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Ukraine / Russia: Prisoners of war

Over the past several months, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has interviewed 159 prisoners of war (139 men and 20 women) who were held by the Russian Federation (including by affiliated armed groups), and 175 prisoners of war (all men) held by Ukraine.

Before I go into detail about our findings, it is important to emphasise that Ukraine gave us confidential access to prisoners of war in places of internment, where we spoke to them. Since the Russian Federation did not grant us such access, and we conducted the interviews with Ukrainian prisoners of war upon their release.

It is also crucial to note that the fundamental obligation of a state is to treat all prisoners of war in their power humanely at all times - from the very moment they are captured until their release and repatriation. Both Ukraine and the Russian Federation are parties to the Third Geneva Convention that sets out requirements relative to the treatment of prisoners of war.

We base our findings on information mainly received through confidential interviews with prisoners of war, as well as with witnesses and relatives of servicepersons, and we apply the UN Human Rights Office’s methodology and standard of proof of ‘reasonable grounds to believe’.

I’ll start with former Ukrainian prisoners of war who were in the hands of the Russian Federation.

Immediately upon capture, some were beaten or had their personal belongings pillaged. The prisoners of war were then transported to places of internment in a manner that raises concerns. They were often taken in overcrowded trucks or buses, and sometimes lacked access to water or toilets for more than a day. Their hands were tied and eyes covered so tightly with duct tape that it left wounds on their wrists and faces.

Upon arrival at certain places of internment, prisoners of war were subjected to so-called ‘admission procedures’, which frequently involved prolonged beatings, threats, dog attacks, being stripped and put into stress positions. Witnesses told us about the death of at least one prisoner of war during an ‘admission procedure’ in the penal colony near Olenivka in mid-April 2022. We have received information about eight other such alleged deaths there in April 2022 and we are working to corroborate them.

The vast majority of those we interviewed told us that during their internment they were tortured and ill-treated. Torture and ill-treatment were not only used to coerce prisoners of war to give military information or statements about alleged crimes. They were, interviewees said, used on a daily basis to intimidate and humiliate them. Prisoners of war described being beaten, including with batons and wooden hammers, kicked, and given electric shocks with Tasers and a military phone known as TAPik.

A man who was tortured in a penal colony near Olenivka told us how members of Russian-affiliated armed groups, and I quote, “attached wires to my genitalia and nose, and shocked me. They simply had fun and were not interested in my replies to their questions”. Other described forms of physical abuse, including being stabbed, shot with a stun gun, threatened with mock executions, being hung by the hands or legs, and burned with cigarettes. We also documented various forms of sexual violence, such as pulling a male victim by a rope tied around his genitalia, or forced nudity combined with the threat of rape.

We interviewed 20 women prisoners of war after they were released from the penal colony near Olenivka and other facilities in Donetsk, and in the Russian Federation. In the colony near Olenivka, women prisoners of war were not subjected to physical violence, but described being psychologically tormented by the screams of male prisoners of war being tortured in nearby cells.

One witness told us, I quote, “I still cannot stand the sound of duct tape. Guards used it to immobilize their prisoners and start torturing them.”

However, several women did recount being beaten, electrocuted and threatened with sexual violence during interrogations in other locations. They were also subjected to degrading treatment that amounted to sexual violence, like being forced to run naked from one room to another in the presence of male guards.

The overall conditions of internment are dire. Ukrainian prisoners of war told us about overcrowded cells, poor hygiene and lack of food and water. Some of them lost up to a quarter of their body weight, and many frequently fainted in captivity.

Only a handful of Ukrainian servicepersons with whom we spoke were allowed to call or text their relatives.

Turning now to the treatment of prisoners of war interned by the Government of Ukraine. We have received credible allegations of summary executions of persons hors de combat and several cases of torture and ill-treatment, reportedly committed by members of the Ukrainian armed forces.

We documented cases of torture and ill-treatment, mostly when people were captured, first interrogated, or moved to transit camps and places of internment. In some cases, Russian prisoners of war (from Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups) said they were punched and kicked in the face and body after surrendering and when they were interrogated by members of the Ukrainian armed forces.

In several cases, prisoners of war were stabbed or given electric shocks with the ‘TAPik’ military phone by Ukrainian law enforcement officers or military personnel guarding them. One prisoner of war recalled: “We were most afraid of the military phone. The feeling was awful. Your whole body froze and then you would fall on your side.”

Many reported poor and often humiliating conditions of their evacuation to transit camps and places of internment. Often naked, they were packed into trucks or minivans, with their hands tied behind their backs.

We also documented cases of ill-treatment of Russian prisoners of war in a penal colony in Dnipropetrovska region and in several pre-trial facilities, including so-called ‘welcome beatings’. We received allegations of extended internment in informal places of detention, such as the basements of guardhouses or military headquarters.

With regard to accountability, we note that Ukraine has launched a number of criminal investigations following allegations of abuse of prisoners of war by members of its armed forces. We await progress in these cases.

We also remain concerned that Ukraine continues to prosecute members of Russian-affiliated armed groups, Ukrainian nationals, for membership in those armed groups. We recall that in international armed conflicts, the prosecution of combatants for mere participation in the hostilities is prohibited by international humanitarian law.

To conclude, I would like to emphasize the fundamental obligation of states to treat all prisoners of war in their power humanely at all times, from the moment they are captured until their release and repatriation, and to allocate sufficient resources to ensure implementation of this obligation. Third states, in particular those providing support to the belligerents, have an obligation under Common article 1 of the Geneva Conventions to ensure respect of international humanitarian law by the parties to the conflict.

The prohibition of torture and ill-treatment is absolute, even – indeed especially- in times of armed conflict. The prevention of torture starts with ensuring that independent monitors have access to detainees. The Russian Federation must allow - on a regular basis - full, confidential and unimpeded access to prisoners of war, in particular in their places of internment. I renew our call on the Russian authorities to promptly do so.

Accountability is also key to deterring and preventing further violations. I reiterate that the parties to the conflict have clear legal obligations to investigate and prosecute all allegations of violations of international humanitarian law in relation to the treatment of prisoners of war within their control, regardless of their affiliation. Both parties must do so, fairly, promptly and impartially.

Thank you.


(c) 2022, OHCHR


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