KIEV — When the the Ukrainian Security Service, the SBU, announced recently that it had detained a 25-year-old French citizen, Grégoire Moutaux, who was trying to cross the country’s border into Poland in a vehicle full of explosives and weapons, that sounded like a major blow against terrorism.
SBU spokesman Vasyl Hrytsak declared that after two weeks of investigation, which is to say of interrogation, “The Ukrainian Security Service managed to prevent 15 terrorist attacks targeting the territory of France.”
According to the SBU this alleged French criminal attempted to smuggle five Kalashnikov assault rifles, more than 50,000 bullets, two RPG-7 anti-tank grenade-launchers, 100 electronic detonators, and 125 kilograms of TNT across Ukraine’s frontier.
Perhaps. But in Kiev, the announcement was greeted with deep skepticism. Neither local journalists nor independent observers place much trust in SBU reports these days, and with good reason.
The timing of Hrystak’s Monday press conference was suspect, coming as it did in the midst of scandals discrediting the SBU. Many noted that the spy organization announced the news about its successful operation against Moutaux right after the United Nations condemned it for running secret prisons and torturing prisoners. “It all sounded like a public relations gambit,” television anchor Katerina Sakirianska told The Daily Beast.
“Unfortunately, when both Ukraine and Europe are endangered by terrorism and need professional security services more than ever, there is not much confidence in what the SBU tells us,” independent journalist Saken Aymurzaev told The Daily Beast.
Putting aside for a moment the moral and legal issues, confessions extracted with torture are notoriously unreliable, and whatever the truth of Moutaux’s case, there’s little question the country has become a thriving arms bazaar for just about anyone with money to buy right in the back yard of Europe.
The ideological and ethnic conflict that has torn Ukraine apart over the last two hears has attracted radical nationalists from different countries, some of them involved in weapon smuggling. Among these, notably, were a few French volunteers, ideological supporters of pro-Russian forces who were fighting in eastern Ukraine two years ago.
Poland had to increase security measures last year to try to prevent criminals attempting to transport weapons from Ukraine into its territory. If in 2013 Polish police seized only three firearms smuggled from Ukraine, last year law enforcement arrested smugglers with 53 guns, and there are many, many more where those came from.
“There are over 200,000 people involved in anti-terrorist [anti-rebel] operations in Ukraine; if 10 percent of the militia sold weapons or committed some crime, that would be 20,000 incidents,” Kiev-based Belarusian journalist and dissident Pavel Sheremet told The Daily Beast.
News reports of law enforcement officials discovering underground arsenals have grown commonplace. Former volunteer militia and regular military often smuggle weapons from the war-torn Donbas region to Kiev.
Last week police discovered a big underground arsenal of hand grenades, guns, explosives, and other weapons in a garage on the outskirts of Kiev. “Most probably these weapons were brought to Kiev from the zone of anti-terrorist operations,” the head of Kiev National police Andriy Krischenko suggested on Saturday.
In July 2014 The Daily Beast interviewed Ukrainian volunteers in eastern Ukraine about the prices for Kalashnikov. At the time one Kalashnikov could be purchased in the combat zone for less than $500 and sold in Kiev for more than $2,000. But not many in eastern Ukraine would dare to report to the SBU about military violations, since people are afraid to end up in one of the secret detention centers.
Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that SBU officers systematically break Ukrainian law. "Legally, SBU is not even supposed to have detention facilities and torturing detainees is prohibited by both domestic and international law," says Tatyana Lokshina, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There is evidence that interrogators hang up their victims and torture them by beating them with sticks or giving them electric shocks.”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently sent a joint request to the SBU asking “about concrete facilities, concrete victims,” as Lokshina told The Daily Beast.
International observers became especially suspicious in May when the SBU did not allow a UN delegation concerned with tortured to have access to particular sites the observers wanted to visit. The delegation chief, Malcolm Evans, said that the team was prevented from visiting “some places where we have heard numerous and serious allegations that people have been detained and where torture or ill-treatment may have occurred.”
At the press conference SBU spokesman Hrystak compared journalists to priests: “Pastors use the Bible and gospel for preaching and journalists use information, which could be served in different ways,” Hrytsak said, apparently trying to build a bridge of trust to the press. But it’s doubtful that will get far.
“All we hear lately is that the SBU is involved in scandals that discredit it,” independent reporter Saken Aymurzaev explained.
Last week UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said that the SBU massively detained and tortured supporters of the militia of the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine shows entrenched “disregard for human rights.”
One more scandal earlier this month involved the first deputy head of the SBU, Victor Trepak, a close ally of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko. He resigned after leaking materials about so-called black accounting to Ukrainian newspapers.
Last month a website affiliated with SBU leaked a list of names and private information of all journalists covering the conflict in the Donetsk region. Some law enforcement officials blamed reporters for covering both sides of the front lines. But to investigate crimes against humanity, including illegal smuggling of weapons, reporters had to cover both east and west of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Security Service have been criticized for incompetence and for violating people’s rights for many years.
“Today Ukraine needs professional security services to control the militia who trade Kalashnikovs, hand grenades, RPGS, explosive devices, and TNT that they get out of land mines, a countless number that nobody counts,” says Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer now operating out of Moscow as a security consultant.