Russian forces have tortured, unlawfully detained, and forcibly disappeared civilians in the occupied areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian forces have also tortured prisoners of war (POWs) held there.
“Russian forces have turned occupied areas of southern Ukraine into an abyss of fear and wild lawlessness,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Torture, inhumane treatment, as well as arbitrary detention and unlawful confinement of civilians, are among the apparent war crimes we have documented, and Russian authorities need to end such abuses immediately and understand that they can, and will, be held accountable.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with 71 people from Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Skadovsk and 10 other cities and towns in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. They described 42 cases in which Russian occupation forces either forcibly disappeared civilians or otherwise held them arbitrarily, in some cases incommunicado, and tortured many of them. Human Rights Watch also documented the torture of three members of the Territorial Defense Forces who were POWs. Two of them died.
The purpose of the abuse seems to be to obtain information and to instill fear so that people will accept the occupation, as Russia seeks to assert sovereignty over occupied territory in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said.
People interviewed described being tortured, or witnessing torture, through prolonged beatings and in some cases electric shocks. They described injuries including broken ribs and other bones and teeth, severe burns, concussions, broken blood vessels in the eye, cuts, and bruises.
A formerly detained protest organizer, who requested anonymity, said Russian forces beat him with a baseball bat in detention. Another protestor was hospitalized for a month for injuries from beatings in detention. A third said that after seven days in detention he could “barely walk” and had broken ribs and a broken kneecap.
The wife of a man whom Russian forces detained for four days, following a house search in early July, said his captors beat her husband with a metal rod, used electroshock on him, injured his shoulder, and gave him a concussion.
Describing the pervasive fear, one journalist in Kherson said: “You don’t know when they’ll come for you and when they’ll let you go.”
Former detainees described being blindfolded and handcuffed for the entire duration of their detention and being held with very little food and water and no medical assistance. Russian personnel forcibly transferred at least one civilian detainee to Russian occupied Crimea, where he was forced to carry out “corrective labor.”
In several cases, Russian forces released detainees only after they signed a statement promising to “cooperate” with the authorities or recorded a video in which they exhorted others to cooperate.
In all but one of the detention cases, Russian forces did not tell families where their loved ones were being held, and the Russian military commander’s office provided no information to families seeking it.
The laws of war allow a warring party in an international armed conflict to detain combatants as POWs and to intern civilians in noncriminal detention if their activities pose a serious threat to the security of the detaining authority. Arbitrary detention, unlawful confinement, and enforced disappearances are all prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to or involve multiple war crimes. Torture and inhuman treatment of any detainee is prohibited under all circumstances under international law, and, when connected to an armed conflict, constitutes a war crime and may also constitute a crime against humanity.
For civilians, the risk of arbitrary detention and torture under occupation is high, but they do not have a clear option to leave to Ukrainian-controlled territory, Human Rights Watch said. For example, the journalist in Kherson told Human Rights Watch, “I have my own Telegram channel, I’m in their database, I had to go into hiding. I’ve been warned that they can come for me at any time. I don’t risk leaving because I’m on their [blacklist].” Thirteen people who did leave described harrowing trips through numerous Russian checkpoints and detention.
In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Tamila Tasheva, permanent representative of the Ukraine president in Crimea, who also monitors the situation in newly occupied areas in southern Ukraine, said that Ukraine’s authorities cannot verify the exact number of enforced disappearances in Kherson region. She said that human rights monitors estimated that at least 600 people had been forcibly disappeared there since February 2022.
“Ukrainians in occupied areas are living through a hellish ordeal,” Gorbunova said. “Russian authorities should immediately investigate war crimes and other abuses by their forces in these areas, as should international investigative bodies with a view to pursuing prosecutions.”
Russian forces invaded Kherson region, on the Black Sea and Dnipro River, on February 25, 2022, and on March 3 claimed to control its capital, Kherson. It was part of a broader invasion and occupation of Ukraine’s coastal south, which includes Melitopol and Berdyansk, cities in Zaporizhzhia region, and ultimately Mariupol, in Donetsk region.
