(Kyiv, October 19, 2022) – Russian forces and others operating under their command routinely tortured detainees during their six-month occupation of Izium, a city in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine, Human Rights Watch said today.
Survivors described being subjected to electric shock, waterboarding, severe beatings, threats at gunpoint, and being forced to hold stress positions for extended periods. They identified at least seven locations in the city, including two schools, where they said soldiers had detained and abused them.
“The cruel violence and abuse in Izium were not random incidents,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Multiple victims shared credible accounts with us of similar experiences of torture during interrogation in facilities under the control of Russian forces and their subordinates, indicating this treatment was part of a policy and plan.”
In late September and early October, Human Rights Watch spoke with over 100 people in Izium who were there during the Russian occupation of the city, from March to early September 2022. Almost all said that they had a family member or friend who had been tortured, and fifteen people, fourteen men and one woman, described being tortured themselves. One of the men had ties to the armed forces but the rest were civilians. The families and friends of two other men who were detained and tortured said the men killed themselves within days their release.
Those detained were taken from their homes, on the street, or from an outdoor market and held for up to 14 days. All the men said they were given electric shocks or beaten with hands, rifle butts, metal pipes, plastic pipes, a rubber hose, and in one instance a stick with a bag of sand at the end. One man was detained five times and tortured multiple times during each detention.
The woman said soldiers slapped her, punched her in the stomach, and threatened to rape her during her day-long detention. The Washington Post reported the case of another woman apparently held in the same room at a different time, who said she was repeatedly raped. A man held there at the same time said he heard women screaming and overheard soldiers talking about sexual violence against at least one detainee.
One 21-year-old man said soldiers detained him at an outdoor market on July 5 or 6 because they saw a tattoo on his elbow which he said is common among some people with right wing views. He said he had the tattoo because it was also popular among some Ukrainian football fans.
One man detained in early April from his workplace at the water pumping station said the soldiers forced him to be recorded on video while they accused him of being a “Banderovets,” a term used derogatorily by Russians to refer to Ukrainians who support their government; the term is an allusion to the anti-Soviet partisan movement during World War II. When he was released two days later, some of his friends told him that they had seen the video. Human Rights Watch located the video reposted on YouTube, showing the man researchers interviewed being accused of being a “Banderovets.”
All those detained said they were ordered to reveal the names of Izium residents who served in the police force, the Territorial Defense Forces, or were veterans of the 2014 Ukrainian military and security force operations in the Donbas region, known as ATO. Some were accused of possessing weapons or drugs. Two said they were asked directly whether they supported Russia. Russian forces tried to compel one man who had a generator at his home to sign a document handing his home over to them. Another said forces came to his home, put marijuana on his kitchen table, and demanded that he sign a confession that he possessed drugs.
All of those interviewed who were detained said Russian soldiers stole items from them, including money, jewelry, electronics, and cars.
International and national medical organizations and institutions should urgently establish services in the Kharkiv region and other de-occupied areas to support victims of torture, including psychosocial (mental health) support and specialist services for survivors of sexual violence.
“We are still learning about the scope of the crimes and other abuses committed against people in Izium during Russian occupation, but it is clear that survivors need assistance now,” Wille said. “Our findings indicate that Russian troops have committed horrific abuses in many areas they have occupied, and there is real concern about similar abuses in other areas they continue to control.”
For more information on the facilities where people were tortured and the types of torture documented by Human Rights Watch in Izium, please see below.
Torture Facilities in Izium
Witnesses identified seven facilities in the city that Russian forces had allegedly used as bases and detention facilities: two schools, a police station, a former hospital compound, a water and sanitation station, a private residence, and a private factory. Researchers were able to enter four of the facilities and verify that they were indeed used as detention facilities. Those interviewed are identified by pseudonyms for their protection.
Two of the men said they were moved to various locations and did not know where they had been held. Several families heard that people were also being detained at Izium’s School No. 2, but researchers did not identify anyone who had been held there.
