(Kyiv) – Russian forces have tortured, unlawfully detained, and forcibly disappeared civilians in the occupied areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian forces have also tortured prisoners of war (POWs) held there.
“Russian forces have turned occupied areas of southern Ukraine into an abyss of fear and wild lawlessness,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Torture, inhumane treatment, as well as arbitrary detention and unlawful confinement of civilians, are among the apparent war crimes we have documented, and Russian authorities need to end such abuses immediately and understand that they can, and will, be held accountable.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with 71 people from Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Skadovsk and 10 other cities and towns in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. They described 42 cases in which Russian occupation forces either forcibly disappeared civilians or otherwise held them arbitrarily, in some cases incommunicado, and tortured many of them. Human Rights Watch also documented the torture of three members of the Territorial Defense Forces who were POWs. Two of them died.
The purpose of the abuse seems to be to obtain information and to instill fear so that people will accept the occupation, as Russia seeks to assert sovereignty over occupied territory in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said.
People interviewed described being tortured, or witnessing torture, through prolonged beatings and in some cases electric shocks. They described injuries including broken ribs and other bones and teeth, severe burns, concussions, broken blood vessels in the eye, cuts, and bruises.
A formerly detained protest organizer, who requested anonymity, said Russian forces beat him with a baseball bat in detention. Another protestor was hospitalized for a month for injuries from beatings in detention. A third said that after seven days in detention he could “barely walk” and had broken ribs and a broken kneecap.
The wife of a man whom Russian forces detained for four days, following a house search in early July, said his captors beat her husband with a metal rod, used electroshock on him, injured his shoulder, and gave him a concussion.
Describing the pervasive fear, one journalist in Kherson said: “You don’t know when they’ll come for you and when they’ll let you go.”
Former detainees described being blindfolded and handcuffed for the entire duration of their detention and being held with very little food and water and no medical assistance. Russian personnel forcibly transferred at least one civilian detainee to Russian occupied Crimea, where he was forced to carry out “corrective labor.”
In several cases, Russian forces released detainees only after they signed a statement promising to “cooperate” with the authorities or recorded a video in which they exhorted others to cooperate.
In all but one of the detention cases, Russian forces did not tell families where their loved ones were being held, and the Russian military commander’s office provided no information to families seeking it.
The laws of war allow a warring party in an international armed conflict to detain combatants as POWs and to intern civilians in noncriminal detention if their activities pose a serious threat to the security of the detaining authority. Arbitrary detention, unlawful confinement, and enforced disappearances are all prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to or involve multiple war crimes. Torture and inhuman treatment of any detainee is prohibited under all circumstances under international law, and, when connected to an armed conflict, constitutes a war crime and may also constitute a crime against humanity.
For civilians, the risk of arbitrary detention and torture under occupation is high, but they do not have a clear option to leave to Ukrainian-controlled territory, Human Rights Watch said. For example, the journalist in Kherson told Human Rights Watch, “I have my own Telegram channel, I’m in their database, I had to go into hiding. I’ve been warned that they can come for me at any time. I don’t risk leaving because I’m on their [blacklist].” Thirteen people who did leave described harrowing trips through numerous Russian checkpoints and detention.
In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Tamila Tasheva, permanent representative of the Ukraine president in Crimea, who also monitors the situation in newly occupied areas in southern Ukraine, said that Ukraine’s authorities cannot verify the exact number of enforced disappearances in Kherson region. She said that human rights monitors estimated that at least 600 people had been forcibly disappeared there since February 2022.
“Ukrainians in occupied areas are living through a hellish ordeal,” Gorbunova said. “Russian authorities should immediately investigate war crimes and other abuses by their forces in these areas, as should international investigative bodies with a view to pursuing prosecutions.”
Russian forces invaded Kherson region, on the Black Sea and Dnipro River, on February 25, 2022, and on March 3 claimed to control its capital, Kherson. It was part of a broader invasion and occupation of Ukraine’s coastal south, which includes Melitopol and Berdyansk, cities in Zaporizhzhia region, and ultimately Mariupol, in Donetsk region.
Ukrainian forces have started preparing a counteroffensive to retake occupied coastal areas, Ukraine’s defense minister said in July. On June 21, an official in the Russian occupation administration stated that a “referendum” on Kherson region “joining Russia” was planned in the fall.