Ukrainian forces have started preparing a counteroffensive to retake occupied coastal areas, Ukraine’s defense minister said in July. On June 21, an official in the Russian occupation administration stated that a “referendum” on Kherson region “joining Russia” was planned in the fall.
From the start of the occupation, Russian military targeted for detention or capture not only members of Territorial Defense Forces, who should be treated as POWs under international humanitarian law, but also local mayors and other civil servants, police officers, as well as participants in anti-occupation protests, journalists, or others presumed to have security-related information or to oppose the occupation.
Over time Russian forces also started to detain people, apparently at random, according to numerous sources. They also targeted community volunteers who distributed food, medicines, diapers and other necessities, all in very short supply in Kherson, to people in need.
For this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed people in person in Kyiv, Lviv, Dnipro, and Zaporizhzhia, and also conducted interviews by telephone.
Protesters, Journalists, Activists
Media reported public protests against the occupation in Kherson, Berdyansk and Melitopol, in March, April and early May. Russian forces put some down violently, including in Kherson, using live bullets and wounding some protesters. Two witnesses said that Russian troops aimed for people’s legs; one said that he saw a man who was hit in the legs. Russian forces also hunted down community volunteers who distributed aid to people in need.
Human Rights Watch spoke to nine people who organized, participated in, or witnessed the protests or were community volunteers, all of whom had been detained by Russian forces.
Arkadiy Dovzhenko, 29, a marine biologist from Kherson, said that people in Kherson started protesting in large numbers from the beginning of the occupation and that he joined:
I was just a regular Ukrainian guy. But one day at a protest I picked up the microphone to say: ‘Russians, go home.’ That’s how they heard my voice … and decided I was the organizer. Then Russian journalists started coming, and we made the decision: that we will stop them from getting a pretty picture for their propaganda TV.
Dovzhenko described his detention on April 21:
That day they [began] throwing grenades with teargas. They shot people with real bullets. They aimed at people’s legs. I saw several guys who had to be carried away, who were shot. There was blood on the pavement.
Russian forces detained Dovzhenko as he tried to run from the scene, and took him, blindfolded and hands bound, to the basement of a police building, and from there to another room:
They hit me with clubs, punched and kicked me. It lasted for several hours … In about three hours they took me back to the basement. Then they brought me back up. They asked me the same questions. Who organized this protest rally? Who organized other protest rallies? They asked me if I knew anyone at ATO [Ukrainian military and security force operations in Donbas] [and] for addresses [of other] protesters. They also asked me questions about my religion … told me that Ukrainian Orthodox Christians were terrorists and renegades.
Russian forces held Dovzhenko for seven days, handcuffed and blindfolded for the entire time, interrogating him repeatedly every day. “They gave me water, but it was very bad … They fed us from their food rations. It was almost nothing.”
When they released Dovzhenko, he said, he could barely walk: “I had a brain concussion. I had several broken ribs and a broken kneecap.”
Dovzhenko left Kherson in May, but it took three days of harrowing travel through numerous Russian checkpoints to get 200 kilometers to safety in Kryvy Rih.
City in Kherson Region (name of the city withheld for security reasons)
A local municipal deputy from a city in Kherson region who participated in protests said that around June 7, Russian forces searched his home, beat him for two hours with a baseball bat, and held him, blindfolded, for 36 hours in a cell at a makeshift detention center at a children’s summer camp. They filmed him against his will stating he had agreed to become an FSB informer. They released him 24 hours later, threatening to hold him indefinitely if he did not stop protesting and doing volunteer work. After they returned to his home several more times to harass him, he fled the country.
On March 18, Russian forces detained a protest organizer “Anton” in occupied Berdyansk at a traffic intersection, while he was delivering aid to people in the community. Anton told Human Rights Watch that they drove him, blindfolded and handcuffed, to what he believed was a local police station. The Russian forces asked him whether he was a protest organizer, and when he said no, they hit him with his shoe, knocking him over, and kicked and punched him for several minutes. “I told them I was not a protest organizer, just a patriot of my country, Ukraine. They said, there is no such country.”
