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.

Russia refuses to return bodies of Ukrainian teenagers it killed in occupied Berdiansk

Halya Coynash
If Russia’s claims about the killing of 16-year-old Tihran Ohannisian and Mykyta Khanhanov were true, there would be no reason to hide their bodies, as they have been doing for six months

From left Tihran Ohannisian, Mykyta Khanhanov

From left Tihran Ohannisian, Mykyta Khanhanov

It is over six months since the Russian occupiers of Berdiansk killed 16-year-old Ukrainian schoolboys, Tihran Ohannisian and Mykyta Khanhanov, and their families have still not been able to bury the slain boys.  This effective concealment of the boys’ bodies only compounds the suspicion that both were deliberately killed on 24 June 2023.   

On 27 December, Andriy Yakovliev, a lawyer from the Media Initiative for Human Rights (MIHR) who is representing the boys’ families, told Radio Svoboda that there is no information even as to where the bodies are.  The formal pretext that the Russian ‘investigators’ were carrying out forensic examinations and that criminal proceedings had been initiated can hardly be taken seriously over six months after the boys’ killing.  Like Tihran and Mykyta’s families, Yakovliev is convinced that the real motive is to conceal proof that the two boys were deliberately killed.  An independent examination of the bodies would show, for example, whether the shots were fired at close range or from a distance, with this potentially providing the evidence that this was an extrajudicial execution, and therefore a war crime.  The Russians allowed Mykyta’s father in merely to identify the bodies, but that was the last time they were seen, or, indeed, their whereabouts made clear.  This is not the first time that Russia has blocked access to the bodies of its victims.  As Yakovliev points out, without a body, it is harder to prove the crime, whatever the suspicions.

Yakovliev explains that the boys’ funeral had even been organized, the date and the church named for people to come and bid farewell to the two lads.  Then the church was told, falsely, that the boys had committed suicide, and either refused, or were prohibited from carrying out the service.  Then, Yakovliev says, the graves were filled in, with this a sign that the bodies were not going to be handed over.  He assumes that the bodies are now held in the Berdiansk morgue, but there is no proof of this.  Nor is it certain that they would remain there when the city is finally liberated.  The boys’ persecution had elicited international protest even before their killing, and, Yakovliev believes, that the Russians are worried about evidence of such egregious violations.  They might, therefore, try to get the bodies out of Berdiansk to prevent them being found.

MIHR believe that a third party’s intervention could, possibly, help and are calling on the OSCE to intervene.

It was clear from the outset that the Russians were also tormenting the children’s parents, with interrogations and harassment, and have now added psychological torture through the lack of any certainty.  Mykyta’s family, who remain in occupied Berdiansk, have not even been given a death certificate.  From a formal point of view, the boys are still alive, and Tihran’s mother still believes that her son was not killed. 

MIHR reported the boys’ persecution on 25 May 2023, almost exactly a month before the Russians killed them.  The human rights NGO explained that they had not made the situation public earlier in the hope that the Russians were merely subjecting the boys to intimidation, no more.  This had changed on 24 May when Russia’s Investigative Committee formally (and illegally) charged the lads with ‘sabotage’, under Article 281 of Russia’s criminal code.  It was claimed that both lads had damaged railway tracks to prevent supplies reaching the invading forces.  If true, this would have been an act of courage, to defend Ukraine against an invading army.  While this might not be of concern to the aggressor state, the fact that both boys were still children should have prevented even the Russians from torturing them.  Instead, armed invaders turned up at Tihran’s grandmother’s home in Berdiansk early on 30 September 2022.  Both Tihran and his grandmother were beaten with the butt of a machine gun, with Tihran then taken away with a bag over his head.  Over the next five days, he was subjected to further torture, with the use of electric currents and mock executions. MIHR believes that it was publicity that led to him being released, suddenly, on 6 October.   The Russians had come for Mykyta as well, but did not find him home.  By the time they came again, there had been publicity over Tihran’s abduction and torture, and Mykyta and his father were ‘only’ interrogated (more details here).  

On 15 June, the European Parliament adopted its Resolution “on the torture and criminal prosecution of Ukrainian minors Tihran Ohannisian and Mykyta Khanhanov by the Russian Federation”   As well as condemning Russia’s “deliberating targeting of Ukrainian children” and persecution of torture of them in general, it specifically demanded the termination and dismissal of all charges against Ohannisian and Khanhanov, and their immediate release. 

As reported, the lads were killed on 24 June 2023.  According to Tihran’s mother, she had spoken with her son half an hour before the Russians claimed that the boys had attempted a terrorist attack and had been killed.  She said that her son had sounded quite relaxed and had said that the lads were hanging out and planning how to celebrate Mykyta’s birthday on 25 June.  He had also promised to be home by 9 p.m. and it had been clear that he was hoping to meet up with his family (who were in Germany) and was in no way planning potentially life-threatening action.

Reports and a video, showing Tihran Ohanissian, first appeared on various Telegram channels in the evening of 24 June.  Notorious collaborator Vladimir Rogov asserted on his channel that there had been a shootout and that “two pro-Ukrainian terrorists’ had been killed.  Rogov named only Tihran Ohannisian, mentioning nothing about the lad’s age, but saying that he had earlier been detained “for anti-Russian activities”. The Berdiansk Municipal Military Administration posted the video circulating on social media on which Tihran is wearing a combat glove and holding a rifle. Tihran appears to suggest that two have been shot [“Two, definitely”], and then says “That’s it, death, guys.  Farewell! Glory to Ukraine!”   

Although the two lads had purportedly been killed by a sniper, there were doubts as it was known that there had been several wounds.  There were also other discrepancies, for example, in the alleged time of the killing and clothes worn.  Soon after the killing, MIHR reported that there had, seemingly, been a shootout that evening, but said it had not found any evidence of civilian casualties, as claimed.

The boys had both gone into hiding a week earlier, after ‘an investigator’ turned up at Tihran’s home, together with an armed convoy.  The two lads had, however, returned home in the morning of 24 June, had had a talk with this ‘investigator’, but had not been taken away. 

MIHR believed it possible that the ‘investigators’ had intimidated the lads to try to provoke their flight and armed seizure.  It was, however, possible that they had been killed deliberately.

Russia’s behaviour, six months on, in concealing the boys’ bodies, makes the latter seem extremely likely.

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