Russian military & mercenaries directly implicated in torture of Ukrainian prisoners
01.12.15 | Halya Coynash
Ukrainian human rights activists believe that over 87% of Ukrainian soldiers and 50% of civilians taken prisoner by Kremlin-backed, pro-Russian militants in Donbas have been subjected to torture or ill-treatment. What is more, in over 40% of the so-called ‘interrogations’ and control over them, key roles were played by mercenaries from the Russian Federation or people who identified themselves as Russian military personnel.
The Coalition ‘Justice for Peace in Donbas’ has released a report entitled “Those who survived Hell”. The study is based mainly on a survey of 165 people held prisoner by the militants. In many cases even those who were not themselves tortured report witnessing or hearing the torture of others. 33% of the soldiers, and 16% of civilians had personally witnessed a death as the result of torture.
The results of the Coalition’s study indicate a large number of war crimes which cannot fall under any ‘amnesty’ currently promoted by western leaders as part of a peace deal for the region. There are separate accounts given by soldiers taken prisoner, and images which the militants themselves posted on the Internet in a video here.
According to groups trying to organize prisoner exchanges, by July 1, 2015, around 2, 500 prisoners had been freed, another 500 remained in captivity. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry says that over six thousand people have been taken prisoner or disappeared without trace, with the fact of 1500 still unknown.
Oleh Martynenko, one of the authors of the report, notes that the conditions in which prisoners / hostages are held do not meet any international standards. In two-thirds of the places of imprisonment, there is no medical care available. Disturbingly, however, the presence of medical staff is no guarantee of greater protection. The researchers found cases where medical workers had taken part in torture, by bringing the victim around in order for the torture to continue.
Martynenko says that the researchers had not anticipated the high (over 40%) ratio of mercenaries and military from Russia implicated in the torture of prisoners. This is grounds, he adds, for charging Russia with involvement in war and other crimes.
Anyone is at risk
According to the study, most people taken prisoner by the militants are local residents of areas under militant control, although some are people who were trying to reach relatives or friends, volunteers, etc. Where people were in the region (or planned to be) temporarily, all had been detained at checkpoints without any explanation. Most chillingly, residents were taken away from their homes or workplace, without any warrant and often with the militants stealing the person’s property at the same time. Anyone can be targeted, the Coalition points out.
One person recounts how six men in camouflage gear with St George ribbons and brandishing Kalashnkov rifles burst into his home and knocked his elderly mother who fell. He was dragged from the sofa and had his arms bound behind his back. They removed a computer, telephone, wallet and even a bottle of vodka.
Oleksandra Matviychuk explains that people are accused of holding the wrong (pro-Ukrainian) views; of speaking in Ukrainian or having Ukrainian flags and other symbols in their home. Or the militants accuse them of having taken part in Euromaidan or pro-unity marches. Sometimes they’re accused of photographing strategic places.
Maria Varfolomeyeva, the 30-year-old journalist who had stayed in Luhansk to care for her elderly grandmother, has now been held hostage since January 2015. The militants even claimed that she had been photographing places where militants were living as an artillery spotter for the Ukrainian army, and threatened her with a 15-year ‘sentence’. There had been no shelling in Luhansk for months before she was seized. Negotiations are still underway to try to obtain her release almost 11 months later.
11.5% of civilians detained were women. 50% of these, including women who were pregnant or elderly, had faced ill-treatment.
See also the harrowing account given by Gaide Rizayeva 7 months in Kremlin-backed militant captivity: "You expect to die every day"
Over 18% of those surveyed had been kicked or punched, and almost 22% beaten with the militants’ rifles. 5.7% had experienced other forms of torture. These included electric shocks; squeezing people’s toes or fingers with tweezers; multiple bullet wounds using shock pistols or similar; using sharp items to cause injury, etc.
“I was beaten by a man who called himself Oleg Kubrak. He threatened to rape me, and slashed by arms, legs and neck with a knife”;
“The militants began to hit me with the butt of their machine guns around the head, back, to my arms. They pulled me arms behind my back. Each tried to hit me, each tried to grab me by the hair”.
Almost 75% of the civilians taken prisoner had been threatened with firearms or other weapons.
Of the Ukrainian soldiers and members of volunteer battalions captured, an incredible 83.3% reported that they had been seized as the result of military clashes and with the direct involvement of Russian Federation forces. The person, nicknamed “Greek” who detained one man even presented a document identifying himself as a special response spetsnaz officer from Moscow. On another occasion the Russian soldiers did not hide their rank or unit. One was the commander of the Pskov paratrooper unit which, according to Lev Shlosberg, incurred huge losses in Ukraine.
The study showed that over 87% of Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters captured had faced especially brutal treatment, physical violence, deliberate maiming, as well as humiliation.
The militants have quite openly demonstrated – as ‘trophies’, and to intimidate others – men they have taken prisoner. The most notorious occasions were on Ukraine’s Independence Day, Aug 24, 2014, where militants from the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ staged a shameful march through Donetsk of Ukrainian prisoners, and a similar display in January this year.
Much of the above treatment, as well as documented cases of abductions and extrajudicial executions fall within the scope of the International Criminal Court. Ukrainian human rights activists are adamant that Ukraine must ratify the Rome Statute as a matter of priority, so that those guilty of grave war crimes can be brought to answer.
See also: Sloviansk torture, killings, execution orders, yet still no proper investigation
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7 months in Kremlin-backed militant captivity: "You expect to die every day"
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