The Russian forces made him take off his jeans, taped his legs together and continued beating him. They administered electric shocks through clips they attached to his earlobes, at first for a few seconds, then for up to 20 seconds, while asking questions about protests and his volunteer work. “Everything went dark and I saw orange spots,” he said. “They took an automatic [weapon] and pointed it at my groin and told me to prepare to die.”
After 90 minutes, they led him to a cell, where, he said, he coughed up blood for three hours. On his third day in custody, Russian security personnel blindfolded him and took him to the facility’s second floor, where they made him read on camera a statement they had written, that he had organized protests, urging people not to attend protests, and to trust the new authorities.
They warned that if he did not do the recording, they would detain his son and grandson. “One man held the [text], one filmed, and a third stood behind the camera with his automatic pointed at me. They made me read it twice, as they didn’t like the first one.” Russian forces released him after holding him three days in detention.
He sought medical help for numerous bruises, broken blood vessels in his eyes, and leg injuries. He left on April 5 for a city under Ukrainian control, where he was hospitalized and treated for the injuries, mainly to his ankles. “The soft tissue was crushed. I had about 20 centimeters of [swelling] under the skin and [was at risk of] gangrene. The [doctors] removed it and I had a skin graft. I lay in bed for 22 days without getting up [and] was discharged on May 18.”
Journalists and Volunteers
On March 12, Russian forces detained and held incommunicado Oleh Baturin, a journalist from Kherson region. Baturin told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of March 10, he received a message apparently from his friend, Serhyi Tsyhypa, a former Donbas veteran, asking to meet. When Baturin did not see Tsyhypa at the rendezvous point in Kakhovka, a nearby town, he started walking away. Several men in military garb ran toward him: “They screamed for me to get on the ground, handcuffed me and pulled the hood of my jacket over my head so I could not see anything. They didn’t say who they were, did not tell me what I was accused of or why I was being abducted in this manner.”
The military took Baturin to a local administrative building, where they questioned and beat him: “They told me I was done with [journalism] and threatened to kill me.” Then they took him to the Kherson city police station, where he was questioned again. “All the while I could hear people screaming somewhere nearby and I heard shooting from automatic weapons.” Baturin spent the night in an unheated room at the police station, handcuffed to a radiator. The next day he was taken to a pretrial detention facility in Kherson, where he was questioned every day until his release on March 20.
Tsyhypa is still missing. His wife, Olena, said that witnesses saw him being detained at a checkpoint. A passerby found Tsyhypa’s dog, who was with him the day he disappeared, tied up outside city hall.
On April 6, Russian forces detained Yurii, a Baptist pastor, at a checkpoint in Snihurivka, in Mykolaiv region, near the administrative border with Kherson region, where he had purchased food, medicines, and other basic items for the community in Kherson. After finding several photos on his phone of Russian military equipment, taken in the first days of the invasion, they drove him to a police lock-up.
They held him for six days, in a small freezing cell with no electricity, little food, and barely any water. They questioned him about his involvement in protests and his role as a priest in encouraging people to protest. They confiscated his car, with US$2,000 worth of medicines and humanitarian aid, and what he said was $6,000 of his own money. Russian soldiers at the checkpoint told Yurii that his car was with the FSB in Kherson. He was released under condition that he continue delivering aid to Kherson and pass on information about Ukrainian checkpoints to Russian forces.
Yuri fled Kherson with his wife the next day.
Local Officials, Civil Servants
In newly occupied areas, Russian authorities arrested numerous elected officials, business owners, community activists and people with influence, including the mayor of Melitopol, the mayor of Kherson city, and heads of local administrations. Tasheva, the Ukraine president’s representative, said that as of June 28, among the 431 cases of unlawful detention that Ukrainian law enforcement agencies had opened were six involving mayors of cities in the Kherson region, the heads of three local territorial administration units, 17 regional and local council members, and 43 law enforcement officials. She said 162 were still in detention.
Human Rights Watch documented cases in which a former municipal volunteer, a former policeman, and a head of a regional administration were either detained, or whose family members were unlawfully detained, apparently to pressure them. One remains in custody.
