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Berkut quick response unit

Ukraine has several special police forces, including the Security Service and the Berkut [Eagle] riot police. The Berkut force was created in 1988, just three years before the Soviet Union fell. Independent Ukraine kept the force ostensibly as riot police, but it became something else, in part because it answered to senior Interior Ministry officials, rather than police commanders.

The Constitution prohibits torture, but there have been numerous reports of torture and ill-treatment of suspects in police custody and prisons throughout Ukraine, in contravention of its commitments as a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Police and prison officials regularly beat detainees and prisoners, and there have been persistent reports that Berkut (special militia units or riot police) troops beat and torture inmates as part of regular training exercises. Two forms of torture reported are the "swallow" method, whereby the detainee is placed on his stomach and his feet are tied to his hands behind him, forcing his back to arch, and the "baby elephant" method, whereby a gas mask is placed on the victim's head and the flow of oxygen is slowly reduced. Another form of torture employed is called the "monument" method, whereby the detainee is suspended from his hands on a rope and beaten.

On 24 May 2007, President Yushchenko fired Prosecutor General Piskun, whom the President had strongly criticized two days earlier for not actively investigating the Constitutional Court and the Central Election Comission. After refusing to leave his office in the morning, Piskun left and then returned with a group of coalition MPs. After not being allowed back into the office, approximately 10 Berkut elite policemen appeared and tried to break the door down, according to press reports. Other reports suggested Presidential Secret Service personnel had earlier deployed to the PGO building. (Note. This is the first time security personnel had come to the aid of one side or the other in the political crisis.

After Yushchenko issued a 25 May 2007 decree subordinating the Interior Troops to him rather than Interior Minister Tsushko, regional branches reacted in different ways. Interior troops based in Dnipropetrovsk and Zhytomyr started moving towards Kyiv, apparently on General Kikhtenko's instruction, before being stopped by road blockades set up by the road police (DAI), which are under MOI authority, and Regions MPs. Those in Regions-leaning Kharkhiv and Crimea, however, announced they would continue to respect Tsushko's authority. None of these forces ever actually entered Kyiv. It was Tsushko's intervention with Berkut riot police at the GPO May 24 which led to the first known scuffle between armed security forces in Ukraine's 16-year history, a sobering precedent which helped set the stage for the all-night negotiations leading to the May 27 deal. After all night discussions, President Yushchenko, PM Yanukovych, and Rada Speaker Moroz emerged after 4 a.m. May 27 to issue a seven-point joint statement that set early elections for September 30 and aimed to resolve the ongoing political crisis.

Tsushko flew to Germany late May 31, officially for medical treatment, amidst confusion about whether he had suffered a heart attack, been poisoned, or was using his "illness" to avoid arrest or other legal fallout from the use of MOI BERKUT riot police to break into the Prosecutor General's Office and spark a security standoff with State Protection Service on May 24.

Anti-government protests, often violent, which started in November 2013 when the country suspended the signing of an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. After weeks of protests and intermittent clashes between demonstrators and police in Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine, by Feburary 2014 the country's police and security forces were stretched thin. It remained to be seen whether or not President Viktor Yanukovych could continue to count on their loyalty.

Berkut forces were dispatched to forcibly break up tent dwellings within days of the protests starting in Kiev’s central Independence Square, a tactical miscalculation that added impetus to the demonstrations. Later, the feared police were frequently used as a frontline defense against radical protesters seeking to march on government buildings and came under much criticism for alleged excessive use of force towards demonstrators. Their supporters have argued, however, that police had no choice but to adopt heavy-handed measures in facing off against rioters armed with sticks, shields, bricks, Molotov cocktails and, reportedly in some cases, lethal firearms.

Berkut riot police used batons and other forms of physical force on November 30to clear protesters from Kyiv’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezhalezhnosti) who had peacefully assembled to express dissatisfaction with thegovernment. On December 1, an estimated 500,000 people joined demonstrations in Kyiv’s city center in solidarity with the protesters. At year’s end the“EuroMaidan” civic movement continued to occupy Independence Square and several adjacent streets.

