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DONETSK, Ukraine — Thousands of detainees and prisoners across eastern Ukraine are in legal limbo, caught between Kiev, which has been unable to move them out of rebel-held territory, and the rebel government, which has yet to set up a functioning judicial system.
Nikolai, 36, is one of them. Standing in the parking lot of Donetsk’s pretrial detention center, his father, Anatoly, said his son was arrested by the Ukrainian government in May and accused of drug dealing. He said Nikolai is still awaiting trial under the pro-Russian rebel government of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic well past Ukraine’s pretrial detention limit of two months.
But with no court system in the separatist territory, Nikolai and his roughly 1,500 fellow inmates at this detention center are stuck with an ambiguous legal status.
“He’s basically stateless in there,” said Anatoly, 62, who declined to give his or his son’s last name because he feared reprisals from both Ukraine and the rebels. “I know my son is probably 80 percent guilty. But he still deserves some kind of fair trial.”
According to a statement from the Donetsk People’s Republic’s Ministry of Interior, which was set up in July, the government has a Supreme Court and is developing a court system, with a set of criminal codes and a process for registering lawyers to practice in the rebels’ legal system. But until it is established, there will be no trials and no lawyers, and prisoners like Nikolai will have to continue to wait, the ministry said.
As the relentless conflict in eastern Ukraine drags into its eleventh month, the fates of prisoners there are just one of the many unknowns. Before the conflict, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions had about 25 percent of Ukraine’s prison population of 8,000 to 13,000, according to Andrei Didenko, a researcher with the Kharkiv Human Rights Group who has been studying Ukraine’s penal systems for a decade.
Kiev has pledged to transfer the prisoners to government-controlled territory, but the war has made that logistically difficult. Intense fighting picked up again recently in eastern Ukraine. In the last 10 days, two civilian buses have been struck by heavy artillery in two attacks. More than 20 people were killed in those incidents, and the tenuous Sept. 5 cease-fire has completely broken down. Peace talks have stalled, and Kiev has accused Russia of sending as many as 9,000 troops to back up the separatist fighters — an allegation Moscow denies. The crisis appears to be slipping deeper into chaos.
During the last several months, Ukraine and the rebels have conducted exchanges of hundreds of prisoners of war taken by both sides, as part of a peace plan negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, in September. But civilian prisoners like Nikolai don't fall under that agreement.
Human rights observers say the living conditions of Ukrainian prisoners are deplorable. “Some colonies were badly damaged after shelling, and there’s a critical situation with heating and food supplies there,” said Didenko. On Aug. 20, artillery shells hit a prison in Makiivka, east of Donetsk, killing two inmates and injuring six others, according to a United Nations report.
In some instances, prisoners have escaped when fighting created an opportunity to do so. Many joined the rebel forces. On Aug. 11, more than 100 prisoners escaped from a high-security prison in Donetsk after rockets hit the facility.
Like many prison systems across the former Soviet Union, Ukraine’s facilities are rife with tuberculosis and HIV. Before the conflict, 20 percent of the prison population in eastern Ukraine was infected with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, according to Sandrine Tiller of Doctors Without Borders, which has been providing medical assistance and supplies to Ukraine’s penal system since 2009.
“The fear is now that supplies of medicine will not be able to get into the rebel-held territories” and infection rates could spread, she said.
One prison outside the eastern city of Yenakievo, where some 450 prisoners are serving life terms for violent crimes such as murder, is on the front line of the conflict. The prison, No. 52, is in an area that has been shelled heavily as both sides fight for control over nearby Debaltseve, which is at an important highway junction.
In September the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that the prison had not received food and medical supplies for two months, “leaving 450 prisoners at the point of starvation.”
“We’re receiving bad news from there, especially about medical supplies for HIV/AIDS patients, and we have information that at least two prisoners have died because they didn’t receive antiretroviral medicine,” Didenko said.
For now at least, Anatoly and other relatives of prisoners at Donetsk’s pretrial detention center are able to take food to their loved ones during special drop-off hours. At those times, dozens of wives, mothers, friends and other family members arrive carrying plastic bags of food and extra clothes for inmates. Occasionally, people sneak in cellphones so inmates can call home.
Like many of the estimated 3.5 million people still living in the rebel-held territory, Anatoly, who worked at a steel cable factory, hasn’t received a paycheck since May, and Ukraine cut off his pension in December. International organizations are warning that without more food and medical aid, eastern Ukraine could see a serious humanitarian crisis.
Money and food are short, but Anatoly said he would continue to make weekly visits as long as he has food to share.
Much of the region’s population, including Anatoly and his son, initially supported the pro-Russian rebels, who took over government buildings across Donetsk and Luhansk in April 2014 and declared their independence from Ukraine. But the war that erupted has left more than 4,800 dead and forced an estimated 1 million people to flee the region.
“If we’re not economically linked to Russia, we were doomed either way — if we stayed with western Ukraine on its way to Europe or if we tried to be on our own,” Anatoly said. “We all went out there and were prepared to fight for our independence. But we never thought it would be like this. No one was prepared for war. We thought they’d just let us go.”
“I guess we have to be patient. Building a new country takes time. But to be honest, I’m not very optimistic,” he said.