Russian forces in Kherson detained a 36-year-old former policeman on May 27, after they searched his house and found his police uniform and his father’s hunting rifle, his wife said. The man had worked on the police hotline.
The man’s family went every day to the military commandant’s office but were given no information on his whereabouts. “They told us that … that someone was ‘working on him,’” his wife said. Eventually she started going to the pretrial detention center, where on the 28th day of her husband’s detention, a guard accepted the food parcel she had brought for him. Her husband was released on July 12. His wife did not wish to discuss his physical condition, aside from noting that he bore “marks of physical violence.” “You know how they torture people there,” she said.
On April 8, Russian forces detained Vladyslav (Vlad) Buryak, 16, at a Russian checkpoint in Vasylivka, about 70 kilometers from Melitopol, as he was attempting to get to Zaporizhzhia, said his father, the head of Zaporizhzhia regional administration. The father had left Melitopol earlier fearing for his safety, but his son refused to leave because his grandfather was ill and could not travel.
As the soldiers checked passengers’ documents, one of them saw Vlad looking at his phone. They demanded to see it and found several pro-Ukraine Telegram channels on it. One of the soldiers told Vlad to get out of the car, pointed a gun at him and asked if he should shoot him on the spot. The military interrogated Vlad for three hours and, upon discovering who his father was, took him to a police holding facility in Vasylivka, where they kept him in a solitary cell. Buryak told HRW that while in detention, his son was forced to wash the bloodied floors in the facility, including in empty cells, “where Ukrainian [military] were tortured.”
After Vlad spent 48 days in detention, the Russian military transported him to a hotel in Melitopol, where he was held for an additional 42 days, but had regular access to a phone and was able to contact his family. On July 7, Vlad was released.
On June 30, armed Russian forces detained 40-year-old “Alina” and her ex-mother-in-law at Alina’s former husband’s house near Kherson, where they all had been staying since the invasion, Alina’s sister said.
The sister said she believes they were detained because of Alina and her former husband’s participation in the Kherson municipal guard, a community police force set up for a short period of time following the Russian occupation to address looting and destruction. The sister said she believes that the Russian forces have a list of all the participants and have detained many of them.
The soldiers detained Alina and her ex-mother-in-law and forced Alina to leave her 6-year-old son with a neighbor. The authorities released Alina the following evening, but her ex-mother-in-law remained in detention at the time of the interview. Alina delivers clean clothes and medicine to the facility for her ex-mother-in-law’s diabetes and liver problems. She said her ex-mother-in-law’s soiled clothes have blood stains.
Alina told her sister that she believes they are holding her ex-mother-in-law until her son, Aiyna’s former husband who managed to leave Kherson, returns to Kherson and they can detain him.
All parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, and customary international law. Belligerent armed forces that have effective control of an area are subject to the international law of occupation found in the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions. International human rights law, including notably both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, is applicable at all times.
The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilians, forced transfers of civilians, summary executions, torture, enforced disappearances, unlawful confinement, and inhumane treatment of detainees. Pillage and looting of property are also prohibited. A party to the conflict occupying territory is generally responsible for ensuring that food, water, and medical care are available to the population under its control, and to facilitate assistance by relief agencies.
The Third Geneva Convention governs the treatment of prisoners of war, effective from the moment of capture. This includes obligations to treat them humanely at all times. It is a war crime to willfully kill, mistreat, or torture POWs, or to willfully cause great suffering, or serious injury to body or health. No torture or other form of coercion may be inflicted on POWs to obtain from them any type of information.
Anyone who orders or commits serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent, or aids and abets violations, is responsible for war crimes. Commanders of forces who knew or had reason to know about such crimes, but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible, are criminally liable for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.
Russia and Ukraine have obligations under the Geneva Conventions to investigate alleged war crimes committed by their forces, or on their territory, and appropriately prosecute those responsible. Victims of abuses and their families should receive prompt and adequate redress.
Quelle: Human Rights Watch, 22.07.2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/07/22/ukraine-torture-disappearances-occupied-south.