(Kyiv, October 4, 2022) – Russian-affiliated forces unlawfully detained and apparently killed at least three civilian men, then dumped their bodies in a forest, during Russia’s partial occupation of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, Human Rights Watch said today. This is one among many cases involving alleged war crimes that Human Rights Watch is investigating in the region.
The men, Ivan Shebelnik, 52; Oleksii Taran, 76; and Yurii Kavun, about 59, were detained in late March 2022 and held in a cellar in Kapytolivka, a village near Izium, which a fourth man who had also been detained but survived described to Human Rights Watch. The bodies were found in a forest in early August. Medical and police reports indicate that one suffered from chest trauma with multiple broken ribs, the second died from blunt trauma to the head, and the third had a head wound.
“These brutal killings provide a window into the abuses that residents who lived under Russian occupation for six months witnessed and experienced,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ukrainian authorities, with support from partners, should work to preserve all evidence of these killings and others like them – including any indications of the specific forces and commanders who may have been responsible – to help ensure that those responsible are held to account and justice is ultimately delivered.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine residents of Kapytolivka, about five kilometers southeast of Izium. The residents said that Russian and Russian-affiliated forces began occupying the village in late February or early March and left around September 9, in response to the Ukrainian counter-offensive. During at least the first month of occupation, residents said, most of the occupying forces were from the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” an area of Ukraine’s Luhanska region controlled by Russian-affiliated armed groups and currently occupied by Russia (also known as LNR, which is used as a reference to this area, not as recognition of any sovereignty claims). Residents determined this based on the forces’ accents.
Seven people interviewed said they knew the victims or the circumstances of their detention. Two immediate relatives of Shebelnik, a metal factory worker, said that his in-laws came to visit in late March. They said that Shebelnik and his father-in-law, Taran, left home on the morning of March 23 to collect pinecones to use as kindling but never returned.
Multiple relatives tried to find them, contacting the soldiers based in the area, lodging missing persons complaints with the local police force established by the occupying forces, and visiting School No. 2 in neighboring Izium, which they had heard was being used as a detention center. Two residents of Kapytolivka said there was a Russian intelligence base in the area where Taran and Shebelnik’s relatives said they had gone to collect the pinecones.
In early August, members from the occupying police force contacted the Shebelniks, saying that after a farmer had come across the smell of decaying bodies in the forest, the authorities had recovered three bodies and brought them to Izium Central Hospital for forensic examinations. At the hospital, Shebelnik’s cousin identified the bodies of Shebelnik and Taran based on their clothing. She and another relative saw the death certificates for both men, issued on August 11 by a hospital pathologist.
Shebelnik’s certificate, which Human Rights Watch researchers reviewed, states that he died from chest trauma with multiple broken ribs. Taran’s states that he died from blunt trauma to the head, the relatives said. The local police told the family the third man they found was identified as another village resident, Yurii Kavun, who had died from a head wound.
On September 28, researchers interviewed another village resident, who was detained with the three victims and requested anonymity. He said that four men whom he believed were LNR soldiers detained him on March 24, as they were searching homes on his street and suspected he was hiding a generator on his property, which they wanted to confiscate. He said they took him to a cellar in one of four adjacent houses that the forces were occupying. He estimated it was 2.5 by 2.5 meters, with a low ceiling. It contained two mattresses that he suspected the owners had used to shelter before they fled.
He said that two other men were already being held there. It was dark but he soon recognized Shebelnik’s voice. They had worked together at a nearby factory. He said the other man was very old, and spoke very little, but eventually he found out that he was Taran.
Shebelnik told him that LNR forces stopped them as they were returning home, strip searched them, and brought them there. The detainee said he did not see the LNR forces abuse Taran, but they took Shebelnik upstairs several times: “When he was brought back, he never wanted to talk about what they did to him, but I heard screams each time.”
Two days into his detention, he said, the forces brought in Yurii Kavun, who lived near him. He and Kavun’s neighbors said forces had arrested Kavun because he used to be in the military, though he had retired several years earlier with a herniated disc. One of Kavun’s neighbors said they arrested him, released him, then re-arrested him in late March. The neighbor was home both times.
The former detainee said that Kavun’s face was covered in blood: “He told us a solider shot his gun and the bullet hit something next to Yurii’s face, and lots of metal fragments went into his face. We had one blanket, and we tried to bandage him.” The former detainee said the soldiers finally cleaned and bandaged his face, but then beat him at least three or four times over the next few days. The former detainee was then released.
The former detainee said that two or three other detainees were brought to the cellar while he was there, but only for a day or two, and he didn’t know them since they came from Izium.
On September 28, researchers visited a cellar in the garden behind a home that neighbors said the LNR forces occupied from March to April, which fully matched the description by the former detainee and still contained the mattresses. The neighbors said LNR forces occupied three more houses next to that one.
A man living directly opposite said that on at least one occasion he had heard screams coming from one of the houses. Researchers observed what might have been a blood splatter on the cellar floor. The remains of a burned military vehicle were still in the front yard. Neighbors said the houses had been damaged in attacks in late April, causing the pro-Russian forces to pull back to another base in the area.
These were most likely not the only civilian killings during the occupation, with some bodies buried in a burial site on the outskirts of Izium during the 6-month occupation showing possible signs of torture and executions.
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, in particular as set out in the Fourth Geneva Convention. International human rights law, including prohibitions on inhuman and degrading treatment and torture, the right to life, and the prohibition on arbitrary detention, is also applicable at all times.
The laws of war prohibit willful killing, torture, and inhumane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Anyone who orders or deliberately commits such acts, or aids and abets them, 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.
“These killings in the Izium area add to a long litany of alleged war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine,” Wille said. “As more information on crimes continues to emerge, preserving this evidence with an eye toward successful prosecutions is more important than ever.”