From the start of the occupation, Russian military targeted for detention or capture not only members of Territorial Defense Forces, who should be treated as POWs under international humanitarian law, but also local mayors and other civil servants, police officers, as well as participants in anti-occupation protests, journalists, or others presumed to have security-related information or to oppose the occupation.
Over time Russian forces also started to detain people, apparently at random, according to numerous sources. They also targeted community volunteers who distributed food, medicines, diapers and other necessities, all in very short supply in Kherson, to people in need.
For this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed people in person in Kyiv, Lviv, Dnipro, and Zaporizhzhia, and also conducted interviews by telephone.
Torture of Prisoners of War
On March 27, Russian forces captured, held, and repeatedly tortured three members of Kherson’s Territorial Defense Forces, Vitali Lapchuk, a commander; Denis Mironov, his deputy; and a Territorial Defense Forces volunteer “Oleh” together with a civilian, “Serhii,” whose real names are withheld for their protection. Mironov, 41, died from injuries inflicted during beatings in detention. Lapchuk’s body was found on May 22 in the bay in Kherson, his arms bound, and a weight tied to his legs. Oleh, who was injured from torture, was part of a prisoner exchange with Russian POWs held by Ukraine on April 28.
Denis Mironov and Oleh
“Oleh,” a Territorial Defense Forces volunteer, said that he was to meet Mironov and Lapchuk on the morning of March 27, but when he went to the appointed place, he did not see them. As he was about to leave, two men in civilian clothes approached him. They knocked him down and handcuffed him, then led him around the corner, where he saw three more men, whom he believed to be Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, uniformed, heavily armed, and wearing balaclavas. Mironov and Lapchuk were standing against a wall, in handcuffs.
The FSB agents took the three men to the former National Police Directorate building in Kherson on 4 Liuteranska Street (formerly Kirova Street).
Oleh said that on the first day, he was blindfolded and interrogated for 12 hours, and that the agents beat him, gave him electric shocks, and tried to suffocate him with a plastic bag. “It’s impossible to say how many times they tortured me, because you lose all track of time,” he said. Eventually, he, Mironov, and Serhii, ended up in the same room. The agent knocked Oleh down. He said his blindfold shifted, and he could see the agents hit Mironov several times in the face and kick him in the groin. They took off Mironov’s trousers and beat him with a rubber club. “His body just turned into a blackened mess,” he said.
After more questioning, the agents took Oleh to a basement cell, where, approximately 30 minutes later, three men brought in a detached door and threw it on the floor. Two soldiers “practically carried in Denis [Mironov] … he was very badly injured … They lowered him down onto the door. He lay down and didn’t move anymore.”
The next day the men were taken to another building in the complex, which had been a temporary detention facility, and placed them in different cells. After about four days, Oleh was transferred to a larger cell. He had seen the date on an FSB agent’s watch, which he recognized as his own. He kept track of time by sticking pieces of chewed chewing gum on the wall.
On April 6, Oleh was transferred to yet another cell, together with Mironov.
“Denis was in pitiable state ... He spoke in a whisper, one word at a time … could not finish a sentence. He groaned, he could not cough, it was obvious that his chest was pierced, and his ribs were pressing on his lungs. He could not lie down properly … he could only sit.”
Russian personnel brought three cans, 250 grams each, of army rations every two days, for all five people in the cell. “They always took out chocolate and meat beforehand so only gave us these cans and some dry biscuits,” Oleh said. “I have not seen a piece of bread once that whole time. We all lost a lot of weight. Denis could eat only apple sauce … We spoon-fed him … For 22 days without any medical attention, he was slowly dying.”
At one point, Oleh’s captors forced him and two others to state on camera, with the flags of Ukraine and the far-right wing militant group, Right Sector, in the background that “the Territorial Defense Force in Kherson no longer exists, but there are still patriots, and everyone should fight.” “Later I realized they posted this video on social media, to see who would post likes and comments, [to entrap people],” he said.
On April 18, Oleh, Mironov, and the other cellmates were transferred to Sevastopol, in occupied Crimea. The next day, Mironov was taken to a hospital. “I was relieved … but it was too late for him,” Oleh said. Oleh was exchanged on April 28.
