More than 8 months into Russia’s armed attack on Ukraine and the ensuing escalation in hostilities the UN reports widespread abuse, torture of prisoners of war
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), through its Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (the Mission), has been documenting the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) and the conditions of their internment through interviews with POWs, as well as with witnesses and relatives of captured servicepersons. So far, OHCHR has interviewed 159 POWs (139 men and 20 women) held by the Russian Federation (including by affiliated armed groups), and 175 POWs (all men) held by Ukraine.
OHCHR has identified patterns of torture and ill-treatment of POWs held by the Russian Federation (including by affiliated armed groups), particularly during internment. OHCHR has also documented violations committed by Ukrainian state agents towards POWs, which revealed a pattern of ill-treatment at initial stages of capture and evacuation, and sporadic cases of torture and ill-treatment at later stages of internment.
This statement does not focus on the violations documented by OHCHR from open sources, such as through analysis of videos depicting POWs and persons hors de combat being harmed or killed. This information has already been included in OHCHR’s reports, which are available online. OHCHR bases its findings in this statement on information mainly received through confidential interviews of persons who were or had been captured, as well as others with direct knowledge thereof, and applies OHCHR’s methodology and standard of proof of ‘reasonable grounds to believe’.
The Government of Ukraine provided OHCHR confidential access to POWs in places of internment. However, OHCHR has not been granted confidential access to POWs interned by the Russian Federation (including by affiliated armed groups), despite repeated requests. On one occasion, OHCHR was allowed to meet with a group of Ukrainian POWs interned in a pre-trial detention facility in Luhansk. However, no confidential interviews were allowed. The Mission saw thirteen POWs and confirmed that they were alive.
The majority of POWs captured by both parties to the conflict are held in pre-trial detention facilities and penal colonies, in violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) which prescribes that POWs shall not be held in closed confinement and must be quartered under conditions as favourable as the forces of the Detaining Power. The Government of Ukraine established a camp in April 2022, where a number of POWs are held. That camp meets most of the standards required by IHL, as verified by OHCHR during a visit in June 2022.
Treatment of POWs in the power of the Russian Federation, including through affiliated armed groups
Treatment of POWs upon capture
OHCHR has documented serious violations of IHL and gross violations of international human rights law committed by Russian forces or affiliated armed groups upon capture of Ukrainian servicepersons. In one case, members of what appeared to be a group of private military contractors, fighting on behalf of the Russian Federation, dressed in Ukrainian uniforms and used two captured Ukrainian POWs to approach and attack Ukrainian positions near Bakhmut. Those who reported the case to
OHCHR believed that the two POWs and private military contractors were killed during the attack. In another case, a member of the same group of private military contractors shot dead a Ukrainian POW in the Donetsk region during questioning, when he learned that the POW had voluntarily joined the army after 24 February.
OHCHR also documented treatment that may amount to torture or inhumane treatment. For example, several Russian servicemen forced two wounded Ukrainian servicemen with broken legs to crawl about 500 meters to the closest Russian position, filmed them and posted the videos online.
OHCHR documented another case of a wounded Ukrainian POW who died in an improvised detention facility three days after his capture because he was not provided with adequate medical assistance. OHCHR is also examining allegations that several wounded Ukrainian POWs from Mariupol died in a makeshift transit camp in Sartana due to a lack of medical assistance in April.
At the same time, the majority of former Ukrainian POWs interviewed by OHCHR did not complain about physical violence upon capture. Although some were beaten, most stated that Russian soldiers had treated them with respect at the time of surrender and officers protected them from any attempts to humiliate, threaten or beat them. However, most of the servicepersons complained about the pillaging of their belongings, including money, bank cards, jewellery, military clothes, boots and watches. The POWs were then transported to places of internment in a manner that raises concerns. They were often transported in overcrowded trucks or busses, and sometimes lacked access to water or toilets for more than a day. Their hands were tied and eyes covered so tightly with duct tape that wounds were left on their wrists and faces that continued to bleed for up to several days.
