Russian forces in Ukraine’s Chernihiv region accused the teacher, Viktoria Andrusha, of sharing information with Ukrainian authorities about Russian troop movements. When Russian forces withdrew from the area days later, after their month-long occupation, they forcibly transferred Andrusha to Russia. She is one of a number of Ukrainian civilians to have apparently been forcibly disappeared since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“Russian authorities should urgently reveal the whereabouts of Andrusha and the other victims of enforced disappearances,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian authorities should end incommunicado detention, and release all civilians being held arbitrarily.”
Andrusha’s family was told through unofficial channels weeks after she was detained that she is being held incommunicado in a detention facility in Russia’s Kursk region. Authorities at the facility have denied holding her, and Andrusha’s lawyer was denied access to the detention facility. Andursha’s detention, followed by the refusal of the Russian authorities to acknowledge that detention or disclose her whereabouts, makes her a victim of an enforced disappearance.
Russia should urgently acknowledge Andrusha’s detention and provide information on her whereabouts and the legal basis for her detention, Human Rights Watch said. Russia should release her, allow her to return to Ukraine, and in the meantime fully respect protections afforded to her as a civilian including granting her access to a lawyer of her choosing.
Andrusha, 25, is from Stary Bykiv village in the Chernihiv region and teaches at a school in Brovary, in the Kyiv region. She was in Stary Bykiv when Russian forces took control of the area. Her sister, Olha, told Human Rights Watch that Russian forces searched their family’s home on March 26, four days before they withdrew from the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, claiming that the family might be cooperating with Ukrainian forces. Olha Andrusha denied this allegation.
During the search, the Russian forces looted money, electronics, and boxes of household belongings. In the process, Olha said, they found Viktoria’s phone and alleged that she had been sending information about Russian troop movements to Ukrainian intelligence agents. They then took Viktoria to a boiler room in the neighboring village of Novy Bykiv, which they were using as a makeshift detention facility, and held her there incommunicado for two or three days before taking her away, said two residents held there at the same time who were later released.
On March 27, Russian military servicemen returned to the family home demanding to see all of Viktoria’s personal documents. During that visit, they detained Viktoria’s mother, saying she had “raised Viktoria badly.” Olha said the soldiers also told their mother that they had taken Viktoria to see the bodies of Russian soldiers they claim were killed because of information Viktoria had allegedly shared. Russian forces held their mother for three days in a house occupied by Russian forces. She was only able to return home when the forces left the area on March 31.
On June 7, Human Rights Watch interviewed a civilian whom Russian forces detained in Ukraine, forcibly transferred to Russia, and held at a pretrial detention facility in the Kursk region from March 23 to April 18. He returned to Ukraine as part of a prisoner exchange. He said that men and women were held separately in the facility, with women held in cell 13. He had heard from other prisoners that there was a woman named Viktoria from Brovary who had been accused of revealing Russian military positions.
The man shared a cell with 12 other male Ukrainian civilians, some of whom were told by interrogators that they were being held for “preventing implementation of the special military operation.” While he was there, he said, neither he nor anyone else in his cell had access to a lawyer. Once released, he learned that his family and other families had sent lawyers to the facility, trying to get access to those detained, but they had been denied access.
A Russian human rights lawyer, Irina Biryukova, told Human Rights Watch that on April 25 she had attempted to enter the pretrial detention facility where Andrusha was allegedly held. When Biryukova showed her lawyer’s ID and a legal document identifying her as Andrusha’s lawyer, the facility’s administrative staff told her she needed to speak to the facility’s director. The director then asked her what she knew about Andrusha and “the acts perpetrated by her.”
Biryukova said she was seeking to meet her client and get relevant information. The director then made a phone call, apparently to the security services, saying that a lawyer was attempting to meet with Viktoria Andrusha. He listened to his interlocutor’s reply, put the phone down, and, looking the lawyer directly in the eye, said, “There is no such person among the suspects or the accused here.”
Two Russian human rights activists working to counter abuses in Russian penitentiary institutions told Human Rights Watch that they know from trustworthy sources of three male Ukrainian civilians who were forcibly disappeared and are being held in other Russian detention facilities. The activists said that two forcibly disappeared Ukrainians, one from Bucha and one from Dymer in the Kyiv region, are believed to be held in different facilities in Russia’s Bryansk region. The third man is from the Kherson region and believed to be held in a pretrial detention facility in Russia-occupied Crimea.
The authorities have not officially acknowledged the detention or whereabouts of these men, the activists said, and lawyers have not been able to confirm from officials that they are indeed held at these facilities.
From February 24 to May 10, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine documented 204 cases of apparent enforced disappearances involving 169 men, 34 women, and a boy, the overwhelming majority of them attributed to Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. Human Rights Watch has documented at least six cases of Russian forces forcibly disappearing civilians in the Chernihiv region.
The laws of war allow a warring party in an international armed conflict to intern civilians in noncriminal detention if their activities pose a serious threat to the security of the detaining authority. However, the authority must release them as soon as the reasons that necessitated the civilian’s internment no longer exist.
During an international armed conflict, failure to acknowledge a civilian’s detention or to disclose their whereabouts in custody with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period, constitutes the crime of enforced disappearance under international law. It is prosecutable as a crime against humanity under the International Criminal Court’s statute.
“The laws of war do not allow Russian forces to take Ukrainian civilians with them as they retreat from areas they had occupied,” Wille said. “Russia needs to free any Ukrainian civilian forcibly transferred to custody in Russia who hasn’t had a fair trial and immediately stop forcibly disappearing or otherwise arbitrarily detaining any other civilians in occupied areas.”