He said that seven of his ribs had been broken and were not yet healed when he spoke with Human Rights Watch on July 9. Most of his teeth were broken and at least six were missing: “I have a concussion. I continue to have severe headaches. All of our limbs were beaten … All of our backs, hips, buttocks, shoulders … were blue [from beatings]. Everyone’s kidneys had been beaten, so we peed pink.”
In a separate interview, Ksenia Mironova, Denis’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that on April 8, after Mironova left Kherson, an acquaintance called her and said a man had brought her Denis’ watch, and said that he was being held at the facility on Liuteranska Street (formerly Kirova Street), that he had chest injuries, could not walk, and had to be spoon-fed. Mironova wrote to the facility, which responded that no such person was there. After she learned he had been transferred to Sevastopol, she tried unsuccessfully to get information from Crimea about him.
On May 24, Mironova said, the Mykolaiv police phoned her to say Denis had died in the hospital. Oleh identified the body, upon Mironova’s request. He said that “the date of death was written in green antiseptic on his leg: 23.04.” The death certificate, issued by Ukrainian authorities who received the body and which Human Rights Watch reviewed, states the cause of death as “blunt trauma to the rib cage – hemothorax."
Oleh also said that Serhii, who had been detained with him, and the two other men, on eof them also a civilian, were severely beaten in detention, and that he saw Serhii with bruises and cuts on his head. He was released on April 5.
Death of Vitali Lapchuk
Lapchuk, 48, was not taken to the basement with the others on the day they were detained. Lapchuk’s wife, Alyona, a local businesswoman, said that at around 1 p.m. on March 27, she was at her mother’s house with her mother and her eldest son, when three vehicles emblazoned with the letter Z drove up to the house.
“My husband called me, and said ‘Open up, they’re going to take the weapons.’ I opened the door, and I almost passed out. His jaw was all black, broken, his eyes’ blood vessels were broken. His face was striped with rifle blows. … There were nine armed men with him. Vitali told one of them, ‘You gave me your word as an officer that [if I gave up the weapons] you won’t touch my family.’”
The armed men took Lapchuk to the basement, where the weapons were. Alyona could hear them beating her husband. Her mother, she said, got a Bible and started praying and weeping. When they brought Lapchuk back up from the basement, she said she could see blood coming out of his cheek and based on her previous experience as a medical worker, believed that he had a cheekbone fracture.
The armed men put bags over the heads of Lapchuk, Alyona and her son, and took them to the police station on Liuteranska Street (formerly Kirova Street), where they held them for several hours. “They asked me if I was a fascist … I told them that my grandfather was Jewish and that I was Ukrainian. They said, ‘there is no such country.’”
All the while Alyona and her son could hear them beating and interrogating her husband in the next room. “I told them if they thought he did something wrong, there are courts for that, but you can’t just beat a man to death,” she said. “I could not believe what was happening.”
Russian soldiers put Alyona and her son in a car and said that Vitali “was a terrorist and would answer to Russian Federation law.” The soldiers dumped Alyona and her son under a bridge, and they walked home, arriving at approximately 4 a.m.
Starting on March 28, Alyona searched for Lapchuk. After she learned of Oleh’s release, from Crimea, she said she searched all over Crimea, and also Rostov and Taganrog, through her friends and connections in Russia.
On June 9, a pathologist sent her a text, asking her to call the next day. “I knew immediately. I sobbed all night, then I called the prosecutor [in charge of Lapchuk’s case] and said, ‘I won’t survive this, call [the pathologist] yourself.’” The prosecutor later called Alyona, telling her that on May 22, a young man who had been catching crayfish found her husband’s body floating, his arms tied, a weight tied to his legs.
“All that time I had been praying that he was alive,” she said.
Protesters, Journalists, Activists
Media reported public protests against the occupation in Kherson, Berdyansk and Melitopol, in March, April and early May. Russian forces put some down violently, including in Kherson, using live bullets and wounding some protesters. Two witnesses said that Russian troops aimed for people’s legs; one said that he saw a man who was hit in the legs. Russian forces also hunted down community volunteers who distributed aid to people in need.
Human Rights Watch spoke to nine people who organized, participated in, or witnessed the protests or were community volunteers, all of whom had been detained by Russian forces.
