country shows that the clan-and-oligarch-based system has finally exhausted itself. Evil has thrown off the mask. This applies to the entire system of government, not only to the law-enforcement bodies.”                          


Oleksii PODOLSKY, public activist:

“1. Ukrainian death squads are not only a permanent linchpin of Ukraine’s law-enforcement system, but also an important instrument for the topmost political officials to fight against their political and business opponents, which is used on a far wider scale than our society and, all the more so, the international community may know.

“2. Ukrainian presidents have inherited this closely guarded and absolutely uncontrolled mechanism – known as ‘No.7,’ ‘scouts,’ ‘pavement artists’ (police slang of different times) – from the communist nomenklatura. Fighting against Ukrainian patriots and dissident human rights activists, KPU first secretaries Khrushchev, Shelest, a Shcherbytsky would entrust the dirtiest job – provocations, violence, and murder – to police outdoor surveillance service. This occurred not only in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but also during the perestroika. It is also worthwhile to remember that these secret units of the interior ministry (not the KGB) were mostly responsible for mass-scale intimidation and humiliation of the Jewry – they used to beat up and eliminate Jewish activists and religious leaders in an attempt to keep those wishing to take part in the making of modern Israel from leaving the USSR.

“3. In the years of independence, this mechanism has seen no reforms that would make it impossible to use it for criminal purposes. Moreover, it has become more cynical and brutal, for the ideological justification of communist expediency gave way to the common rules of the underworld. (Lutsenko’s tenure also saw not a single attempt to rectify the situation.)

“4. All the Ukrainian presidents, from Kravchuk to Yanukovych, have carefully kept intact the personnel selection methods and educational traditions of this powerful entity. For example, when General Fere, the satisfier of Shcherbytsky’s criminal whims, was an old-age pensioner, he still had an office room at Presidential Administration just a few meters from Kuchma’s reception room. He even died there almost ‘in the line of duty.’ Yurii Kravchenko’s and Oleksii Pukach’s epaulets were showered with stars because both of them were his apt pupils. And now we can see the pupils and successors of Gongadze’s murderer. No reforms, no lustration – for it is so convenient for the grateful Ukrainian presidents to always have a secret executioner at hand with a team of ‘eagles’ who will dog friends, bump off rivals, and cut off a journalist’s head so it does not howl at the president’s sun. 

“5. Addressing the closed-door Pukach trial, the prosecutor used the world ‘spetsukha,’ which has meant criminal assignments from political bigwigs in the professional jargon of ‘pavement artists’ since the Stalin era. It is not necessarily something bloody – sometimes it is even trivial and funny. For example, when Lytvyn was the Presidential Administration head, he instructed outdoor surveillance generals to track down the ‘chick’ his son-in-law cheated with on his daughter. Today, Ukraine’s secret police offers VIP-class terrorist services, such as arson, frame-up, kidnapping, beating, killing, or whatever you like. Moreover, the police uniform has always guaranteed high-skilled performance, lack of evidence, and absolute impunity. There was just one ‘pratfall’ in more than 20 years – criminal cases about the murder of journalist Gongadze, the kidnapping and torture of Podolsky, and an attempt on the life of two-convocation MP Yeliashkevych. And it is not even ‘pavement artists’ who are to blame for this – what exposed the mastermind was his love of blabbing and the fact that he allowed what a more or less judicious person will not say out loud even in private to be tape-recorded.

“6. One can and must speak very much and very long about the methods of secrecy in this branch. I will give just one example: Maryniak, the driver who took me to the place of tortures, was a police operative. As the trial revealed, neither his family nor his acquaintances knew that this silent and inconspicuous guy was a genuine police major, not just a car driver. Even his mother, to say nothing of friends and neighbors, only came to know during the trial that her son was a police officer who had almost reached the occupational pension age.

“7. It is clear that police-based ‘death squads’ are used much more often now that the president has come into conflict with his own people. But the methods and a characteristic style still remain unchanged.

“8. Also unchanged is the imperial chauvinistic mentality of the members of this entity which has been nurtured for decades, was and still is the primary condition for being inducted into the ranks of secret executioners. Death squads still display, as they did yesterday, ferocious anti-Semitism and virulent hatred towards all things Ukrainian (singing the anthem during a torture, asking ‘Has Bandera helped you?’, killing you only for coming from Lviv). As for direct participation of Russian perpetrators, this is not ruled out but it still looks doubtful that the Russian side is doing this on its own. This kind of independent actions requires perfect knowledge of the ‘venue’ and the objects of hunting that occur in it.

“9. What caused mass-scale condemnation is the Berkut riot police, a thing that is on the surface, ‘eyeball to eyeball.’ But what poses not a lesser but perhaps a greater threat is secret activity, when the objective is to intimidate or eliminate leaders, journalists, and organizers, without whom the public turns into a moveable, but powerless, crowd.