Some former Ukrainian POWs recounted sporadic incidents where Russian soldiers who had captured, transported or guarded Ukrainian POWs beat them in apparent retribution for military setbacks or in the immediate aftermath of battle.
Conditions in places of internment and detention
Places of internment of Ukrainian POWs are located both in the Russian Federation and in Russian-occupied territory of Ukraine. In almost all facilities, Ukrainian POWs were held in cells, sometimes overcrowded, without any time outside for exercise. Among the major places of internment are the penal colony near Olenivka; penal colonies in Horlivka, Berdiansk and Dovzhansk (formerly Sverdlovsk); pre-trial detention facilities in Donetsk, Luhansk, Taganrog, Rostov-on-Don, Kursk, Novozybkov, Staryi Oskol and Briansk; and penal colonies in Kursk and Belgorod regions. Smaller groups of Ukrainian POWs were interned at military bases and guardhouses, police stations (in arrest cells) or buildings of other law-enforcement bodies, as well as in improvised places of detention such as garages, barns, and factories, lacking sanitation and adequate living conditions. Based on information from interviews, OHCHR has identified only two places of internment used for Ukrainian POWs by the Russian Federation where most IHL requirements related to internment conditions seemed respected - a former naval school in Sevastopol and a tent town in Belgorod region.
More than 80 per cent of former Ukrainian POWs interviewed by OHCHR complained about the insufficient amount or poor quality of food. They said they were given, for example, undercooked bread, meals with rotten ingredients, or porridge or spaghetti with sand or small rocks in it. In one improvised place of detention in Luhansk region, POWs only received 250 grams of canned food (grains with fat and meat by-products) and a pack of military stale biscuits per person daily, for up to three months. Some identified hunger as the most severe hardship suffered while in captivity. One man said: I was hungry all the time. All my thoughts, even about my family, would come to food.”
OHCHR also heard how food became an instrument of humiliation. A former Ukrainian POW held in a makeshift place of detention - at an abandoned factory - told us “... there was one guard. He would mock the leanest guys, giving them a pack of hard biscuits saying, ‘with this, you must gain two kilograms by the end of the week.’”
POWs held at the penal colony near Olenivka and the Donetsk pre-trial detention facility (SIZO) in April and May said that the little amount of water that was provided to them had unpleasant odour and insects in it. In a makeshift place of internment in the Luhansk region, POWs told OHCHR that they received only half a litre of water per day at some point, including during hot summer months.
Several POWs released from various places of detention described being forced to consume their food in a harmful or humiliating manner. In some cases, POWs had only 45 seconds to 2 minutes to eat, including very hot food that would burn their mouths and throats. Others told OHCHR that they had to eat from dirty dishes or dishes with detergent residue, which caused them digestive problems.
The poor quality of food, water and sanitation led to the spread of intestinal infections among POWs who were then not provided with adequate medical care. Some POWs interviewed by OHCHR described having lost up to a quarter of their body weight as a result of the lack of food, poor hygiene and sickness. Many frequently fainted in captivity. A man told OHCHR: “There were always people who ‘blacked out’. During my interrogation, they [officers of the Federal Penitentiary Service of the Russian Federation] slapped me and one of them asked ‘Will you faint if I punch you in the face’. I replied that I will black out even if I stand up fast.”
In relation to the conditions of internment, OHCHR found that Ukrainian POWs were held in overcrowded cells, most particularly in the DIZO (disciplinary isolation ward) in a penal colony near Olenivka, Donetsk pre-trial facility and a guardhouse in or near Donetsk. POWs spoke of lack of beds, toilets, showers, and hygiene items such as toothbrushes and toothpaste, and denial of access to daily walks in the fresh air. Furthermore, most POWs who were released from places of internment in the occupied parts of Donetsk region reported that Russian armed forced and affiliated armed groups had placed artillery pieces near their place of internment, sometimes only 100 meters away, thereby placing them in danger.
The majority of former Ukrainian POWs interviewed by OHCHR were not required to perform work while in internment. However, in one case documented by OHCHR POWs were used to load artillery ammunition in Alchevsk city in violation of IHL norms on the labour of POWs. The Third Geneva Convention allows a detaining power to utilize the labour of POWs, but only under certain conditions and for work that is not dangerous, humiliating, or military in nature.