Arkadiy Dovzhenko, 29, a marine biologist from Kherson, said that people in Kherson started protesting in large numbers from the beginning of the occupation and that he joined:
I was just a regular Ukrainian guy. But one day at a protest I picked up the microphone to say: ‘Russians, go home.’ That’s how they heard my voice … and decided I was the organizer. Then Russian journalists started coming, and we made the decision: that we will stop them from getting a pretty picture for their propaganda TV.
Dovzhenko described his detention on April 21:
That day they [began] throwing grenades with teargas. They shot people with real bullets. They aimed at people’s legs. I saw several guys who had to be carried away, who were shot. There was blood on the pavement.
Russian forces detained Dovzhenko as he tried to run from the scene, and took him, blindfolded and hands bound, to the basement of a police building, and from there to another room:
They hit me with clubs, punched and kicked me. It lasted for several hours … In about three hours they took me back to the basement. Then they brought me back up. They asked me the same questions. Who organized this protest rally? Who organized other protest rallies? They asked me if I knew anyone at ATO [Ukrainian military and security force operations in Donbas] [and] for addresses [of other] protesters. They also asked me questions about my religion … told me that Ukrainian Orthodox Christians were terrorists and renegades.
Russian forces held Dovzhenko for seven days, handcuffed and blindfolded for the entire time, interrogating him repeatedly every day. “They gave me water, but it was very bad … They fed us from their food rations. It was almost nothing.”
When they released Dovzhenko, he said, he could barely walk: “I had a brain concussion. I had several broken ribs and a broken kneecap.”
Dovzhenko left Kherson in May, but it took three days of harrowing travel through numerous Russian checkpoints to get 200 kilometers to safety in Kryvy Rih.
City in Kherson Region (name of the city withheld for security reasons)
A local municipal deputy from a city in Kherson region who participated in protests said that around June 7, Russian forces searched his home, beat him for two hours with a baseball bat, and held him, blindfolded, for 36 hours in a cell at a makeshift detention center at a children’s summer camp. They filmed him against his will stating he had agreed to become an FSB informer. They released him 24 hours later, threatening to hold him indefinitely if he did not stop protesting and doing volunteer work. After they returned to his home several more times to harass him, he fled the country.
On March 18, Russian forces detained a protest organizer “Anton” in occupied Berdyansk at a traffic intersection, while he was delivering aid to people in the community. Anton told Human Rights Watch that they drove him, blindfolded and handcuffed, to what he believed was a local police station. The Russian forces asked him whether he was a protest organizer, and when he said no, they hit him with his shoe, knocking him over, and kicked and punched him for several minutes. “I told them I was not a protest organizer, just a patriot of my country, Ukraine. They said, there is no such country.”
The Russian forces made him take off his jeans, taped his legs together and continued beating him. They administered electric shocks through clips they attached to his earlobes, at first for a few seconds, then for up to 20 seconds, while asking questions about protests and his volunteer work. “Everything went dark and I saw orange spots,” he said. “They took an automatic [weapon] and pointed it at my groin and told me to prepare to die.”
After 90 minutes, they led him to a cell, where, he said, he coughed up blood for three hours. On his third day in custody, Russian security personnel blindfolded him and took him to the facility’s second floor, where they made him read on camera a statement they had written, that he had organized protests, urging people not to attend protests, and to trust the new authorities.
They warned that if he did not do the recording, they would detain his son and grandson. “One man held the [text], one filmed, and a third stood behind the camera with his automatic pointed at me. They made me read it twice, as they didn’t like the first one.” Russian forces released him after holding him three days in detention.
He sought medical help for numerous bruises, broken blood vessels in his eyes, and leg injuries. He left on April 5 for a city under Ukrainian control, where he was hospitalized and treated for the injuries, mainly to his ankles. “The soft tissue was crushed. I had about 20 centimeters of [swelling] under the skin and [was at risk of] gangrene. The [doctors] removed it and I had a skin graft. I lay in bed for 22 days without getting up [and] was discharged on May 18.”
Journalists and Volunteers
On March 12, Russian forces detained and held incommunicado Oleh Baturin, a journalist from Kherson region. Baturin told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of March 10, he received a message apparently from his friend, Serhyi Tsyhypa, a former Donbas veteran, asking to meet. When Baturin did not see Tsyhypa at the rendezvous point in Kakhovka, a nearby town, he started walking away. Several men in military garb ran toward him: “They screamed for me to get on the ground, handcuffed me and pulled the hood of my jacket over my head so I could not see anything. They didn’t say who they were, did not tell me what I was accused of or why I was being abducted in this manner.”
