war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Ukrainian prisoners savagely beaten after complaining of torture

Halya Coynash

Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group lawyers and monitors have been blocked from entering Oleksiivska Correctional Colony No. 25 in Kharkiv since a believed punitive operation on 8 January against prisoners who had complained of torture.  The accounts of torture, and the prison’s reaction are so shocking that a criminal investigation is now underway, however it is imperative that the prisoners are allowed to see, and be questioned, in the presence of their lawyers.  The State Penitentiary Service is claiming that the events on 8 January were aimed at suppressing an imminent revolt by prisoners, however the brutal operation, and the removal to other prisons of several prisoners came after a number of prisoners gave consistent and harrowing accounts of ill-treatment and torture to KHPG lawyers and other representatives.

KHPG Director Yevhen Zakharov gave a detailed account on 11 January 2020 of the prisoners’ allegations and the subsequent reaction by a Penitentiary Service ‘spetsnaz’ unit. 

While the Penitentiary Service has tried to present Oleksiivska No. 25 as a model prison, this is not the impression given by prisoners and those who have had dealings with it.  Zakharov explains that “the least signs of disagreement with anything are punished by brutal torture.  Here you can’t complain about anything. There is total dependence on the prison administration; hard draining work in two shifts, and sometimes even the entire 24 hours without a break leading to total exhaustion. However the main thing that was hard for the prisoners to endure were the constant ill-treatment that became the norm”.

Oleksiivska No. 25 is also a record-breaker for the number of times that a notorious article of the criminal code has been used against prisoners.  As reported, Article 391 enables the prison administration to bring criminal charges against a prisoner over essentially minor infringements.  Since such criminal charges can be used to increase a prisoner’s sentence by up to 3 years, it is easily abused by prison staff, for example, against prisoners who complain of ill-treatment.

Serious concerns about Oleksiivska No. 25 have been raised on many occasions, including by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

Zakharov explains that at the beginning of December last year, the State Bureau of Investigations brought criminal charges against one of the deputy heads of the prison.  He is accused of abuse of power over corrupt dealings involving the resale of food items purchased with state funding for the prison.  The individual has been remanded in custody.

KHPG lawyer Volodymyr Hlushchenko and other monitors visited the prison on 6 December and, as usual, heard no complaints. They were aware that somebody had run ahead of them, clearly to prepare the way, before they reached the medical unit, and reported that most of the men pretended to be asleep.

It was also learned from a source in the prison, Zakharov notes, that at the end of  December the head of the prison himself was informed that he was under suspicion of a crime.  He has been suspended with his first deputy standing in as Acting Head.

It is possible that these changes gave men who are normally too terrorized to speak out some confidence, or on the contrary made them fear that the situation would become even worse.

Whatever the reason, when KHPG lawyer Hennady Tokarev visited the prison on 2 January to speak with his client, he learned that a number of prisoners wished to make complaints about the illegal activities of the prison administration. He therefore arrived back the following day, with colleagues Volodymyr Hlushchenko and Tamila Bespala.  They had time only to speak with 21 of the prisoners and to receive written complaints from them.  They promised to come back after Orthodox Christmas, although that proved impossible because of the actions of the prison administration.

Brief details of the men’s complaints are translated below and suggest that the men have been subjected to a shocking level of ill-treatment and, in many cases, torture. Nor is this all since the men are alleging that the ill-treatment was aimed at extorting money out of their families.

Zakharov summarized the men’s allegations as follows. 

“Most of the prisoners alleged various forms of harsh treatment, with these often reaching the level of torture. They were beaten on various parts of the body, bound with scotch tape to their bed; stretched in splits position; asphyxiated through a bag being placed over their heads; subjected to electric shocks, etc.

Prisoner M. was beaten and kicked over his whole body.  They twisted his arms, bound both arms and legs with scotch tape and a belt to a stool so that he could hardly breathe.  He was bound with scotch on the head and had a gag placed in his mouth, had two hats placed on his head and was held in this position for seven days. He was not given any food during that time, only tea.  He was forced to sit in his own urine and faeces, with this making his legs and buttocks get infected.  When they untied him, there were a whole of worms eating the dead flesh in those places. After that M. was told that if he told anybody about this, he would die of heart failure in the prison.