Violations of the right to maintain contacts with the outside world affected both POWs and their relatives. Only a handful of Ukrainian POWs with whom OHCHR spoke were allowed to call or text their relatives, on an informal basis, and none were given a chance to send letters. In one of the hundreds of stories heard, the wife of a Ukrainian POW reportedly held in the Russian Federation told OHCHR: “I cannot explain how hard it is for me. But the hardest part of this all is to continue explaining to our small daughter why her father stopped calling….” Most relatives know the exact number of days they lost contact with their loved ones at any given time and described to us the pain of uncertainty that they live through.
Treatment in places of internment
The vast majority of Ukrainian POWs with whom OHCHR spoke described how they were subjected to torture and different forms of ill-treatment while held by the Russian Federation, including through
affiliated armed groups. Their accounts revealed a practice of the use of torture or ill-treatment both to extract military information or testimony for tribunals in occupied territory, and as a widespread daily practice to intimidate and humiliate POWs. POWs with pro-Ukrainian tattoos, members of artillery and tank crews, snipers and sappers, and servicemen that took part in the military operations in eastern Ukraine prior to 2022 were at higher risk of being subjected to the most violent forms of torture or ill-treatment.
The most widespread forms of torture or ill-treatment were beatings by hand (usually wearing tactical gloves), batons or wooden hammers, and kicks to various parts of the body, but usually avoiding the head and other vital areas. Electric shocks were also used, both with tasers and the so-called “TAPik” field military telephone TA-57. A man who was tortured in the DIZO of the penal colony near Olenivka told OHCHR how members of Russian-affiliated armed groups, “attached wires to my genitalia and nose, and shocked me. They simply had fun and were not interested in my replies to their questions.”
Other common forms of torture or ill-treatment reported to OHCHR included stabbing, strangling, attacks or threats of attacks by dogs, shooting with stun guns, threats with weapons, mock executions, placement in a hotbox or a stress position, hanging by hands or legs, burns with cigarettes or lighters, exposure to cold temperatures, threats of sexual violence coupled with actions such as stripping, and the twisting or breaking of joints or bones.
In a few cases, OHCHR documented other forms of torture or ill-treatment, such as inserting burning cigarettes in a victim’s nostrils, applying a tourniquet to cause pain, with the victim fearing loss of limb due to constriction of blood circulation, and forms of sexual violence such as pulling a victim by a rope tied around his genitalia.
OHCHR observed that, while in some places of internment POWs were subjected to torture mainly during interrogations, in other places the POWs were systematically tortured. The most common examples were the so-called ‘admission procedures’ (“приёмка” in Russian) which involved prolonged beatings, threats, dog attacks, tasering, stripping and use of stress positions upon a POW’s arrival at a place of internment. OHCHR heard accounts indicating that members of the Federal Penitentiary Services systematically engaged in this practice against POWs and civilian detainees from Ukraine in pre-trial detention facilities in the Russian Federation. OHCHR also documented the same type of mistreatment in Donetsk pre-trial detention facility, and received complaints about this practice in the penal colony near Olenivka in April 2022. Witnesses told OHCHR about the death of at least one POW during an ‘admission procedure’ in the penal colony near Olenivka in mid-April 2022. OHCHR has reports from other POWs and civilian detainees about eight such deaths there in April 2022, and is working to corroborate them. In these places of internment, POWs were subjected to daily sessions of painful acts of ill-treatment. POWs told OHCHR, for example, how they were forced to stay in stress positions - squatting or in ‘star position’ (leaning on a wall with arms and legs widely spread) - for up to 90 minutes during daily searches of their cells or barracks. Some were beaten randomly or if they moved.
Even though perpetrators did not usually target vital areas of the body during episodes of torture or ill-treatment, OHCHR documented three cases where victims died after infliction of such harm. OHCHR has also received reports about dozens more cases, which are pending corroboration.