The military took Baturin to a local administrative building, where they questioned and beat him: “They told me I was done with [journalism] and threatened to kill me.” Then they took him to the Kherson city police station, where he was questioned again. “All the while I could hear people screaming somewhere nearby and I heard shooting from automatic weapons.” Baturin spent the night in an unheated room at the police station, handcuffed to a radiator. The next day he was taken to a pretrial detention facility in Kherson, where he was questioned every day until his release on March 20.
Tsyhypa is still missing. His wife, Olena, said that witnesses saw him being detained at a checkpoint. A passerby found Tsyhypa’s dog, who was with him the day he disappeared, tied up outside city hall.
On April 6, Russian forces detained Yurii, a Baptist pastor, at a checkpoint in Snihurivka, in Mykolaiv region, near the administrative border with Kherson region, where he had purchased food, medicines, and other basic items for the community in Kherson. After finding several photos on his phone of Russian military equipment, taken in the first days of the invasion, they drove him to a police lock-up.
They held him for six days, in a small freezing cell with no electricity, little food, and barely any water. They questioned him about his involvement in protests and his role as a priest in encouraging people to protest. They confiscated his car, with US$2,000 worth of medicines and humanitarian aid, and what he said was $6,000 of his own money. Russian soldiers at the checkpoint told Yurii that his car was with the FSB in Kherson. He was released under condition that he continue delivering aid to Kherson and pass on information about Ukrainian checkpoints to Russian forces.
Yuri fled Kherson with his wife the next day.
Local Officials, Civil Servants
In newly occupied areas, Russian authorities arrested numerous elected officials, business owners, community activists and people with influence, including the mayor of Melitopol, the mayor of Kherson city, and heads of local administrations. Tasheva, the Ukraine president’s representative, said that as of June 28, among the 431 cases of unlawful detention that Ukrainian law enforcement agencies had opened were six involving mayors of cities in the Kherson region, the heads of three local territorial administration units, 17 regional and local council members, and 43 law enforcement officials. She said 162 were still in detention.
Human Rights Watch documented cases in which a former municipal volunteer, a former policeman, and a head of a regional administration were either detained, or whose family members were unlawfully detained, apparently to pressure them. One remains in custody.
Russian forces in Kherson detained a 36-year-old former policeman on May 27, after they searched his house and found his police uniform and his father’s hunting rifle, his wife said. The man had worked on the police hotline.
The man’s family went every day to the military commandant’s office but were given no information on his whereabouts. “They told us that … that someone was ‘working on him,’” his wife said. Eventually she started going to the pretrial detention center, where on the 28th day of her husband’s detention, a guard accepted the food parcel she had brought for him. Her husband was released on July 12. His wife did not wish to discuss his physical condition, aside from noting that he bore “marks of physical violence.” “You know how they torture people there,” she said.
On April 8, Russian forces detained Vladyslav (Vlad) Buryak, 16, at a Russian checkpoint in Vasylivka, about 70 kilometers from Melitopol, as he was attempting to get to Zaporizhzhia, said his father, the head of Zaporizhzhia regional administration. The father had left Melitopol earlier fearing for his safety, but his son refused to leave because his grandfather was ill and could not travel.
As the soldiers checked passengers’ documents, one of them saw Vlad looking at his phone. They demanded to see it and found several pro-Ukraine Telegram channels on it. One of the soldiers told Vlad to get out of the car, pointed a gun at him and asked if he should shoot him on the spot. The military interrogated Vlad for three hours and, upon discovering who his father was, took him to a police holding facility in Vasylivka, where they kept him in a solitary cell. Buryak told HRW that while in detention, his son was forced to wash the bloodied floors in the facility, including in empty cells, “where Ukrainian [military] were tortured.”
After Vlad spent 48 days in detention, the Russian military transported him to a hotel in Melitopol, where he was held for an additional 42 days, but had regular access to a phone and was able to contact his family. On July 7, Vlad was released.
On June 30, armed Russian forces detained 40-year-old “Alina” and her ex-mother-in-law at Alina’s former husband’s house near Kherson, where they all had been staying since the invasion, Alina’s sister said.