Prisoner T. had his hands tied with scotch and a wet rag thrust in his mouth.  He was beaten around the ribs and kidneys until he lost consciousness, with this being repeated several times. After that, they thrust a wooden stick up his anus.  This torture continued later. For example, on orders from the administration, T. was viciously beaten up by two of the administration’s voluntary helpers as a result of which he attempted suicide.

Prisoner P. was stripped naked, had his arms tied with scotch. An officer sat on his back, and they put a packet with a wet T-shirt over his head, beat him around the head, burned a newspaper on his buttocks; thrust a stick with a condom on it into his anus.

Prisoner K. had his hands bound with scotch and was hit in the stomach.  When he fell from the blow, they began hitting him, kicking and beating with a bat, with this continuing for about 20 minutes. After that, an officer sat on his back and pulled his arms over his head so that they reached the floor. At that moment, he fell a cracking sensation and unendurable pain.  An arm injury was thus inflicted, with the marks of this still present now.  After all of this, K. was forced to sweep the alley all day. He asserts that the ill-treatment took place virtually every day and even several times a day.

According to all the victims of torture, the treatment was under the leadership of operations officer S.S. Harkavy and that sometimes prisoners who act as voluntary administration assistants took part in them.

Such treatment is aimed at extorting money (the men tortured are given telephones so that they ring their relatives and ask them to transfer money to certain bank accounts), at forcing them to extort money from other prisoners, or because of a mobile phone found, a refusal to become a prison administration helper, ethnic origin and other reasons.

The prisoners also alleged being driven to suicide and complained of the lack of medical treatment, inadequate wages, demands for money from relatives, demands for payment for getting early release on parole, etc.

Prisoner B., who is Jewish, is subjected to a constant anti-Semitic campaign by prison staff, with them insulting him, and pushing him to suicide. He asserts that they prepared a string and loop and said “Hang yourself!”.  B. has begun having epilepsy-like attacks which he thinks are linked with having been injected with an unknown substance. He had such an attack while speaking with the monitors, lost consciousness and did not have time to tell them all that he wanted to say.”

While prison staff would not have known all the details about the men’s allegations, it would have been quite clear that these were complaints about their treatment in the prison. 

8 January

Zakharov describes the events that unfolded in the early hours of the day after Christmas as follows.

“At 3 a.m. on 8 January, Penitentiary Service spetsnaz officers in masks and full military gear dragged the prisoners, wearing only their underwear, to the headquarters, refusing to let them get dressed. They were forced to the floor, face down, with their arms behind their backs, handcuffed or bound and then dragged to the headquarters. Some of the prisoners were outside for over an hour (in temperatures of under 3 °C.)

At the headquarters, the prisoners were forced to crawl on their stomachs upstairs to the first, second and third floors and some of them were savagely beaten while doing so. All of the prisoners have badly grazed elbows, knees and stomachs. They were held in this condition from 3 a.m. to lunchtime. According to one source, it was firstly those prisoners who had complained to KHPG staff on 3 January who were beaten.  22 prisoners who had special methods applied, were forced to write explanatory notes, saying that they had shown resistance and obstructed a search, and that therefore physical force and special methods had been applied and that they had no complaints. After this, the prisoners who had been forced to write such explanations were moved to other Kharkiv prisoners. However many of those who were beaten remain in the medical unit of the prison.

The above information needs to be checked and confirmed.”

Formal probe

On 10 January, the State Bureau of Investigations announced that it was investigating the legality of the physical force applied by the staff of the Oleksiivska Correctional Colony.  It noted that, according to their information, the prison administration had “organized a general search of prisoners with the involvement of a swift response unit and a territorial militarized formation. In the course of the search, physical force was used against up to 22 prisoners, with injuries of varying degrees of severity inflicted.”

That pre-trial investigation is under 365 § 2 of the Criminal Code over suspected exceeding of power or official duties.

On 13 January, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that it had registered a number of criminal proceedings following the report from the Kharkiv Human Rights Group.  The probe was over suspected torture (repeated, and by prior conspiracy of a group of people, under Article 127 § 2 of the Criminal Code); abuse of power with the use of force or threat of force (Article 365 § 2) and flagrant violation of labour legislation (Article 172 § 1).   

The pre-trial investigation has been entrusted to the territorial office of the State Department of Investigations in Poltava.

These are obviously positive developments but the men who are now totally under the control of prison staff must feel confident enough of their safety to speak openly.  One sign that such guarantees will be provided would be for the men to be able to speak in the presence of their lawyers.  At present, their basic right to meetings with their lawyers are being denied.


 Share this