One former detainee showed Human Rights Watch a private home now housing Ukrainian forces, where he believes Russian forces held him for a day. He said his captors threatened him, saying: “Don’t mess with us, or Kirov special forces will show themselves.” Later they took him to another house a long drive away, telling him it was “on the front line” and that he would disappear, before they drove him back to the city and released him. Residents of the area said that Russian forces were using the first house during the time the man said he was detained.
City Railway Polyclinic
A building in the Verkhnie Selysche district on the left bank of the Donets River in Izium is next to the railway station, known colloquially as the “railway district.” It had stopped operating as a hospital about two years prior to Russian forces arriving in the city. Next to the main building is another building with at least three garages. Eight men, interviewed separately, said that Russian forces had detained them and others in two garages next to the main building, which they occupied. The woman said she was held in a small room in a building opposite the garages.
Human Rights Watch visited the hospital on September 22, which was largely undamaged, and inspected the garages. The two garage rooms matched the former detainees’ descriptions, such as one with a brick wall and the other with cement walls. Before Human Rights Watch visited, Ukrainian police had searched the hospital compound.
All eight men said they had been tortured with electric shocks. In one room in the building, Human Rights Watch saw two electric outlets that were blackened, but it’s unclear whether this resulted from the abuse. According to two Ukrainian electrical engineers, sockets can blacken in this way if they overheat for example during electric shocks if the electrodes were located close to each other on the victim’s body.
Boghdan, 36, said he was a policeman, ATO veteran, and member of the Territorial Defense Forces, and that he was detained in a garage at the City Railway Polyclinic. Boghdan was held with another ATO veteran, Yevgeny, about 40, but Boghdan said that soldiers came and took Yevgeny away. Since the area was back under Ukrainian control, Boghdan said he has tried unsuccessfully to confirm whether Yevgeny had been released and if he is still alive.
Two men said that they heard women’s screams while being held in the garages. Taisa, 36, said that Russian forces detained her and her husband at their home in mid-June and took them to the City Railway Polyclinic. She said she was held alone for a day in a small room in a building opposite to the garages on the hospital compound. At one point, a soldier came to the door and shouted that she should “prepare yourself, [another] soldier will be coming to rape you,” though it didn’t happen. She said she was taken to a room in the main building and interrogated once.
The Washington Post interviewed a woman who said she was held for 10 days in early July in what, according to detailed descriptions from both women, researchers determined to be the same room, and subjected to electric shocks and repeated rapes, including through forced oral sex. Boghdan, who was held during the same time period there, said he heard women’s screams on multiple occasions, and said he heard two soldiers standing outside of the garage door one day speaking. “Don’t give her food, she didn’t give a blow job,” he remembered one of them saying.
When inspecting the room, Human Rights Watch saw Alla, the name of the woman interviewed by The Washington Postcarved on the wall, as well the words and phrases “electricity, undressed or raped,” “barely alive,” “murdered,” “very painful,” and “help.” She told The Washington Post that she considered trying to kill herself in detention.
Those held in the garages said they were fed only once a day and given about 1.5 liters of water to share with up to 13 people held in the garage.
On the wall in one of the hospital rooms researchers found an emblem and the German words “Truth Sets You Free” written on the wall in what could have been a reference to the Nazis’ use of “Work Sets You Free” – the slogan on the gate to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. A former employee of the hospital told researchers that the emblem and phrase appeared on the walls after Russian forces started occupying the building. The emblem could depict crossed stick grenades, which was the symbol of the Dirlewanger Brigade, a German SS brigade from World War II.
The hospital compound is next to the city’s cultural center, which the Russian military used as a base, nearby residents said. Human Rights Watch visited the center and saw numerous signs of a Russian military presence. On the doors of two ground floor offices, researchers saw “3rd squad, 2nd platoon” above a large Z, and “2nd squad, 2nd platoon, 8th company,” written in black pen.
Izium Central Police Station
The Izium central police station, on the right bank of the Donets River, was a key base for Russian forces during their occupation, local police, officials, and residents said. Human Rights Watch interviewed five men who said they were held and tortured there. They described the cells where they were held – on the eastern side of the building on the ground floor or in the basement. Researchers found cards on eight cell doors, apparently with the number of people in each cell, from one to four.
