Russia is holding around four thousand Ukrainian civilians prisoner, torturing most of them
Ukraine’s Centre for Civil Liberties knows of four thousand Ukrainian civilians being held prisoner by Russia however warns that the real figure could be higher still. From their questioning of former hostages, CCL has established that 90% of Ukrainian civilians held in Russian prison colonies are subjected to torture. the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr Alice Edwards and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine , based on interviews with former POWs and other hostages, CCL analyst Mykhailo Savva stresses that they corroborate the assessment, reached independently, by . Russia’s systematic use of torture against Ukrainians has also been documented and condemned by, among others,
Russia is blocking even exchanges of prisoners of war, with the last such exchange of prisoners back in August 2023. The situation with civilian hostages is even worse as Russia’s forced deportation to other occupied territory or captivity in Russia is in gross violation of international law. Savva points out that both the Fourth Geneva Convention and the First Protocol to it demand that parties release any civilians detained without imposing any conditions.
Hiding behind its proxy ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’, Russia began taking civilian hostages back in 2014 and ignored the commitments it supposedly made in the Minsk Accords regarding an ‘all for all’ release. On the eve of the full-scale invasion, there were believed to be as many as 300 civilian hostages whose imprisonment or release dependent solely on Moscow. These included both men and women who had been seized and tortured for their pro-Ukrainian position.
The situation worsened dramatically in early 2022 with the Russian military seizing civilians in any part of Ukraine that fell under its control. Some were tortured and held in appalling conditions for days, weeks or months, but eventually released. Others, however, have not been released, and are being held in occupied Crimea or in prisons and SIZO [remand prisons] in Russia. According to Savva, only 154 hostages have been returned to Ukraine so far. The last exchange of prisoners back in August 2023, with only 22 Ukrainian POWs returned then, and no civilian hostages.
In the above-mentioned interview to Important Stories on 29 November 2023, Savva explained that the Russian authorities initially respond to formal requests for information about civilian hostages by claiming that the hostages were “detained for countering the SMO’ . This acronym stands for ‘special military operation’, Russia’s euphemism for its war of aggression against Ukraine. Now, however, the Russians claim that civilians are being held in Russian SIZO ‘to carry out a check’.
Ukrainian human rights groups know of 500 criminal charges initiated against Ukrainian civilians. These are most often charges of ‘spying’ or of ‘planning an act of terrorism. As reported here, Russia has been using a relatively new article on ‘international terrorism’ to try to justify abducting Ukrainian citizens from Ukrainian territory and charging them under Russian legislation. These show trials are of immense concern, as are those where Russia uses its legislation and absurd supreme court ruling, declaring Ukraine’s Azov Regiment ‘terrorist’, to flout their obligations before prisoners of war, and to sentence POWs, captured while defending their country, to 20-30 years’ imprisonment.
Most civilian hostages are, in fact, held in Russian prison colonies without any procedural status at all and without any charges having been laid. Savva speaks of such hostages being held in separate locations, however this may be dependent on where they have been taken. Ukrainian defender Maksym Kolesnikov was released in an exchange of prisoners in February 2023, after ten months in captivity. In interviews after his release, Kolesnikov explained that he and other POWs had been held in appalling conditions and not given enough to eat, however stressed that the plight of Ukrainian civilian hostages was even worse, He said that at the beginning he had been held in a cell with 14 men, of whom only four were soldiers. In the cell next to his, there were 12 people, all of whom were civilians. Since Russia was violating international law by holding these civilians, they often denied any knowledge of their whereabouts. Kolesnikov said that the Russians were themselves aware that the civilians had simply been seized illegally, “but it’s very hard to admit that their country is committing such a crime. They try, therefore, to claim that the civilian hostages are not really civilians, that they were ‘spies’, ‘saboteurs’ or helped the Ukrainian Armed Forces by directing fire, etc.”
Civilian hostages are given no access to lawyers, and are generally held without any access to information. They are forced to sing the Russian anthem or ‘patriotic’ songs. They are tortured and / or placed under huge psychological pressure to extract ‘confessions’. This is also true of the prisoners of war against whom Russia concocts grotesque charges, with such ‘confessions’ typically videoed and shown on Russian television and / or in the Investigative Committee announcement of horrific sentences.
Savva’s advice on how to help Ukrainians held in Russian captivity is stark: we need, first of all, to help people live to be released. It is vital that the International Commission of the Red Cross receive access to such prisoners, and here, third-party countries can help to put pressure on Russia. He suggests also further applications by Ukraine against Russia at the UN’s International Court of Justice, asking the latter to apply provisional measures, such as demanding the release of all civilian hostages. This is doubtless necessary in principle, but the Court at the Hague’s binding ruling on 16 March 2022, in which it ordered Russia to stop bombing civilian targets in Ukraine, was flouted within hours when Russia committed one of its bloodiest war crimes to date and bombed the Drama Theatre in Mariupol in which around a thousand civilians had been seeking shelter. It has continued flouting that ICJ ruling ever since, as it has an earlier, 2017, ruling ordering it to stop discriminating against Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians in occupied Crimea.
Savva suggests that Ukraine can help by initiating criminal proceedings against the heads of penal institutions where Ukrainian hostages are being held and tortured. This will send a clear message to those individuals and others that they will not be able to commit such crimes with impunity. Worth adding that here western countries and their citizens can help. It is crucial that such individuals, as well as ‘judges’ from the notorious Southern District Military Court in Rostov and others implicated in judicial travesties against Ukrainian political prisoners, civilian hostages and prisoners of war are also placed under international sanctions.