Reports that pro-European protesters in Western Ukraine met only mild resistance when they occupied government buildings in 10 regions - raised questions about the possibility of splits in the country's law-enforcement and security services. If police begin refusing to obey the government's orders - or if some line up with the demonstrators - it would be a potentially decisive development in the ongoing standoff between President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition demonstrators.

Mayhem descended on Kyiv 22 January 2014, not far from the city’s Independence Square, after Ukraine’s riot police tried to clear barricades and disperse protesters following the enactment of new laws imposing harsh penalties on unauthorized demonstrations and restricting freedom of assembly and speech. The Ukraine protests claimed their first fatalities. Violence erupted when Ukrainian riot police sought to clear protesters and barricades from Hrushevsky Street in downtown Kyiv. President Viktor Yanukovych met with opposition leaders today in an effort to stem the anti-government protests after two demonstrators were killed, reportedly as a result of gunshot wounds.

The thousands of Berkut specialized crowd-control officers and Interior Ministry troops responded to orders - pushing back protesters, dismantling barricades, and using non-lethal force as instructed. The Berkut, Ukraine's elite riot police, are almost a separate caste of people, selected and trained to emphasize obedience. These are very different people. On the whole they are recruited from ex-military, especially paratroopers and such like. They have a very macho and actually quite insular culture. Although they haven't always been used effectively, in the main these are tough, professional, well-trained - if not particularly humane or subtle - elements.

Berkut officers, generally lived and worked in their communities and it was a real possibility that officers could end up sympathizing with those on the other sides of the barricades. There is always that possibility, particularly outside of Kyiv. Going westward, the people in Berkut are going to be west Ukrainians, they may well see their relatives or their friends or people they were at school with in the crowds and also, they are more likely to, even if they are willing agents of the current regime, they nonetheless emotionally have ties with the sort of strand of opinion that says Ukraine should be part of Europe, that Ukraine should not be a Russian satrapy.

In such situations, including the 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, one shouldn't expect open defections but rather an unwillingness to get involved. If an officer in charge of a Berkut regiment in Lviv in western Ukraine could see that there were real signs that the tide was turning against the government, the question would arise of whether he really wanted to be on trial in a few months' time after the regime had fallen for your actions. The result would not necessarily be defections, but just simply an unwillingness to get involved.

Clashes erupted 18 February 2014, with reasons unclear: 18 were left dead, including seven police, and hundreds more wounded. Some 25,000 protesters were encircled in Independence Square. Ukraine’s Interior Minister confirmed 20 February 2014 that he had signed a decree to issue service firearms to police officers and authorized the use of live ammunition. On 20 February Kiev saw its worst day of violence for almost 70 years. At least 88 people were killed in 48 hours. Video showed uniformed snipers firing at protesters holding makeshift shields. Around 100 people, including more than a dozen police officers, were killed at the peak of the violence, many of them from gunshot wounds.

Amid riots that involved radicals, new people were brought to power in Kiev. On February 22, a regime change took place in Ukraine. Security concerns caused President Viktor Yanukovich to leave Ukraine. By one account, Yanukovich fled from his residence fearing for his life after his security forces deserted him.

The new authorities in Kiev disbanded the Berkut. The acting Interior Minister of Ukraine has announced that a riot police force deployed against anti-government protesters in the bloody unrest that culminated with the toppling of the president is to be disbanded. Arsen Avakov signed a decree on the liquidation of the Berkut unit on 26 February 2014. The proposal to dissolve Berkut was put forward earlier in the week by the nationalist Svoboda party, which played a key role in the street protest movement.

Members of the disbanded Berkut received a hero’s welcome from some residents when they arrived in Crimea’s capital Simferopol. Supporters claimed that they had been defending the country against alleged extremists in the opposition movement. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it had ordered its consulate in Crimea to speed up the issuance of passports and citizenship to members of Ukraine’s elite Berkut riot police. “The Russian consulate in Simferopol has been instructed to take all necessary measures to start issuing Russian passports to officers of the Berkut unit,” the ministry said 28 February 2014.

