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In Ukraine, executions — and propaganda about them

A pro-Russian separatist soldier runs at an airport during shelling between Ukrainian army forces and pro-Russian separatists last week. An Amnesty International report released Monday said both sides have engaged in grisly executions, but the number has been “greatly exaggerated by media in Ukraine and Russia. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGETDOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
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In the conflict between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists, both sides have been accused of atrocities, including execution-style killings. But there’s a propaganda war going on too, and it has led to not only exaggerations about the number of executions, but a culture in which deaths and injuries sustained in battle are kept off the books in hospitals and other official tallies, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

Delegates from the human rights organization investigated the conflict in eastern Ukraine during two trips in late August and late September, the report said. While the media in both Ukraine and Russia have frequently reported massive human rights violations, the stories are frequently “poorly substantiated or unsubstantiated,” Amnesty found.

In one example, Russia-controlled media reported the discovery of mass graves in two villages in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on Sept. 23. A separatist official told media that the bodies of 40 civilians had been found, and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov later estimated the count at 400 bodies.

Amnesty visited the area Sept. 26, and found that three grave sites containing a total of nine bodies existed, five of which were separatists who had been killed in fighting. The other four were likely executed by forces aligned with Kiev, but “Russian authorities have significantly exaggerated the number of bodies found and the scope of the war crimes committed,” Amnesty officials said.

In another incident, in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, Amnesty found that separatists likely executed four detainees in their jail cells just before retreating in the face of a Ukrainian military offensive. A mid-ranking police official described the killings to human rights investigators, and showed them photographs that supported the allegation.

“One of the victims, a man possibly in his thirties, lay face up on the floor in a green camouflage uniform, with tattoos showing on his chest and shoulders (a tattoo of Christ on his chest and a swastika emblem on each shoulder),” Amnesty’s report said. “He had been shot in the top of his head, which was shattered.”

Investigators also found a “culture of misrecording” injuries in hospitals on both sides of the conflict. Separatist militias, for example, did not allow hospital staff to register their wounded fighters as having sustained gunshot wounds.

And Kiev’s government may not be any different, Amnesty adds. The report specifically raises questions about the death of a 41-year-old who was admitted to a hospital in the eastern city of Severodonetsk with major injuries to his head, and later died.

“The death was officially registered as accidental, the cause being a fall from a trolleybus,” the report said However, a medical worker “observed ligature marks around the man’s wrists, indicating that his hands had been bound prior to his death.”