KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainians held in police custody are routinely subjected to beatings, abuse and extortion, Amnesty International said Wednesday, urging the government to set up an independent body to investigate such crimes.
In a report, the London-based watchdog said hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are mistreated in police custody and prosecutors fail to address their complaints and bring those guilty to justice.
"The Ukrainian police are still serving the state instead of the public," said Heather McGill, the group's expert on Ukraine. "It's high time the Ukrainian authorities ... tackled the culture of impunity and corruption that prevails."
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Viktoria Kushnir said the government would study the Amnesty International report, but declined further comment.
The abuse is rooted in the Soviet legacy of law enforcement officers' presumed superiority over ordinary citizens and a legal system that builds criminal cases on confessions instead of examining evidence and questioning witnesses. Most police officials are also underpaid, which pushes many to detain and abuse innocent people and then release them for a bribe.
"You can question someone for hours, you can hold them for several days or you can beat a confession out of them in 20 minutes," said John Dalhuisen, the group's Europe and Central Asia deputy program director.
In one of the most shocking cases cited by Amnesty, Kiev student Ihor Indilo died in police custody in May 2010 several hours after being detained in what authorities initially said was the result of his fall from a 50-centimeter (20-inch) bench in a detention cell. The case shocked many Ukrainians and caused student protests in Kiev.
Indilo was about to celebrate his 20th birthday and a month away from graduating from college when he got into an argument with a security guard at his dormitory. The guard called a policeman, who drove Indilo to a police station to investigate the incident. Indilo never came back.
An autopsy report concluded that Indilo died as a result of a fractured skull and internal bleeding that were sustained during contact with a blunt object. Indilo's mother, a 45-year-old school teacher from the village of Volovitsya in northern Ukraine, believes a policeman pushed her son into a wall while interrogating him, causing the death. A video filmed by a surveillance camera inside the police station shows police officers dragging Indilo into a cell and leaving him on the floor.
"We never believed this could happen to us," Lyudmila Indilo told The Associated Press while sobbing. "They are monsters," she said of police.
One policeman has been charged with negligence and another one with abuse of office. A court is now hearing the case.