Guards in several places of detention also employed humiliating practices, like forcing POWs to sing Russian patriotic or children’s songs or shout slogans, followed by violence in form of beating them if they refused to do so or made mistakes. OHCHR was told repeatedly about the so-called ‘tiny train’
form of torture, which was widespread in one pre-trial detention facility, in which POWs were forced to line up, one bent over another to form a train, and beaten by guards while “the train” moved along.
OHCHR interviewed 20 female POWs upon their release from internment in the facilities near Olenivka, in Donetsk and the Russian Federation.
Several women in pre-trial facilities in the Russian Federation and Donetsk region told OHCHR that during interrogations, they were beaten, subjected to electric shocks and threatened with sexual violence. Moreover, some female POWs were forced to undress and walk naked from one room to another to take a shower, or were subjected to invasive examinations during admission procedures, in the presence of male guards. These women were frequently forced to walk in a stress position through the hall, bent over almost to their feet, while being beaten by guards with batons.
In the penal colony near Olenivka, female POWs were not subjected to physical violence. However, they were constantly psychologically tormented by the screams of male POWs being tortured or ill-treated in nearby cells. Such episodes lasted up to hours, and took place at all times of the day and night. One POW told OHCHR, “I still cannot stand the sound of duct tape. Guards used it to immobilize their victims and start torturing them.”
Women also suffered from dire conditions of detention. They were held in close confinement in overcrowded cells, and permitted walks outside their cells on rare occasions. Up to 30 persons could be held in a six-bed cell. They lacked bedlinen and hygiene items, and generally suffered from constant digestive problems and extreme weight loss as a result of the poor quality and quantity of food and water.
Fair trial rights
In relation to fair trial rights, OHCHR documented numerous cases where Ukrainian POWs were subjected to coercive interrogations and forced confessions and testimony obtained by torture or ill-treatment was used in trials. A Ukrainian POW who was interrogated in Donetsk told OHCHR. “I went from a witness to a suspect and then to a defendant within a moment. At some point, he [the investigator] asked me, ‘Who shot at civilian buildings in Mariupol?’ I replied: ‘Russians did’. He then said: ‘Oh, you are going in the wrong direction’. Immediately two men in masks stormed into the room and dragged me to a toilet to beat me.” He endured three such sessions that day. During the next sessions, he was also shocked with a taser.
OHCHR also spoke with foreign nationals serving with the Ukrainian armed forces who were accused of crimes in Donetsk. They described to OHCHR being tortured to make them confess, denied access to a lawyer of their own choosing, denied adequate interpretation during proceedings, and that they were tried by biased judges.
None of the POWs with whom OHCHR spoke described being visited by any human rights or other independent monitors – either international or national – while held by the Russian Federation. The lack of access by independent monitors to places of internment significantly augments risks of ill-treatment of POWs and deprives them of protection.
Accountability for violations
OHCHR is not aware of any investigations of allegations of violations against POWs by the Russian authorities that have led to prosecutions. Several former POWs reported that they were questioned by either prosecutors or military police in a hospital about signs of beatings on their bodies, but they were not aware whether any investigations have been launched.
Treatment of POWs in the power of Ukraine
Treatment during initial capture and evacuation
OHCHR documented cases of torture or ill-treatment, mostly during initial capture, first interrogations or movement to transit camps and places of internment. In many cases, POWs (from Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups) complained of physical violence towards them, such as being punched in the face, and punched and kicked in the torso after surrendering and during their first interrogations by Ukrainian armed forces. In several cases POWs were stabbed or subjected to electric shocks with ‘TAPik’ by Ukrainian law enforcement officers or military personnel guarding them. One POW recalled: We were most afraid of the military phone. The feeling was awful. Your whole body froze and then you would fall to your side. In another case, a POW told OHCHR that the Ukrainian servicemen who captured him did not let him sleep, tied him to something, kicked him and beat him on the head with some hard object the whole night. Several POWs said that officers of Security Service of Ukraine punched and beat them with a rifle butt right before their interrogation, often on camera.