All five men said they were taken almost every day to the basement on the western side of the building, where they were interrogated and tortured. Two said that their captors forced gas masks over their faces when their screams became too loud. Researchers found five gas masks in a large room that used to be a shooting gallery, in the basement on the left side of the police station.
Taras, 31, a builder, said that on August 19 or 20, two Russian soldiers stopped him at a checkpoint, took him to his house, and searched it, where they found bullet casings that he had collected, and then detained him. Taras said they left him in their vehicle for a few hours, then three soldiers took him into the police station.
“They took me to one of the offices inside and beat me on and off for three hours, one with a metal rod and the other with a plastic pipe while they demanded that I give them the names of residents who were in the Territorial Defense Forces,” Taras said. “They even put a gun to my head and threatened to shoot me unless I gave names.”
Taras said they held him for two weeks in another room with between two and four others, fluctuating over time. He said one man detained with him, Vitali, 21, had been detained with his father, who was held in an adjacent room, and they heard his screams. Taras said that he had recently seen two of the men held with him, but he did not know what had happened to the other two.
Yura, 46, who works for an energy operation, said Russian forces held him at the central police station for a week in late August. He said that an ATO veteran was in the prison cell below him and prisoners were passing each other cigarettes from one floor to the next through windows at the back of the cells. He said one day the man called up to him asking for a cigarette, saying it would be his last because soldiers were going to kill him. Yura said a short while later, he heard a door open and a gunshot ring out, and he never heard the man’s voice again.
School No. 6
On September 23, Human Rights Watch visited School No. 6, on the left bank of the Donets River, where two men said they were detained and tortured. Three people living next to the school said that Russian forces occupied the school from roughly April to July. Ukrainian Emergency Service workers said that they had cleared landmines and unexploded ordnance from around the school. The school showed minor signs of damage and researchers observed the remnants of three PFM-1 anti-personnel landmines that had detonated and a fourth that appeared undetonated in a patch of grass next to the school.
On April 21, Ihor, 48, an electrician who was arrested five times, said three Russian soldiers came to his apartment and accused him of having marijuana. They searched the apartment, put a bag over his head, and beat him as they marched him down the stairs and to their car. He said they drove him to School No. 6 and locked him in a hallway storage closet for about half an hour. At one point he said he called them fascists and they started beating, kicking, and slapping him. They brought him to a commander who asked him to identify residents who were members of the Territorial Defense Forces or ATO. They released him the next day.
Zhenia, 19, was detained twice, including once at School No. 6. He said soldiers took him from his home on August 24: “At the school, one of the soldiers in charge came over and wanted to hit me. I covered my face. He said, ‘What are you, a boxer?’ Then he called over three soldiers and they all started beating me. They held me first in a storage closet and then in an office for three days but would take me outside sometimes to ask me questions and they would beat me; they even hit me on the head with their walkie talkies.”
A man living close to School No. 6 said he visited the school and spoke to the soldiers many times and that he deduced from their accent that the forces he encountered were LNR or DNR forces (forces from “Luhansk People’s Republic” or “Donetsk People’s Republic”, areas of the Luhanska and Donetska regions respectively, currently occupied by Russia).
School No. 12
On September 22, Human Rights Watch visited School No. 12, also on the left bank of the Donets River, which had been significantly damaged. Four neighbors and a teacher from the preschool opposite the now heavily damaged school said Russian forces occupied the school from early March through July.
Andrii, 55, a civil servant, said that Russian forces took him from his home on April 7 to the school for several hours. He said soldiers blindfolded him and others they had detained in the yard of the school and made them step on round objects:
As we stepped on top of these objects, they shouted that we should not move because we were standing on grenades, and they made sounds as if they were taking out the pins. They kept us standing like that for four hours without moving at all; we were petrified. Finally, one of the soldiers told me to move, and I told him no, I didn’t want to die. He said, “Don’t worry, I have just put the pin back in.” Later as I was leaving, I saw the yard area and I realized they had lied to us; they had made us stand on a bunch of rocks.
He showed researchers photographs his wife took of him after he returned home, with bruising to his legs, side, chest, and elbow from beatings.
