Russian Military and Mercenaries Directly Implicated in Torture of Ukrainian Prisoners

Dec 14 2015

Ukrainian human rights activists believe that over 87 percent of Ukrainian soldiers and half the civilians who have been taken prisoner by Kremlin-backed, pro-Russian militants in the Donbas have been subjected to torture or ill treatment.

Additionally, in over 40 percent of the so-called “interrogations,” key roles were played by mercenaries from the Russian Federation or by people who identified themselves as Russian military personnel.

The coalition Justice for Peace in Donbas has just released a report entitled “Those Who Survived Hell.” The study is based mainly on a survey of 165 people, both soldiers and civilians, who were held captive by the militants. In many cases, even those who were not themselves tortured report witnessing or hearing the torture of others. One-third of the soldiers in the study, as well as 16 percent of the civilians, had personally witnessed a death as the result of torture.

Oleh Martynenko, one of the authors of the report, notes that the conditions in which prisoners and hostages are held do not meet any international standards. In two-thirds of the imprisonment sites, no medical care is available. Disturbingly, however, the presence of medical staff is no guarantee of greater protection. The researchers found cases where medical workers had taken part in torture, by bringing the victim around in order for the torture to continue.

Martynenko says that the researchers had not anticipated the high ratio of mercenaries and Russian military personnel implicated in the torture of prisoners. This is grounds, he adds, for charging Russia with involvement in war crimes and other offenses—offenses that cannot fall under any “amnesty” currently promoted by Western leaders as part of a peace deal for the region.

Anyone is at risk

Groups organizing prisoner exchanges say that by July 1 of this year, around 2,500 hundred prisoners had been freed, and another 500 remained in captivity. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry says that over 6,000 people have been taken prisoner or have disappeared without a trace, with the fate of 1,500 still unknown.

According to the study, most of the people who have been taken prisoner by the militants are local residents of areas under militant control, although some were simply trying to reach relatives or friends and were detained at checkpoints without explanation. Most chillingly, residents were taken from their homes or workplaces without warrants, and often the militants would then steal their property. Anyone can be targeted, the coalition points out.

One person recounts how six men wearing camouflage gear decorated with St. George ribbons and brandishing Kalashnikov rifles burst into his home and knocked down his elderly mother. He was dragged from the sofa and had his arms bound behind his back. The soldiers removed his computer, telephone, and wallet, and even took a bottle of vodka.

Oleksandra Matviychuk, one of the authors of the report, explains that people are usually accused of holding the wrong (pro-Ukrainian) views, of speaking Ukrainian, or of having Ukrainian flags and other symbols in their home. Or the militants accuse them of having taken part in Euromaidan or pro-unity marches. Sometimes they’re accused of having photographed strategic places.

Maria Varfolomeyeva, the 30-year-old journalist who had stayed in Luhansk to care for her elderly grandmother, has now been held hostage since January. The militants claimed that, as an artillery spotter for the Ukrainian army, she had been photographing the militants’ residences, and threatened her with a fifteen-year “sentence.” There had been no shelling in Luhansk for months before she was seized. Negotiations are still underway to obtain her release, almost eleven months later.

Just under 12 percent of civilians detained were women. Half of these, including women who were pregnant or elderly, faced ill treatment.

Over 18 percent of all of those surveyed had been kicked or punched, and almost 22 percent were beaten with the militants’ rifles. Almost 6 percent experienced other forms of torture, including electric shocks, squeezing of their toes or fingers with tweezers, multiple bullet wounds from shock pistols or similar weapons, and the use of sharp items to cause injury. Almost 75 percent of the civilians in captivity had been threatened with firearms or other weapons.

A woman taken prisoner said of her experience, “I was beaten by a man who called himself Oleg Kubrak. He threatened to rape me, and slashed my arms, legs, and neck with a knife.” Another prisoner recounted, “The militants began to hit me with the butt of their machine guns around the head, back, to my arms. They pulled my arms behind my back. Each tried to hit me, each tried to grab me by the hair.”

