DONETSK, Ukraine—It is a freezing day in rebel-controlled Donetsk in eastern Ukraine but the cold does not stop two police officers on patrol. Neither does the sound of shelling that is strong enough and close enough at one point to shake the ground.
What does grab the cops’ attention is a man walking on the street with a black shopping bag.
They ask for his documents and inspect the bag. He pulls out photocopies of his passport and one officer opens up the man’s coat to make sure he’s not hiding something. The officers see he’s got nothing in his coat and nothing in his bag but building supplies. They send him on his way.
What was it that raised suspicions?
“In his bag there’s something heavy and medium length; it can be anything,” says Officer Vladimir Bershin of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic city police patrol. “Our business is to check that bag, along with his identity. This is for everyone’s safety.”
A United Nations report last month stated that in the rebel-controlled areas of the Donetsk region and in the neighboring eastern region of Luhansk, “there continues to be a total breakdown in law and order”—these cops are out to show that isn’t true—“and a lack of any human-rights protection for the population under their control.” That, clearly, is the case.
Bershin, who worked with the Ukrainian police before rebels took control of Donetsk, says officers have to be extra vigilant. This is, after all, a combat zone. Artem Malakhov, who is a commander with what he described as the SWAT team for Donetsk, says there is no place for due process during a time of war.
Malakhov’s team is well-equipped. In front of its offices in Donetsk, there is an armored military vehicle. In the back, there are three more AMVs. In one building used for storage and downtime, 11 rifles are lined up against one wall while men play ping pong and surf the Internet nearby.
Malakhov says there are criminals who have joined the rebel ranks and are exerting influence with their new positions. He says he wants to weed them out. How he plans to do that is unclear.
Anyone in Donetsk can be stopped for seemingly whatever reason law enforcement deems appropriate—although “looking suspicious” commonly is taken as probable cause. “Let’s say that the person sees a police car,” Malakhov tells me, “that person starts to try to turn away, this person might be aware of something.” Something suspicious, that is.
The lawless law enforcement in eastern Ukraine exists somewhere between Soviet rule and vigilante justice.
One of the most high-profile examples of detention during the conflict was that of Irina Dovgan. She was detained after rebels found photos on her tablet computer showing supplies she gave to Ukrainian fighters.
A photo of her appeared in The New York Times standing outside in Donetsk wearing a Ukrainian flag while holding a sign saying she killed children. Pedestrians could slap her and spit on her.
The Geneva Conventions prohibit “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” of civilians.
Dovgan told The Daily Beast there were absolutely no rights for her when she was detained.
She said that during her ordeal men watched her urinate, although she believed that might have been to make sure she would not commit suicide. A high-level rebel commander eventually ordered her released after he learned about her treatment from journalists.
The most challenging part of the experience was thinking she would not be able to give her daughter advice about life, and that her husband would become a widower.
“I was not sorry for myself, I was ready for it.”
Dovgan is only one of many cases of unlawful detention, according to Human Rights Watch Senior Research Tanya Lokshina.
She said that everyone she has talked to who was detained was beaten. The reasons for detention ranged from suspected spying to having an open beer bottle in public. They would be given sentences without any legal representation or court hearing and punishment could include dangerous work such as guarding a checkpoint.
“An individual would have no access to a lawyer, he would have no access to any justice system. Nothing at all,” said Lokshina.
In Luhansk, a video uploaded on YouTube seems to show a sort of “people’s court” where a crowd votes for a man accused of rape to receive the death penalty.
In Donetsk, there is at least the appearance of some sort of formalized legal process.
According to the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic city police patrol, Nikolai Ivanenko, the cops are following laws—those of the criminal code of the Soviet Union.
He said officers no longer arrest people for merely having an open beer bottle but instead ask them to leave the alcohol behind. He said another code dealing with the administration of law enforcement will be coming into force.
Perhaps. But according to Lokshina, people who are detained do not know if or when they will get a lawyer as they wait for the rebels to create a code of criminal procedure. She agrees that regular policing is needed in the region, but, she asks, “How could you possibly detain people if you cannot guarantee them their right to defense and their right to fair trial?”
For Dovgan, there was no question of waiting around for a system that would protect human and civil rights. She fled to Kiev, where she now supports herself by providing at-home beauty treatments. Her house in Donetsk, she says, has been taken over by rebels and her family is now all but homeless.
But it is the lasting emotional scars that have been the hardest to deal with.
“I’m a completely different person, I always have to control myself…” she pauses. “I can start yelling at people, or suddenly cry.”