Russian forces tortured, illegally detained, and forcibly disappeared civilians in occupied areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, Human Rights Watch said. Russian forces also tortured POWs held there.
“Russian forces have turned the occupied areas of southern Ukraine into an abyss of fear and savage anarchy,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Torture, inhuman treatment, as well as the arbitrary detention and unlawful detention of civilians, are among the apparent war crimes we have documented, and the Russian authorities must end these abuses immediately and understand that they can and will be held responsible.
Human Rights Watch spoke to 71 people from Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Skadovsk, and 10 other towns and villages in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. They described 42 cases in which the Russian occupying forces forcibly disappeared civilians or arbitrarily detained them, 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 prisoners of war. Two of them died.
The purpose of the abuse appears to be to obtain information and instill fear so that people will accept the occupation, as Russia seeks to assert its sovereignty over occupied territory in violation of international law, Human Rights said. RightsWatch.
Interviewees described being tortured, or witnessing torture, by 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 their eyes, cuts and bruises.
A detained former protest organizer, who requested anonymity, said Russian forces beat him with a baseball bat while in custody. Another protester was hospitalized for a month with injuries from beatings in custody. A third said 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 search in early July says her captors beat her husband with a metal rod, shocked him, hurt his shoulder and gave him a concussion.
Describing the pervasive fear, a journalist from Kherson said: “You don’t know when they will come for you and when they will let you go.
Former detainees described being blindfolded and handcuffed for the 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 perform “corrective work”.
In several cases, Russian forces only released detainees after signing a statement promising to “cooperate” with authorities or recording a video urging 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 office of the Russian military commander did not provide any information to families who requested it.
The laws of war To allow a belligerent party in an international armed conflict to hold combatants as prisoners of war and to intern civilians in non-criminal detention if their activities constitute a serious threat to the security of the detaining authority. Arbitrary detention, unlawful detention and enforced disappearances are all prohibited by international humanitarian law and can constitute or involve multiple war crimes. Torture and inhuman treatment inflicted on any detainee is prohibited in all circumstances by international law and, when linked 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 clearly do not have the option of moving to territory under Ukrainian control, Human Rights Watch said. For example, the journalist from Kherson told Human Rights Watch, “I have my own Telegram channel, I’m in their database, I had to hide. I have been warned that they can pick me up at any time. I ain’t risk leaving ’cause I’m on them [blacklist].” Thirteen people who left described harrowing journeys through numerous Russian checkpoints and detentions.
In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Tamila Tasheva, the Ukrainian president‘s permanent representative in Crimea, who also monitors the situation in newly occupied areas of southern Ukraine, said Ukrainian authorities cannot verify the exact number of enforced disappearances in the Kherson region. She said human rights monitors believe at least 600 people have been forcibly disappeared there since February 2022.
“Ukrainians in the occupied areas are going through a hellish ordeal,” Gorbunova said. “Russian authorities should immediately investigate war crimes and other abuses committed by their forces in these areas, as should international investigative bodies with a view to pursuing prosecutions.”
Russian forces invaded the Kherson region, on the Black Sea and the Dnipro River, on February 25, 2022, and on March 3 claimed control of its capital, Kherson. It was part of a wider invasion and occupation of coastal southern Ukraine, which includes Melitopol and Berdyansk, towns in the Zaporizhzhia region, and ultimately Mariupol in the Donetsk region.
Ukrainian forces have started preparing a counter-offensive to retake occupied coastal areas, Ukrainian defense minister says said in July. On June 21, an official of the Russian occupation administration declared that a “referendumon the Kherson region “joining Russia” was planned in autumn.
From the start of the occupation, the Russian military was targeted for the detention or capture not only of members of the Territorial Defense Forces, who should be treated as prisoners of war under international humanitarian law, but also of mayors locals and other officials, police officers, as well as participants in anti-occupation protests, journalists or other persons believed to have security-related information or oppose the occupation.
Over time, Russian forces also began detaining people, seemingly at random, according to multiple sources. They also targeted community volunteers who distributed food, medicine, diapers and other basic necessities, all in very small quantities in Kherson, to people in need.