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More Action Needed against Enforced Disappearances

24 September 2014

Update October 8: Human Rights Watch has published a report about enforced disappearances in Crimea. At least seven people have been forcibly disappeared or gone missing since May 2014, including two on September 27. The body of one of these persons was found hanged on October 6. Human Rights Watch calls for a promptly and thoroughly investigation of these cases.

For more information, see the website of Human Rights Watch.

At this year’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee co-organized a side event on enforced disappearances in the OSCE region. The event was initiated by the delegations to the OSCE of the European Union and Norway and had the support of Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina and Moldova.

The side event was a reminder that enforced disappearances are not a phenomenon of the past: they still happen today and relatives are also still waiting for the solution of unresolved cases from the past. Panel members Andriy Shekun from Ukraine (Crimea) and Tatyana Shikmuradova from Turkmenistan spoke about their personal experience with enforced disappearance. Participants from Ukraine and Belarus gave further statements from the floor. Manfred Nowak, Childerik Schaapveld and Snjezana Bukolic spoke from a UN, Council of Europe and OSCE perspective, respectively. Since the Helsinki process started, enforced disappearances have taken place on a large scale in violent conflicts in eastern Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and in the northern Caucasus. The practice is also used by strongly authoritarian regimes to intimidate opponents or perceived opponents; in such cases independent journalists, members of the political opposition and civil society activists are the main target.

Currently only 14 out of 57 OSCE participating states have ratified the United Nations International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. This treaty’s ratification should receive much higher priority, the speakers said. At this moment, no OSCE commitments specifically mention enforced disappearances. The NGO coalition Civic Solidarity Platform, active in the OSCE region, called for greater attention for enforced disappearances in a statement issued earlier this year.

Manfred Nowak emphasized it is important to realize that the human rights violation of enforced disappearances is not only a crime against the victim itself, but tha family and friends of the victims of enforced disappearances deeply suffer from the sudden disappearance of their beloved ones as well. Enforced disappearances often go hand in hand with violence and humiliation.

Andriy Shekun was one of the victims of enforced disappearance and torture in the Crimea in early 2014. He was one the civil activists supporting the EuroMaidan movement and he held several peaceful protests in the Crimea early in 2014. In the beginning of March, Mr Shekun was arrested without any explanation by pro-Russian armed men and was taken away from his wife and two children. Shekun described the horrible things that happened to him during his kidnapping. He told the audience that his kidnappers forced him to take his clothes off, shot at him with air guns, beat him, attached painful electrodes to his body and threatened to cut off his ears because he was wearing a Ukrainian Orthodox cross. After his release, he found out that he was accused of planning and committing terrorist activities in the Crimea. According to Shekun, people from the Maidan organization are still missing and neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian government is willing to provide any information to their families and friends. Mr Shekun stated he does not understand why the Ukrainian government is so unwilling to provide any information.

Mrs Rybak, from Horlivka in eastern Ukraine, shared the heartbreaking story of her husband, a local councilor who was tortured to death after being kidnapped by ‘separatist’ forces. She said the international community should pressure the Ukrainian government to start an investigation into the missing people. In negotiations between the two sides about ceasefires in eastern Ukraine, the fate of people abducted or otherwise taken prisoner should receive the highest priority.

Another very strong and emotional testimony came from Tatyana Shikmuradova. She is the wife of the former Turkmen Minister of Foreign affairs Boris Shikmuradov. In 2002, the Turkmen government accused her husband of illegal arms trading. There were some – according to his wife, unfounded – rumors that he wished to succeed president Niyazov. Shikmuradov was sentenced life imprisonment. For the last 12 years, the Turkmen government has not provided Shikmuradova with any information about her husband. She does not even know if he is alive, since sheA has not had any contact with her husband since 2002. She sent several letters to the Turkmen government but these remained unanswered. Shikmuradova stated that it is important to realize that as long as the international community remains quiet, the Turkmen government will continue its practices. “These crimes are not something of the past, they are still committed today”, she said. The international campaign Prove They Are Alive was started to demand information on the situation of those who disappeared into Turkmenistan’s prisons.