Russian captors

Of the Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer battalion members who were captured, 83 percent reported that they had been seized as a result of military clashes and with the direct involvement of Russian Federation forces. One Russian soldier, nicknamed “the Greek,” even presented a document identifying himself as a special response Spetsnaz officer from Moscow; another was commander of the Pskov paratrooper unit.

The study showed that over 87 percent of the Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters captured faced especially brutal treatment, including physical violence and deliberate maiming, as well as humiliation.

To intimidate others, and to show off their captives as “trophies,” the militants have quite openly paraded the men they have taken captive. The most notorious occasion occurred in 2014, on Ukraine’s Independence Day, August 24: militants from the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” staged a shameful march through Donetsk of Ukrainian prisoners. A similar display took place in January this year.

Much of the above treatment, as well as documented cases of abductions and extrajudicial executions, fall within the scope of the International Criminal Court. Ukrainian human rights activists are adamant that Ukraine must ratify the Rome Statute as a matter of priority, so that those guilty of grave war crimes can be brought to answer for their offenses.

This article first appeared on The Atlantic Council site.

by Halya Coynash,
member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

Additionally, in over 40 percent of the so-called “interrogations,” key roles were played by mercenaries from the Russian Federation or by people who identified themselves as Russian military personnel.

The coalition Justice for Peace in Donbas has just released a report entitled “Those Who Survived Hell.” The study is based mainly on a survey of 165 people, both soldiers and civilians, who were held captive by the militants. In many cases, even those who were not themselves tortured report witnessing or hearing the torture of others. One-third of the soldiers in the study, as well as 16 percent of the civilians, had personally witnessed a death as the result of torture.

Oleh Martynenko, one of the authors of the report, notes that the conditions in which prisoners and hostages are held do not meet any international standards. In two-thirds of the imprisonment sites, no medical care is available. Disturbingly, however, the presence of medical staff is no guarantee of greater protection. The researchers found cases where medical workers had taken part in torture, by bringing the victim around in order for the torture to continue.

Martynenko says that the researchers had not anticipated the high ratio of mercenaries and Russian military personnel implicated in the torture of prisoners. This is grounds, he adds, for charging Russia with involvement in war crimes and other offenses—offenses that cannot fall under any “amnesty” currently promoted by Western leaders as part of a peace deal for the region.

Anyone is at risk

Groups organizing prisoner exchanges say that by July 1 of this year, around 2,500 hundred prisoners had been freed, and another 500 remained in captivity. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry says that over 6,000 people have been taken prisoner or have disappeared without a trace, with the fate of 1,500 still unknown.

According to the study, most of the people who have been taken prisoner by the militants are local residents of areas under militant control, although some were simply trying to reach relatives or friends and were detained at checkpoints without explanation. Most chillingly, residents were taken from their homes or workplaces without warrants, and often the militants would then steal their property. Anyone can be targeted, the coalition points out.

One person recounts how six men wearing camouflage gear decorated with St. George ribbons and brandishing Kalashnikov rifles burst into his home and knocked down his elderly mother. He was dragged from the sofa and had his arms bound behind his back. The soldiers removed his computer, telephone, and wallet, and even took a bottle of vodka.

Oleksandra Matviychuk, one of the authors of the report, explains that people are usually accused of holding the wrong (pro-Ukrainian) views, of speaking Ukrainian, or of having Ukrainian flags and other symbols in their home. Or the militants accuse them of having taken part in Euromaidan or pro-unity marches. Sometimes they’re accused of having photographed strategic places.

Maria Varfolomeyeva, the 30-year-old journalist who had stayed in Luhansk to care for her elderly grandmother, has now been held hostage since January. The militants claimed that, as an artillery spotter for the Ukrainian army, she had been photographing the militants’ residences, and threatened her with a fifteen-year “sentence.” There had been no shelling in Luhansk for months before she was seized. Negotiations are still underway to obtain her release, almost eleven months later.

Just under 12 percent of civilians detained were women. Half of these, including women who were pregnant or elderly, faced ill treatment.

