(New York) – Ukraine should ensure an effective investigation into alleged abuse by Ukrainian fighters of Russian prisoners of war (POWs), Human Rights Watch said today. If confirmed, the beating and shooting of captured combatants in their legs would constitute a war crime, and Ukraine needs to demonstrate that it is able and willing to prevent and punish serious violations of international humanitarian law.
Videos posted online early on March 27, 2022 appear to show Ukrainian forces abusing captured Russian fighters or combatants, who have prisoner of war status, including shooting three of them in the leg. The incident appears to have taken place in a village near the city of Kharkiv, which Ukrainian officials had announced retaking two days earlier. A video posted on March 28 by a Ukrainian journalist shows three charred bodies at the same location but who they are and how they died remains unclear.
“All the information in the videos that suggests abuse, and maybe worse, of POWs needs to be subject to an effective investigation,” said Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. “It should be possible to verify if abuse took place, and from there to hold those responsible to account.”
An adviser to the Ukrainian president, Olexiy Arestovych, acknowledged that abuse of prisoners of war constitutes a war crime and said it will be punished. “I would like to once again remind all our military, civilian, and defense forces that the abuse of prisoners of war is a war crime that has no amnesty under military law and has no statute of limitations,” he posted on Telegram on the evening of March 27. “I remind everyone that we are a European army of a European country. We will treat the prisoners in accordance with the Geneva Convention, no matter what personal emotional motives you have.”
In a video posted to YouTube that day at 10 p.m., Arestovych said that Ukraine would punish those responsible if an investigation determined that there had been abuse.
Two videos showing the alleged abuse were posted to Reddit and Twitter, respectively, on the morning of March 27. A longer video posted subsequently on YouTube contains the same footage from these two videos, plus an additional 1 minute and 58 seconds from the incident.
The longer video shows five men in military uniform on the ground with their hands bound and two of them with bags over their heads. At least three of the captives appear to be wounded in the leg. A trauma doctor who reviewed the video for Human Rights Watch said that the upper leg injuries and blood on the ground were consistent with gunshot wounds.
After 2 minutes and 40 seconds, the captors pull three other prisoners from a blue van and shoot their legs at close range. One of them then hits a prisoner in the face with a rifle butt. The trauma doctor said that the third prisoner appears to have been shot in the back of the thigh, noting that femur fractures are debilitating and susceptible to heavy bleeding.
The video location was identified as a dairy farm in the village of Malaya Rohan, about 18 kilometers east of the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The location was first identified by an open source researcher, and then verified by various others as well as by Human Rights Watch.
The captors have a mix of uniforms, weapons, and gear and no clearly identifiable insignia. Whether these individuals are part of the regular army, a territorial defense unit, or another force remains unclear.
Some of the prisoners have white bands on their arms, and one of them has a red band, both of which are worn by Russian and pro-Russian forces in the Ukraine war. Many of the captors have blue armbands which are frequently worn by Ukrainian troops.
A person off camera accuses the men of attacking Kharkiv, speaking in Russian with a Ukrainian accent. “Ask about the reconnaissance group, where he has seen them, I need to know exactly,” a person off camera asks. “Where is the group?”
Some of the prisoners are on the verge of passing out. “He’s out,” one captor says. “Next.”
At one point, a person is heard speaking, apparently on a military radio, in Russian without a Ukrainian accent.
The first posting of the video on a Reddit thread was at 4:29 a.m. local time on March 27. As the video was filmed in daylight, it would have had to be filmed on or before March 26. By analyzing the video and checking weather reports, the BBC said that the video could have been recorded on March 26.
On March 28, the Ukrainian journalist Yuri Butusov, editor of Censor.net, posted a video from the same dairy farm that he said he recorded a few hours after fighting in the area had ceased. It shows the badly burned remains of three people who were wearing what he thought were Russian uniforms.
In the video, also reported on by The Intercept, some of the buildings at the farm are damaged by explosions or fire. Those buildings did not appear to be damaged in the video that seemed to show the POWs being abused. How the people were killed and the bodies were burned, and if they are the same men as in the earlier videos, is not yet known.
Journalists who visited Malaya Rohan on March 28 reported that they saw the bodies of two Russian soldiers in the streets and two others who had been thrown into a well. They said that a Ukrainian soldier interviewed claimed five Russian soldiers had been captured, one of whom was killed while trying to escape.
On March 27, the commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, accused Russia of producing fake videos of alleged abuse against Russian POWs to discredit Ukrainian forces. “I emphasize that service members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other legitimate military formations strictly adhere to the norms of International Humanitarian law,” he posted to Facebook.
The Third Geneva Convention governs the treatment of prisoners of war, effective from the moment of capture. This includes obligations to treat them humanely at all times. It is a war crime to willfully kill, mistreat, or torture POWs, or to willfully cause great suffering, or serious injury to body or health. No torture or other form of coercion may be inflicted on POWs to obtain from them any type of information.
Reprisals against prisoners of war are strictly forbidden. POWs cannot be punished for acts they have not committed or be subjected to collective punishment. Wounded or ill POWs should be provided with the same medical care that is given to the members of the armed forces of the party in whose custody they are. These standards apply equally to Russian and Ukrainian POWs. Those entitled to POW status include members of the armed forces, members of militia, or similar forces subject to certain conditions; persons, including journalists, accompanying the armed forces without belonging to them; civilians taking up arms “en masse”; and others.
Ukraine is also bound by the absolute prohibition on torture and other degrading or inhuman treatment in international law as articulated in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which it is a party.
Earlier in March, Human Rights Watch said that Ukraine should abide by their obligation not to allow POWs become a public curiosity, which includes not publishing material that identifies individual prisoners. In particular, Ukrainian authorities should stop and prevent posting on social media and messaging apps videos of captured Russian soldiers, in particular those that show them being humiliated or intimidated. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Security Service of Ukraine and the Interior Ministry on March 10, 2022 about the issue but did not receive a reply.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor has opened an investigation into potential serious war crimes in the conflict in Ukraine, which would include war crimes against Russian prisoners of war. Under the principle of complementarity, the ICC can exercise its jurisdiction to prosecute crimes if the Ukrainian authorities are unable or unwilling to carry out their own effective domestic proceedings.
Human Rights Watch has also reported on laws-of-war violations and apparent war crimes by Russian forces, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects with cluster munitions and other weapons, excessive destruction not militarily justified, and failing to allow civilians to flee safely from areas of fighting.
“The potential abuse of POWs would be a war crime that requires effective investigation and, if proved true, prosecution and punishment by Ukraine,” Reidy said. “Protection of POWs from all parties to the conflict and by all parties to the conflict is fundamental to the laws of war.”