Ukrainian police criticized for brutal anti-protester practices
Riot police forces stand guard in front of a barricade held by anti-government protesters in Kiev, on Feb. 13, 2014 [AFP]

An elderly retiree accused of fomenting riots in Ukraine, a disabled man injured by rubber bullets, a father arrested for carrying tyres in his car, disappearances, deaths...

Three weeks after clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in Kiev turned deadly, police are facing increasing pressure over allegations they mistreated and wrongly accused dozens of protesters.

"I was near a barricade when they (riot police) fired rubber bullets. I received one in the head and three in the stomach," says Ivan Kholod, who is being treated in an austere and labyrinthian hospital in the Ukrainian capital.

"Then at one moment they charged. I couldn't run fast, so they caught me", he adds, speaking with difficulty -- one of the effects of a stroke suffered 10 years ago.

The 54-year-old, who stands unsteadily in a six-bed room he shares with others, says he has been charged with organising mass unrest -- a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

He is one of over a dozen being treated in this hospital for wounds sustained in the January 19-24 clashes that left several dead -- a turning point in a protest movement that has rocked the country since November.

- Dumped in woods -

Rights groups have long denounced police brutality in Ukraine but say the problem has worsened since November, when Ukrainians rose up in anger at their leader's shift away from the European Union in favour of neighbour Russia.

Since then, they have occupied Kiev's central Independence Square and staged regular protests, winning some concessions from President Viktor Yanukovych but pressing on, keen to see a leader they regard as corrupt step down.

According to Gennady Moskal, a pro-opposition lawmaker and former deputy interior minister, around 1,000 protesters were hurt in the January unrest by Ukraine's feared Berkut riot police and other security forces, which he accuses of firing rubber bullets at people's heads, eyes and chests.

They were also hurt by "grenades and metal pieces, tear gas and burns from Molotov cocktails thrown by the Berkut", says the lawmaker, who has demanded an investigation into police brutality.

"It was an illegal act by the authorities to try to punish them so harshly," he said.

Euromaidan SOS, an NGO set up since protests began to monitor human rights abuses, says some 60 people are in detention or under house arrest.

"Some legal procedures are staggering -- one father driving his van, in which his one- and three-year-olds were too, was arrested because a dozen tyres were discovered in the vehicle," says Alissa Novitchkova, a member of the NGO.

"He's been in detention for several days and risks 15 years in prison for mass unrest."

Even more worrying are the disappearances.

According to Novitchkova, there are five known cases of kidnaps, including one death.

Several protesters were beaten up by unknown assailants and dumped in woods outside Kiev. Some survived and got away but Yuriy Verbytsky was not so lucky. Badly hurt, he was unable to escape and is thought to have died of hypothermia.

The issue of disappearances gained international prominence when activist Dmytro Bulatov went missing for over a week after the January clashes, emerging with horrific facial injuries after being tortured by his captors. He is now being treated in Lithuania.

The interior ministry was even forced to apologise after footage published on YouTube showed a protester being stripped, humiliated and beaten by security forces.

Amnesty International has launched a global campaign to pressure Ukraine to "take decisive action to demonstrate that arbitrary and abusive use of force and other human rights violations will not be tolerated."

It will use petitions, public actions and lobbying to pressure authorities.

Yanukovych approved an amnesty law after the January unrest, which stipulates that all those detained will be set free.

This, however, is conditional on official buildings currently occupied by protesters being vacated -- by Saturday.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]