Many POWs reported poor and often humiliating conditions during their evacuation to transit camps and places of internment. Often naked, they were packed into trucks or minivans, with their hands tied behind their backs. On some occasions this was filmed and placed online. The humiliation of POWs and their exposure to public curiosity are prohibited under IHL. Beatings during evacuation occurred in many documented cases, either during transport or at checkpoints. One Russian POW told OHCHR: “On the way from the evacuation point to a transit camp, the car stopped at seven or eight checkpoints and at each one, the Ukrainian servicemen accompanying us offered the military at the check point the chance to beat us. Some agreed and punched us.”
Treatment in places of internment
OHCHR documented cases of ill-treatment of POWs in a penal colony in the Dnipropetrovska region and in several pre-trial facilities, including so-called ‘welcome beatings’ and afterwards during internment. Such treatment was used as a tool to maintain discipline. Guards forced POWs to kneel for several hours, and beat them with sticks or shocked them with tasers if they moved. In one case, a POW told OHCHR about being suffocated with a piece of fabric placed over his mouth and nose during an interrogation by law enforcement officers.
OHCHR also received allegations of extended internment of POWs in informal places of detention, such as the basements of guardhouses or military headquarters.
OHCHR acknowledges the measures implemented by the Government of Ukraine to ensure the rights of POWs to communicate with their loved ones, by providing the opportunity to call in addition to sending letters as required by the Third Geneva Convention. However, OHCHR continues to receive information that some POWs have not been able to contact or sustain regular contact with their loved ones.
Fair trial rights
OHCHR remains concerned that Ukraine continues to prosecute Ukrainian nationals for their membership in Russian-affiliated armed groups. OHCHR recalls that in international armed conflicts, POWs enjoy combatant immunity and may not be prosecuted for mere participation in the hostilities.
In court proceedings involving these POWs, OHCHR has documented a pattern of poor or untimely legal aid. One Russian POW on trial before a Ukrainian court told OHCHR: “I saw my legal counsel for the first time during the court hearing via videoconference, with no possibility to even discuss the case
in private.” OHCHR also documented a pattern of rushed proceedings where guilty verdicts were pronounced on the same day or the next day after the preliminary hearing. During interrogation, prosecutors usually tried to pressure POWs to plead guilty, saying that it was the only way to get ‘exchanged’.
Accountability for violations
OHCHR is deeply concerned about the credible allegations of summary execution of persons hors de combat, and several cases of torture, reportedly committed by members of the Ukrainian armed forces. While Ukraine has launched criminal investigations in at least two cases, OHCHR has not seen progress in these proceedings. OHCHR urges the authorities to conduct thorough investigations into all allegations, regardless of the affiliation of the alleged perpetrators, and to bring those responsible to justice.
In the nearly nine months of intensive conflict since Russia’s armed attack on Ukraine in February 2022, both sides have captured a high number of POWs. It is crucial to note that the fundamental obligation of a state is to treat all POWs in their power humanely at all times, from the moment they are captured until their release and repatriation. Both Ukraine and the Russian Federation are parties to the Third Geneva Convention that sets out requirements relative to the treatment of prisoners of war.
The parties have had sufficient opportunity to ensure that their detention/internment operations are fully in line with their obligations under international law, in particular the Third Geneva Convention. Detention operations are a reality of armed conflict, and the parties to the conflict must allocate the appropriate and required resources to fulfil these obligations. Third states, in particular those providing support to the belligerents, have an obligation under Common article 1 of the Geneva Conventions to ensure respect of IHL by the parties to the conflict.
OHCHR emphasizes that the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment is absolute, even – indeed especially – in times of armed conflict. The prevention of torture starts with ensuring that independent monitors have access to detainees. The Russian Federation must allow, on a regular basis, full and unimpeded access to places where POWs may be, in particular places of internment, including by allowing confidential interviews with POWs. OHCHR renews its calls on the Russian authorities to do so promptly.
Accountability also is key to deterring and preventing further violations. Both parties to the armed conflict have clear legal obligations to investigate and prosecute all allegations of violations of IHL in relation to the treatment of POWs within their control, regardless of their affiliation. Both parties must do so, fairly, promptly and impartially.