The sister said she believes they were detained because of Alina and her former husband’s participation in the Kherson municipal guard, a community police force set up for a short period of time following the Russian occupation to address looting and destruction. The sister said she believes that the Russian forces have a list of all the participants and have detained many of them.
The soldiers detained Alina and her ex-mother-in-law and forced Alina to leave her 6-year-old son with a neighbor. The authorities released Alina the following evening, but her ex-mother-in-law remained in detention at the time of the interview. Alina delivers clean clothes and medicine to the facility for her ex-mother-in-law’s diabetes and liver problems. She said her ex-mother-in-law’s soiled clothes have blood stains.
Alina told her sister that she believes they are holding her ex-mother-in-law until her son, Aiyna’s former husband who managed to leave Kherson, returns to Kherson and they can detain him.
Other Enforced Disappearances, Unlawful Detentions of Civilians
Human Rights Watch documented 13 additional cases in which Russian forces apparently forcibly disappeared civilians, 12 men and a woman, in Kherson region. Russian forces in most cases did not tell families where their loved ones were being held and provided no information when the relatives inquired. Several were beaten in detention and one was unlawfully transferred to Crimea for “corrective labor.” Family members said none of them participated in the military.
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 an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law, and when committed as part of an attack against the civilian population can constitute a crime against humanity.
Still Forcibly Disappeared
“Yurii,” 43, Kherson
On May 26, Russian forces detained a local businessman “Yurii,” 43, in the parking lot of Kherson’s central market. His stepdaughter said that on July 14 her mother filed an appeal with the Russian military administration, who told her that Yurii was alive and that his case was “under review” but did not say where he was held.
At the end of June, a man contacted her mother, the stepdaughter said, and said he had been Yurii’s cellmate in a makeshift pretrial detention facility in Kherson, and that Yurii had spent several weeks in solitary confinement before being placed in the shared cell. He said there were plans to transfer Yurii to Crimea and then to Rostov, in Russia, supposedly on weapons possession charges.
His wife has visited the facility every few days with packages of food and clothing, which guards at the facility accepted but without confirming he was there.
“Bohdan,” 39, Ivanivka
Russian forces detained “Bohdan,” 39, a warehouse manager on April 29 in the town of Ivanivka in Kherson region. He remains missing. His family contacted the Russian occupying authorities but were given no information.
His wife said she had fled the town with their children in mid-March after Russian soldiers searched their house, questioned Bohdan and detained him for several hours. The next-door neighbors called her in late April and said that Russian soldiers came to the house in two cars and took Bohdan with them. Bohdan had called his wife the day before and told her Russian soldiers had taken his car, promising to return it.
“Dmytro,” 54 Ivanivka
On May 5, Russian forces detained Dmytro, 54, in Ivanivka, Kherson region. His daughter said that Dmytro called on May 4 to say he would be staying with neighbors for a while. Other neighbors told her that they saw Dmytro visiting his house on May 5 to feed his cattle, when soldiers arrived, handcuffed Dmytro, and took him away. The neighbors said that Russian forces had taken over the house, who said they knew nothing about Dmytro’s whereabouts and that “as long as we are here, he cannot come here.”
"Stepan," 49, Oleshky
In the early morning of April 7, a group of approximately 10 armed Russian personnel came to the home of Stepan, 49, a driving instructor, in the town of Oleshky in Kherson region. His daughter, who spoke with her mother afterward, said that her father, mother, and younger sister were at home at the time. The men searched the house and yard, including with metal detectors, saying they were looking for weapons. They separated the family members and questioned them in different rooms. The soldiers referred to one of the men among them by nom-de-guerre “The Wind” (In Russian, Ветер)..
They took Stepan away with them in handcuffs, telling him to bring his identity documents and medicines, saying, “You’ll need them, since things will be very bad for you.” Stepan has pancreatitis, an inflammation of his pancreas, and osteomyelitis, a bone marrow infection, and is officially registered as having a disability.
On April 8, Stepan called his wife and his daughter, separately, from detention, saying that he had had a pancreatic attack, but had received medication and food and was not being beaten. His daughter said it sounded as if her father was speaking on a speakerphone. No one in the family has heard from him since.
A friend, acting on behalf of the family, went to the local military administration to ask about her father, the daughter said, but received no information. The family also contacted Ukrainian government agencies and hotlines and a pretrial detention facility in Crimea, without success.