A retired policeman said Russian soldiers came to his home in June or July and questioned him about his son, who was a policeman and ATO veteran and had fled the area. He said LNR soldiers, and another soldier who identified himself as Chechen, entered his home, hit him with the butts of their guns, knocked him to the ground, and demanded that he give them the address of police officers and others who were storing weapons, threatening they would take him “underground, where you will tell us everything.”
Another man, a serving policeman, said that as soldiers were searching his apartment in late April, one hit him in the jaw, knocking him down a flight of stairs and breaking his left arm. He said: “I started to scream. Neighbors came out and the soldier told them to go back inside, and that I had just fallen. He then grabbed me by the collar, brought me into our apartment and forced me onto the sofa next to my wife and demanded, ‘where are your weapons?’”
Mykhailo Ivanovych, 67, who was detained in late August for 12 days, said a soldier broke his left arm when he hit him with what Mykhailo Ivanovych thought was a plastic pipe. As of late September, Mykhailo Ivanovych’s arm still had not healed properly and he was awaiting surgery to reset the arm.
Ihor, the electrician who was arrested five times, said soldiers beat him, including with the butt of a rifle, when they detained him on June 24 and took him to the hospital garage. He said they blindfolded him and led him to a room where they first pulled down his pants and beat his buttocks with something hard. Then they demanded that he give them the names of residents who were members of the Territorial Defense Forces, police, or ATO veterans.
Mykhailo Ivanovych said on one occasion while he was blindfolded soldiers pressed what he said felt like needles into his back and shoulders. Researchers did not see scarring to his back and, according to the medical director at Physicians for Human Rights, electric shocks could feel like needles under the skin.
The men interviewed said they were also kicked, slapped, and punched. At least two men had broken ribs when they were released, and one said he also had a broken sternum.
Ihor said that on several occasions, soldiers made him sit on the floor with his knees bent upwards. They then bound his hands under his knees and inserted a metal rod across his chest and under his armpits in a position he referred to as the “parrot” position. He said they then lifted up the metal pipe so that he was hanging.
“At some point I told them, just give me a list of names of whoever you want, and I will sign it,” he said, but they never gave him anything to sign. He said they carried out a second interrogation like this the next day, before releasing him. He said forces forced him into the same position each time he was detained.
Boghdan, the policeman, ATO veteran, and Territorial Defense Forces member, said soldiers forced him into the “parrot position” at least once, but he described it slightly differently, saying the metal rod was beneath his knees and above his elbows. He said one time the metal pipe was unable to carry his weight; when soldiers lifted him up, the pipe bent and broke. Both men said that after being hung in this position, they were unable to use their arms for hours.
Boghdan said that a man held in the garage cell with him was someone he had once arrested as a policeman. He said the man fed him after he had been hung in the parrot position because he couldn’t move his arms. Boghdan said soldiers also put a plastic bag over his head and cut the airflow several times. At one point, when he refused to give the soldiers any information, one threatened that they would make him “sit on a bottle,” indicating anal rape. Boghdan said Russian forces only released him after he agreed to work for them as an informant going forward. Once released, he fled to Russia, and from there to Estonia, Poland and then returned through Ukraine to Kharkiv.
Oleksandr, 52, an agronomist who was detained in early September, described a position he was forced into as the “spider:” soldiers forced him to lie on his chest and tied his hands to his feet behind his back. Then they put electrical pads in his hands and gave him electric shocks.
Oleksandr said soldiers took him from his home, which has its own generator and internet connection, and during his interrogations, including when they put him into the spider position, tried to force him to sign a document giving ownership of his property to the Russian army.
During his five days in detention, Russian soldiers also put him in what he thought was a storage building in his t-shirt, shorts, and shoes. They opened the doors and left him there blindfolded for a full day, with temperatures dropping to what he thought was around 10 degrees Celsius, particularly at night. “By the time they came to get me the next day, I just wanted them to kill me, to put an end to it,” he said. He said he heard the voices of other people being detained in the storage hanger.
While he was held, Oleksandr’s wife said Russian forces came to the house and told her they had killed Oleksandr and would bring her his ears or the whole body to prove it. She only found out he was alive when he was released. She believed they had been attempting to get her to leave their home, so soldiers could take control of it.