Over 18 percent of all of those surveyed had been kicked or punched, and almost 22 percent were beaten with the militants’ rifles. Almost 6 percent experienced other forms of torture, including electric shocks, squeezing of their toes or fingers with tweezers, multiple bullet wounds from shock pistols or similar weapons, and the use of sharp items to cause injury. Almost 75 percent of the civilians in captivity had been threatened with firearms or other weapons.

A woman taken prisoner said of her experience, “I was beaten by a man who called himself Oleg Kubrak. He threatened to rape me, and slashed my arms, legs, and neck with a knife.” Another prisoner recounted, “The militants began to hit me with the butt of their machine guns around the head, back, to my arms. They pulled my arms behind my back. Each tried to hit me, each tried to grab me by the hair.”

Russian captors

Of the Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer battalion members who were captured, 83 percent reported that they had been seized as a result of military clashes and with the direct involvement of Russian Federation forces. One Russian soldier, nicknamed “the Greek,” even presented a document identifying himself as a special response Spetsnaz officer from Moscow; another was commander of the Pskov paratrooper unit.

The study showed that over 87 percent of the Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters captured faced especially brutal treatment, including physical violence and deliberate maiming, as well as humiliation.

To intimidate others, and to show off their captives as “trophies,” the militants have quite openly paraded the men they have taken captive. The most notorious occasion occurred in 2014, on Ukraine’s Independence Day, August 24: militants from the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” staged a shameful march through Donetsk of Ukrainian prisoners. A similar display took place in January this year.

Much of the above treatment, as well as documented cases of abductions and extrajudicial executions, fall within the scope of the International Criminal Court. Ukrainian human rights activists are adamant that Ukraine must ratify the Rome Statute as a matter of priority, so that those guilty of grave war crimes can be brought to answer for their offenses.

This article first appeared on The Atlantic Council site.

by Halya Coynash,
member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

Free Russia Foundation demands Navalny’s immediate release

Jan 17 2021

On January 17, 2021, Putin’s agents arrested Alexey Navalny as he returned to Russia from Germany where he was treated for a near-deadly poisoning perpetrated by state-directed assassins.

Navalny’s illegal arrest constitutes kidnapping. He is kept incommunicado from his lawyer and family at an unknown location and his life is in danger.

Free Russia Foundation demands his immediate release and an international investigation of crimes committed against him by Putin’s government.

The European Court of Human Rights Recognizes Complaints on Violations in “Ukraine v. Russia” as Admissible

Jan 14 2021

On January 14, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights published its decision on the case “Ukraine v. Russia”. The Grand Chamber of the Court has recognized complaints No. 20958/14 and No. 38334/18 as partially admissible for consideration on the merits. The decision will be followed by a judgment at a later date.

The case concerns the consideration of a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights related to Russia’s systematic administrative practices in Crimea. 

The admissibility of the case is based on the fact that, since 2014, the Russian Federation has exercised effective control over the territory of Crimea, and, accordingly, is fully responsible for compliance with the norms of the European Convention on Human Rights in Crimea. The Court now needs to determine the specific circumstances of the case and establish the facts regarding violations of Articles of the Convention during two periods: from February 27, 2014 to March 18, 2014 (the period of the Russian invasion); and from March 18, 2014 onward (the period during which the Russian Federation has exercised effective control over Crimea).

The Court has established that prima facie it has sufficient evidence of systematic administrative practice concerning the following circumstances:

  • forced rendition and the lack of an effective investigation into such a practice under Article 2; 
  • cruel treatment and unlawful detention under Articles 3 and 5; 
  • extending application of Russian law into Crimea with the result that, as of  February 27, 2014, the courts in Crimea could not be considered to have been “established by law” as defined by Article 6; 
  • automatic imposition of Russian citizenship and unreasonable searches of private dwellings under Article 8; 
  • harassment and intimidation of religious leaders not conforming to the Russian Orthodox faith, arbitrary raids of places of worship and confiscation of religious property under Article 9;
  • suppression of non-Russian media under Article 10; 
  • prohibition of public gatherings and manifestations of support, as well as intimidation and arbitrary detention of organizers of demonstrations under Article 11; 
  • expropriation without compensation of property from civilians and private enterprises under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1;
  • suppression of the Ukrainian language in schools and harassment of Ukrainian-speaking children under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1; 6 
  • restricting freedom of movement between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, resulting from the de facto transformation (by Russia) of the administrative delimitation into a border (between Russia and Ukraine) under Article 2 of Protocol No. 4; and, 
  • discriminating against Crimean Tatars under Article 14, taken in conjunction with Articles 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the Convention and with Article 2 of Protocol No. 4 to the Convention.