A woman named Mariia said that on June 25, Russian forces detained her husband, 30, a taxi driver, and her brother, 19, a naval academy student, with two other men in a shop in central Kherson owned by Mariia’s mother-in-law. Mariia said that the shop’s security cameras showed 10 to 15 armed Russian soldiers entering the shop, forcing the men to the floor, taking away their phones, and putting bags over their heads before taking them away.
After the detention, Mariia’s mother-in-law went to the local military administration to ask about the men. Officials did not share any information about the men and told her to wait.
They released Mariia’s husband after 7 days, her brother after 13 days, and the other men after three days. She said they were apparently held in the basement of a Kherson pretrial detention facility. Officials beat them and did not provide sufficient food. Mariia said her brother lost 10 kilograms. She said her brother had sent geolocations of Russian positions to Ukrainian intelligence, although Russian forces did not question him about this. During interrogations, the Russian forces asked questions that showed that “they knew everything about the men,” Mariia said. After the men’s release, she, her husband, brother, and mother-in-law left Kherson out of fear for their safety.
Russian forces detained Vasylii at his home on July 4, and held him for four days. His wife said she had been at home with Vasylii, their toddler child, and Vasylii’s parents. Seven Russian soldiers entered the house and told the men to go outside, and the women to go down to the first floor. The soldiers took photos of the family members’ identity documents, searched the house, and detained Vasylii.
In the evening, his family went to the local military administration office to ask about him, but officials gave them no information. Vasylii was released on July 8. He told his wife he had been held in a former pretrial detention center in Kherson. Russian forces beat Vasylii, used electroshock on him, beat him on his legs with a metal rod, injured his shoulder, and gave him a concussion, his wife said. He still has headaches and nightmares. When they interrogated him, Russians knew everything about him and his family, his wife said.
After his release, Russian forces told Vasylii they would come back to check in on him in three weeks. The family fled Kherson, fleeing for their safety. They have no idea why he was detained, but Vasylii was not in the Territorial Defense Forces, did not participate in the war in Donbas, nor in the pro-Ukraine demonstrations, according to his wife. His wife also told Human Rights Watch that Russian soldiers came to Vasylii’s car repair shop sometime in early April and demanded a payment of 5,000 hryvnia ($US169) to continue running the shop or to repair their cars for free. His wife said that Vasylii gave them the money and they left.
“Valentyn,” 48, Chaplynka
On June 8, 48-year-old Valentyn left his home in a village of Chaplynka, in Kherson region, about 50 kilometers from the administrative border with Russian-occupied Crimea, to go shopping and did not return. Valentyn’s daughter said that his mother, who is in her 70s and whom he cared for, looked for him on June 9 at the local police station, where Russian occupation officials told her he was detained “for drugs,” but did not say where they were holding him. They told her that she should move to a nursing home.
The mother went to the police station daily, and eventually was allowed to see her son. She told the daughter that Valentyn was “all beaten, very thin.” On a subsequent visit, the staff told her that he had been taken to Crimea. Russian authorities released Valentyn about a month after his initial detention, on July 4 or 5.
His daughter said that Valentyn told his family that he had been beaten and had been sent to Crimea for two weeks for “corrective labor.” Authorities did not return his identity documents and bank cards, and barred him from leaving the village. His daughter said Russian personnel allegedly detained several other villagers also on June 8, but she had no further information about them.
All parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, and customary international law. Belligerent armed forces that have effective control of an area are subject to the international law of occupation found in the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions. International human rights law, including notably both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, is applicable at all times.
The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilians, forced transfers of civilians, summary executions, torture, enforced disappearances, unlawful confinement, and inhumane treatment of detainees. Pillage and looting of property are also prohibited. A party to the conflict occupying territory is generally responsible for ensuring that food, water, and medical care are available to the population under its control, and to facilitate assistance by relief agencies.
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.
Anyone who orders or commits serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent, or aids and abets violations, is responsible for war crimes. Commanders of forces who knew or had reason to know about such crimes, but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible, are criminally liable for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.
Russia and Ukraine have obligations under the Geneva Conventions to investigate alleged war crimes committed by their forces, or on their territory, and appropriately prosecute those responsible. Victims of abuses and their families should receive prompt and adequate redress.