Berkut policemen did not shoot people on Maidan, former Ukrainian interior minister Vitaly Zakharchenko told reporters, in comments delivered by Itar-Tass agency. "I am 100 percent sure those were not policemen," he stressed, noting Berkut members were unarmed when they went to all sites. On February 18 and 19, eighty six policemen received bullet wounds. Fourteen of them were killed. Among them were interior troops, Berkut members and traffic policemen who were shot when they stood there to ensure order, the ex-minister noted.

The head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), Valentin Nalivaychenko, said 03 April 2014, that the Alfa special unit, part of the SBU, took part in the crushing of protests in Kiev on February 18. Speaking at a briefing, Nalivaychenko said Alfa officers were on the roof of Ukraine's trade unions house building with combat weapons. He said shots were being made from that direction. The SBU chief also said there were SBU units on the roofs of two other buildings, one of which is on Kreshchatik Street and the other on Kostelnaya Street in the center of the capital Kiev.

Ex-SBU head Alexander Yakimenko said the Right Sector radical far-right Ukrainian movement asked the SBU to use the Alfa unit to clear the building of snipers. But Yakimenko said he was unable to give such an order because the so-called Maidan commandant Andrey Paruby [currently secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council] did not give his consent. Yakimenko said people who were shooting at Berkut riot police officers and protesters on February 20 were inside the Philharmonic Hall building. "Maidan commandant Paruby was responsible for that building," he said. "No one was able to enter a building controlled by this or that force without permission from someone from the authorities." Maidan is the name for downtown Kiev's Independence Square, which is the symbol of Ukrainian protests. The word "Maidan" is also used as a collective name for anti-government protests in Ukraine.

"Snipers and others were shooting from automatic weapons from the Philharmonic Hall building's roof. They supported a military attack on Interior Ministry officers," he said. "Many eyewitnesses saw some 20 people leave that building," Yakimenko said, adding that the people were clad in special uniforms and had bags used to carry arms, including sniper rifles, as well as modernized Kalashnikov assault rifles with optic sights. Not only law enforcers but "representatives of Maidan, Right Sector, Svoboda [nationalist party], Batkivshchina, Udar [parties] saw that", he said.

Acting Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced the results of an investigation 03 April 2014 laying the blame on Yanukovych for ordering snipers to open fire on the participants of anti-government clashes that left more than 100 dead. The interim Ukrainian government's report said Russian security service agents helped him plan and carry out the assault in mid-February. Yanukovych rejects the allegations. The Russian government has denied any involvement in the violence and blamed the deaths on the protesters. Ukraine's police also detained 13 members of the country's Berkut special forces suspected of involvement in the sniper case.

Berkut forces were mainly on the streets while the security police were deployed to the upper floors of buildings around the main protest site in Maidan Square and along Instytutska Street. Most of those killed were reportedly hit with bullets fired from above.

On 20 April 2014 the Ukrainian Interior Ministry called on the former members of the Berkut riot police to stand up and fight against "intervention" and "save Ukraine." Berkut were involved in confrontation with radical activists during the Ukrainian protests in February, defending governmental buildings in Kiev from crowds, pelting them with Molotov cocktails and stones. Protesters accused the police officers of brutality, so after Ukraine’s coup all Berkut units were disbanded.

Former Berkut members must forget that they used to be on different sides of the barricades and remember that “they are children of a united Ukrainian land, forget grievances, and leave behind all personal ambitions,” the ministry leaders said in a statement. The statement said that “in February there was enough human wisdom to stop just short of fratricide. The plot to discredit Ukraine’s national statehood failed.” It’s not clear whether the ministry chose to dismiss the killing of more than 100 people during the Kiev protest as irrelevant, or decided to go against the position of the General Prosecutor’s office, which charged several former Berkut members with mass murder.

The attitude towards Berkut troops is one of several undermining the split in Ukraine following the February coup. Many anti-Maidan protesters hail them as heroes, who fulfilled their duty and resisted the violence of the radical activists. Some former Berkut members are reportedly taking active part in the protest movement in eastern Ukraine, which was defying Kiev.

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Page last modified: 20-04-2014 16:02:13 ZULU