Cases between states are the rarest category considered by the ECHR. Almost all cases considered in Strasbourg concern individuals or organizations and involve illegal actions or inaction of the states’ parties to the Convention. However, Art. 33 of this Convention provides that “any High Contracting Party may refer to the Court the question of any alleged violation of the provisions of the Convention and its Protocols by another High Contracting Party.” In the entire history of the ECHR since 1953, there have been only 27 such cases. Two of them are joint cases against Russia, both of which concern the Russian Federation’s aggression on the territory of its neighboring states, Georgia and Ukraine.

New Year’s Blessings to All

Dec 30 2020

While 2020 gave us unprecedented challenges, it created transformative changes in the way we work and communicate. The hours of Zoom calls seemingly brought us all closer together as we got a glimpse into each other’s makeshift home offices along with interruption by kids and the family pets. Remote work also made us appreciate human interactions, in-person events and trips much more!

As 2020 comes to an end, we want to especially thank our supporters who continued to believe in our mission and the value of our hard work, and we hope the coming year brings all of us progress and growth for democracy throughout the world. We’d also like to thank our partners and staff in the U.S. and abroad, and we know how hard everyone has worked under difficult world changes to achieve so many of our objectives this year.

We send our best wishes to all who have stayed in the fight for democratic reforms and for the values of basic human rights. We look forward to a new year with the hope of many positive changes to come.

– Natalia Arno and the Free Russia Foundation team.

International Criminal Court Asks for Full Probe Into Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Dec 14 2020

On December 11, 2020, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Fatou Bensouda, issued a statement on the preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine by the ICC Office of the Prosecutor.

According to the findings of the examination, the situation in Ukraine meets the statutory criteria to launch an investigation. The preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine was opened on 24 April 2014.

Specifically, and without prejudice to any other crimes which may be identified during the course of an investigation, Office of the Prosecutor has concluded that there is a reasonable basis at this time to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the Court have been committed in the context of the situation in Ukraine.

These findings will be spelled out in more detail in the annual Report on Preliminary Examination Activities issued by the Office and include three broad clusters of victimization:

1.     crimes committed in the context of the conduct of hostilities;

2.     crimes committed during detentions;

3.     crimes committed in Crimea.

These crimes, committed by the different parties to the conflict, were sufficiently grave to warrant investigation by Office of the Prosecutor, both in quantitative and qualitative terms.

Having examined the information available, the Prosecutor concluded that the competent authorities in Ukraine and/or in the Russian Federation are either inactive in relation to the alleged perpetrators, or do not have access to them.

The next step will be to request authorization from the Judges of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the Court to open investigations.

The Prosecutor urges the international community, including the governments of Ukraine and Russia, to cooperate. This will determine how justice will be served both on domestic and the international level.

We remind you that on September 21, 2020, Free Russia Foundation sent a special Communication to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (the Hague, the Netherlands) asking to bring Crimean and Russian authorities to justice for international crimes committed during the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Comment by Scott Martin (Global Rights Compliance LLP):

As Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda reaches the end of her tenure as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, she announced yesterday that a reasonable basis existed to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed in relation to the situation in Ukraine. One of the most consequential preliminary examinations in the court’s short history, the Prosecutor will now request authorization from the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber to open a full investigation into the situation.

Anticipating that the Prosecutor’s request will be granted, the ICC Prosecutor’s office will be investigating the second group of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Russian Federation (the situation in Georgia being the other). This would make Russia the only country in the world facing two separate investigations at the ICC for crimes under its jurisdiction.

Call for Submissions – The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly vol. 3

Oct 26 2020

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlins Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.

We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.

Your contribution to The Kremlins Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.

Each chapter in The Kremlins Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: info@4freerussia.org. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.