Oleksandr showed researchers his knee, which was still inflamed due to the severe beatings.
Two men said they were waterboarded. Oleh, 25, a builder, said soldiers pinned him to the ground, covered his face with a cloth, and poured water over his face on and off for about 30 minutes.
Andrii said that the second time soldiers arrested him, on August 11, they took him to a house and left him blindfolded in the yard for two hours. “Then they took me down into a basement and held my nose shut and poured at least two liters of water down my throat,” he said. “I started throwing up. One said to me, ‘If you don’t start talking, we will bring you to the [soldiers] on the front line and then you will talk.’”
Andrii showed researchers the cloth and duct tape that had been used around his head to cover his eyes. The abuse continued, with soldiers giving him electric shocks on his ankles on and off for another day. Finally, a soldier told him, “You aren’t useful to us, we will kill you,” and they drove him to a forested area, forced him onto his knees, and put a gun to his head. Then a soldier told him if he told anyone about what had happened to him, the soldiers would come back and kill his family. Then they let him go.
All 14 men interviewed said they were given electric shocks, in some cases numerous times, mostly to their ankles, but some said they were shocked on their ears, toes, hands, fingertips, and genitalia. Oleh said soldiers shocked him on his ears and also said that three men held in the garage with him told him they had been given electric shocks on their genitalia.
Ihor said that during several of his interrogations, soldiers put electrical wires around his ankles and shocked him on and off for 30 or more minutes.
“They electrocuted me on my ankles for so long and with so much power that it felt like I was about to have a heart attack,” Oleksandr said. “They would always stop the shock at the last minute, just when you were on the brink of your heart stopping. They beat me afterwards, but because of the shocks, I didn’t even feel the beatings anymore; I couldn’t feel anything.”
Ihor and Zhenia said that on April 17, they were driving a neighbor with her belongings from her home, which had been damaged in an attack, to a friend’s house at around 10 a.m. They said that outside a church in the central part of the left bank of the river, where Russian forces had a checkpoint, LNR or DNR forces, which he deduced from their accents, stopped the car and checked their identity documents. Then he said they accused them of stealing the belongings, even though the owner was in the car.
The forces arrested Ihor and Zhenia and took them to the hospital garage where they held them for three days. During the arrest, Ihor said a soldier hit him in the chest with a rifle butt. He said they did not arrest the woman but took the car with her belongings. While in the garage, Ihor said, they were barely fed, and were only given about 1.5 liters of water a day, to be shared among the eight other people held with them. While there, he said solders beat him once, after they searched him and found a screwdriver in his pocket.
Others said Russian soldiers entered their homes and took all of their electronics, including tablets, iPhones, televisions, and family jewelry, including gold and silver necklaces and rings. They said soldiers also took money they found in their homes or on them at the time they were detained, and in some cases their cars.
Human Rights Watch spoke to relatives and friends of two men, Mykola Papirnyi, 55, and Alexander Glushchenko, 43, who were both detained – Papirnyi for about two days in late June and Glushchenko in June for a day or two and again in July for three days. Both men took their own lives by hanging a day or two after their release.
A man who had been detained with Glushchenko in one of the garages at the City Railway Polyclinic said that he and Glushchenko had been tortured while in detention and that Glushchenko had what his fellow detainees thought were several broken ribs when Glushchenko left the garage. One of Papirnyi’s friends said that Papirnyi had tried to commit suicide in May, after Russian forces confiscated his trailer. On the day he died, the friend found him hanging in his yard, wearing his best suit and shoes, with a ladder nearby, she said.
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.
International human rights law also applies, including the absolute prohibition on torture. Both Russia and Ukraine are parties to the Convention Against Torture and have treaty obligations not only to prevent torture but to investigate and punish those who are alleged to perpetrate it.
The laws of war prohibit willful killing, rape and other sexual violence, 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.
Ukraine, but not Russia, has endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment to take concrete steps to make students, teachers, and schools safer during armed conflict, including by agreeing to refrain from using schools for military purposes.