“10. Even after the complete ‘reset’ of power, it will remain almost impossible to steadily disclose, condemn, and eliminate this system. Firstly, an instantaneous and, what is more, consistent lustration of the police, the prosecution, the security service, and courts, is a matter of fantasy. And the players of this system, almost all of whom have committed crimes, will hardly enthuse about having their hands cut off. Secondly, whoever succeeds Yanukovych will have a strong temptation to use a ready-made product. We know only too well that Ukraine’s opposition reserve comprises a lot of presidential candidates whose moral qualities or ideological principles in fact guarantee the secret police a field of action and impunity in exchange for high criminal ‘professionalism.’ The Gongadze case shows that all the tracks will be covered. Like it was under Yushchenko, cases will be cooked up, witness, such as Kravchenko, will be killing themselves with two shots in the head, corners will be cut, and evidence will be destroyed in any way (in the Gongadze case, when the system reached a deadlock, even the Constitutional Court of Ukraine was involved in this ‘work’: it withdrew the Melnychenko tapes, the main proof that Leonid Kuchma ordered the crime, from the case).

“11. The only way to solve the problem is one of international investigation and criminal prosecution, which the Hague Tribunal embodies. For the crimes systematically committed by the Ukrainian law-enforcement system and courts can and must be classified as crimes against humanity and, hence, are subject to international justice.

“12. As there is no alternative to this way, there is no need to procrastinate and wait for the change of political power. There are no obstacles for the Ukrainian community to begin to bring to criminal justice those who are using Berkut and ‘pavement artists’ as an instrument of struggle. It would be also a mistake to ‘forgive’ Kuchma’s ‘exploits.’ It is this civic initiative coupled with international justice that can eliminate the criminal mechanisms and institutions of Ukraine’s law-enforcement system that we inherited from communist totalitarianism. Similarly, on the basis of international processes, Germany was recovering from Nazism and then Yugoslavia from communism. The Ukrainian experience of purification is bound to be followed by both Belarus and Russia.”


Anton PRYMUSHKO, member, Union of Afghan War Veterans; Self-Defense of the Maidan:

“The media very often say that the police, including Berkut, are obeying ‘criminal orders,’ but it is only the army that must obey orders as such, for it is envisaged in its regulations. Failure to carry out orders is punishable by courts-martial and other institutions. But the law-enforcement bodies – be it the security forces, the Berkut riot police, or ordinary police – are only to obey the law, they do not have any orders. They are really carrying out criminal orders, which is absolutely wrong because they are to be guided by the law. For example, any policeman on the beat knows (and this is noted in the law) that he must not beat with a rubber baton on the head, genitals, etc. There is a special formula for the rubber baton, known as collar bone-knee. What they are doing now is outlawed.

“It once happened to me – sort of a military humor – that when I came into a medical ward, I was told: ‘Your face shows you are a military person.’ There were some grapeshot and bullet marks on the head. Although the people were unarmed, the riot police began to throw retarded-action stun grenades at the people so that they exploded at a shoulder level. In the Hrushevsky St. turmoil, a girl was frightened and lost her bearings. I put her behind my back and began to lead her out of that place. I counted four shots into my back, though I had neither a stick nor any other weapon. From the very beginning, Afghan war veterans decided not to represent any party – our goal was to protect the protesters and the police from bloodshed. When a riot policeman saw that I had a bulletproof vest on, he raised the barrel and began to shoot me in the head.

“When the riot police assaulted people on Hrushevsky St., pressing them to retreat towards the Maidan, they burst into a first-aid station with a huge red cross on the door, threw grenades, and began to shoot the escaping medics in the back. The same applies to the Cossack you’ve heard about. Is this the way a law enforcer should act? In my view, a law enforcer must arrest, put handcuffs on, or even hit with a baton a person who is offering resistance, take him to a police station, have a report drawn up, call in an investigator, have a criminal or administrative case opened, and take the culprit to a court. But what they are doing is arbitrary rule.

“After all that is going on here – I don’t know whether it is a revolution or public outrage and anger, – there must be a trial, like the one in Nuremberg, so that law enforcers understand what punishment they deserve for their actions.

“We, Afghan war veterans, were repeatedly saying that we know what bloodshed is and we oppose it. There are some people among us who have seen two, three, or four wars, and they know that the use of weapons will not be confined to Hrushevsky Street only – weapons may spread all over Kyiv, and gangs of looters will immediately start pogroms. I led a group of 17 in Afghanistan and a similar unit in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and in one more local conflict. Our opinion is that if, God forbid, those on the other side of the barricades choose to use firearms they will see what combat experience is. Naturally, the conflict must not be allowed to reach this level.”          

By Ivan Kapsamun