As long as there is any hope at all, we should look for missing persons

August 30 is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. We talk to Tamila Bespala, the head of the KHPG Kharkiv reception office, about how to correspond with the Russian Federation' s Investigative Committee and search for disappeared Ukrainians in Russian telegram channels.
Iryna Skachko27 October 2023UA DE EN ES FR IT RU

© Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock © Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock © Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock

© Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock

The database compiled by the global human rights initiative Tribunal for Putin (T4R) now has registered more than 4,150 missing civilians. 2,951 cases involving 93 children can be classified as enforced disappearance. According to the Ombudsman’s office, the total number of Ukrainians missing under special circumstances or illegally deprived of personal freedom due to the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine is much higher: Twenty-five thousand people, including both military and civilians.

— There are a lot of appeals, — says the head of KHPG Kharkiv reception office, lawyer Tamila Bespala. — KHPG lawyers are handling more than 200 such cases. It’s only been a couple of days since the liberation of Robotyne village in the Zaporizhzhia region, and four people from there have already applied to us. Their relatives are missing. That is why our organization is working on creating a hotline, which could be used by those looking for their relatives. We plan to work without weekends.

— A person comes to us claiming that someone close to him has disappeared; it doesn’t matter whether it is a civilian or a military person. We take his statement and all documents confirming kinship. And then we send requests everywhere: to Ukraine, the so-called LNR and DNR, Crimea, and the Russian Federation.

— KHPG lawyers apply everywhere, right? Is this a principled position?

— Yes, we are looking everywhere: in Crimea, the so-called LNR and DNR, and the Russian Federation. The standard number of requests per person is about fifty. Of these requests, only about ten are sent to Ukraine. We necessarily write applications to the RF Investigative Committee, to the RF Prosecutor’s Office, both civil and military, to the Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments, to the Commissioner for Human Rights, to the Ministry of Defense, to the Russian Red Cross. And we write to the same bodies in the self-proclaimed quasi-state entities in the occupied territory. We constantly and directly send requests. And more than once to keep the situation under control. There are situations when Russians send different answers about the same person: first, they say: “We do not have such a person.” Then they say, “We do have.” Then they say, “We don’t have.” And these are responses from the same body.

In addition, we appeal to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. If no more than three months have passed since we became aware of the disappearance, an accelerated mechanism starts to work: the case is considered within six months. Otherwise, a year. There is an important point: we count three months not from the date of actual disappearance but from the day it became known. If we have even the slightest confirmation that the person we seek was tortured, we turn to the UN Human Rights Committee.

— How do we know that a person was tortured if they have disappeared?

— From people held with the missing person in some dungeons in the occupied territory and then released. Or from people who came back from Russia by exchange. We’re always looking for witnesses.

— All right, the UN found out about the missing person. What can they do?

— When a UN working group receives a missing person report, it makes inquiries both to the complainants (i.e., us) and to the Russian authorities. Communication begins. Russia responds. They recently sent a page-and-a-half response! By the way, in their responses, the Russian Federation accuses us of a “desire to receive profit and Russophobic policy.” After all, those who file an appeal about missing persons are entitled to compensation from Russia as soon as a violation of humanitarian law is established. For example, they had no right to detain civilians at all...

The mandate of the UN Working Group is to help the missing person’s relatives establish his fate and whereabouts. The exact place where the person is being held must be known. When we get the answer that the person is somewhere on the Russian Federation’s territory, which happens quite often, it violates international humanitarian law. We need to know where the person is being held and in what particular colony or institution. After our appeals, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross are engaged in a case. They can visit the colony and captured people can send letters or make phone calls through them. If representatives of an international organization have already contacted a person, if some information about their whereabouts comes from Russia at all, this already increases the chances that the person will survive.

Таміла Беспала, фото з фейсбук-сторінки Тамила Беспалая, фото со страницы в Фейсбуке

Tamila Bespala, Photo from Facebook page.

— So, every person should be sought out as actively as possible?

— My position is yes. Those returning from captivity themselves say writing to all authorities and searching is necessary. Previously, I used to lie awake at night, afraid that by making inquiries to all international and Russian bodies, I could harm these people, who would then be beaten or experience some harm. Now I see that it has to be done.

— Should the relatives of the missing turn to the media and publicize the search?

If we are talking about the military, definitely not. Our military in captivity may not tell their rank, for example. They may pretend to be someone else. And if you put their photo with all the data on it, that person will surely be punished. But when it comes to civilians, publicity is necessary. It should be understood that under international law, Ukrainian civilians should not be held in Russian captivity at all.

— So, if a loved one is missing, what to do?

— Contact us. The algorithm of necessary actions depends on many factors. Is the missing person military or a civilian? When did they disappear, and under what circumstances? Using any of our messengers, it is necessary to send a photo of the missing person, their documents, and documents of the applying relative. For the military, you need to provide certificates from the military unit. If these are already received, an extract from the missing persons register can be forwarded. If the family has already applied to some bodies, you should bring the answers received. Usually, relatives themselves are looking for some information about the missing person on the Internet; the information found should also be passed on to our lawyers. As well as the names and contacts of witnesses to the person being hijacked or taken prisoner.

— Are KHPG lawyers also looking for information about missing persons on the Russian segment of the Internet?

— Now we have a person specially dealing with this. In the past, we used to look for such information ourselves and involve relatives. There are thousands of Russian publics in Telegram. “Recognize a Khokhol by his chub”, for example (Khokhol is a derogative name of Ukrainians, and chub is a traditional Ukrainian hairstyle — ed.)... There’s a lot of such stuff. We found them. We studied the photos of prisoners that the Russians put up. It was tough.

— Do missing persons’ families have the right to the state benefits?

— Yes, but for this, you need to collect a particular package of documents. Our lawyers are ready to help relatives of prisoners and missing persons get the benefits due to them from the state. In addition, KHPG provides such families with monetary and social-legal assistance and consultations on any legal issues.

— Does KHPG have any positive stories of finding and returning missing persons?

— Yes, there were several such cases last year. Military personnel have been returned. But bringing back a military man from captivity is easier than a civilian. There is a special mechanism. Unfortunately, there is no such mechanism for civilians.

— In the experience of the KHPG, are missing persons more likely to be found dead or in captivity?

— Definitely, most of them are captives. In general, I believe we should search as long as there is no body or forensics. There is a war now and a lot of confusion, both on our and the Russian sides. It even happens that a body is found, relatives bury it, and then it turns out that the person is alive in captivity. This has happened in our practice more than once.

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