Focus: Is the torture of civilians organized on a large scale, Kherson under Russian military occupation | Reuters

KHERSON, Ukraine (Reuters) – Oksana Minenko is a 44-year-old accountant living in the southern Ukraine city of Kherson. She said she was detained and tortured many times during the Russian military occupation of the city.

On January 12, Oksana Minenko is a 44-year-old accountant living in the southern Ukraine city of Kherson. He says he was detained and tortured many times during the Russian military occupation of the city. Ukrainian investigators examine the Kherson basement, where 30 people were allegedly held for two months during the Russian occupation, December 2022. REUTERS/Anna Voitenko

Her husband, a soldier in the Ukrainian army, died in the battle for the Antonivsky Bridge in Kherson on the first day of all-out war with Russia. Minenko said he was interrogated several times by the Russian military last spring. At that time, the Russian military dipped Minenko’s hands in hot water and removed her fingernails. She was hit so hard in the face with a gun butt that she had to undergo plastic surgery.

“Pain after pain. I was a living corpse.”

In early December, Minenko had scars around her eyes when she was interviewed at a temporary humanitarian assistance center. It is said that it is a surgical scar to repair the wound caused by torture.

Reuters spoke to more than a dozen victims who said they had been tortured, as well as Ukrainian police officials and international prosecutors working to help Ukraine. The methods of physical torture allegedly used by Russian forces during the occupation included electric shocks to the genitals, beatings, and various forms of asphyxiation.

Some testified that those detained were held for up to two months in overcrowded cells without toilets and were not given adequate food and water.

Reuters was unable to independently corroborate the individual testimony provided by Minenko and other Kherson residents. But it is consistent with what Ukrainian authorities and international human rights experts have said about the conditions and treatment of detainees. The detainees were blindfolded and tied up, subjected to beatings, electric shocks, severe bruises, broken bones and other injuries, and were subjected to sexual assault, including being forced to strip naked.

Andriy Kovalenko, the chief war crimes prosecutor of the Kherson Region, said that “torture was systematic and thorough” as a means of collecting information on the Ukrainian army and its collaborators, and as a punishment for those critical of the Russian military occupation. It was done intentionally,” he said.

The Russian government and the defense ministry did not respond to Reuters inquiries about allegations of torture and illegal detention. Moscow has said it is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine that has not targeted civilians and committed no war crimes.

Reuters has obtained exclusively from the head of the Ukrainian war crimes prosecution the most comprehensive data on torture and detention allegedly carried out by the Russian military to date. Ukrainian authorities have launched pre-trial investigations into thousands of Kherson Oblast residents allegedly abducted or illegally detained by Russian forces during months of occupation, it said.

Ukrainian police officials say it is becoming clear that the scale of the alleged war crimes in Kherson Oblast was far greater than in the capital Kyiv. This is because the Kherson province was occupied for a much longer period than the surrounding Kyiv.

According to Yuri Belousov, head of the war crimes prosecution at the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office, authorities have identified 10 sites used by the Russian military as bases for illegal detention in Kherson province. About 200 people were allegedly tortured or physically assaulted while detained at these posts, and about 400 others were illegally detained, Belousov said. Ukrainian officials expect these numbers to rise even further, with investigations continuing since the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson in mid-November. Nearly a year after Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine, Kherson was the only provincial capital it successfully captured.

Belousov said authorities had launched a pre-trial investigation into alleged illegal detention of more than 13,200 people across Ukraine. He said he has opened 1,900 hearings on allegations of unlawful treatment and unlawful detention.

Russia has accused the West of ignoring war crimes committed by Ukraine, including the execution of Russian prisoners of war by Ukrainian soldiers. The United Nations (UN) said in November that it had evidence of torture of prisoners of war on both sides, but one UN official said Russia’s actions were “highly systematic”. The Ukrainian government has previously said it would investigate any allegations of abuse by its military.

Minenko believes she was tortured because her husband was a soldier. When she buried her husband a week after her death in action, Russian soldiers appeared at her cemetery, forced Ms. Minenko to kneel by her husband’s grave, and fired an automatic rifle to simulate her execution. , she complains.

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According to Minenko, in March and April, men in Russian military uniforms and balaclavas covered their faces by visiting his home three times at night, interrogating them and taking them to detention centers. It says. On one occasion, he undressed her, tied her hands to her chair, covered her head, and beat her.

“When you put a bag over your head and get hit, you choke and you can’t breathe. You can’t do anything, you can’t protect yourself,” Minenko said.

“Widespread” war crimes

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February sparked Europe’s largest ground war since World War II. The Russians began occupying the city of Kherson in March, but withdrew their troops in November as it was futile for the Russians to shed more blood there.

More than 50,000 reports of war crimes have been registered with the Ukrainian authorities. According to Belousov, more than 7,700 of them came from the Kherson region. 540 civilians are still missing in Kherson province. Kovalenko, a war crimes prosecutor in the Kherson region, said some of the missing, including children, were taken to Russian-held areas in what appeared to be deportations.

Belousov said authorities had found more than 80 bodies, more than half of them civilians. More than 50 of them died from gunshot or shelling injuries. He added that many civilian bodies have also been found in other areas where Russian troops have withdrawn. Among them are the bodies of more than 800 civilians found in Kharkiv province. Ukraine recaptured large swaths of Kharkiv Oblast in September, and the investigation has been going on longer than Kherson.

In a Facebook post dated January 2, Kharkiv police chief Volodymyr Tymosyko said Ukrainian authorities had identified 25 strongholds used by Russian troops in Kharkiv province, describing them as “torture camps”.

Some of the thousands of war crimes attributed to Russian forces could lead to trials abroad if deemed serious enough. The International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague, has already launched an investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

Controversial figures surrounding the scale of allegations of detention and torture “show the extent and severity of criminal activity in Russian-occupied territories,” said Ukraine’s government’s efforts to prosecute war crimes. British lawyer Nigel Probose, who is the lead prosecutor of the Western legal team that supports .

Probose said there appeared to be a common pattern in the methods of inflicting terror and pain, which led to a “widespread criminal policy targeting the Ukrainian civilian population stemming from the[Russian military’s]upper echelons.” He explains that the impression that

A 35-year-old man from the city of Kherson said that during his five-day detention in August, Russian forces beat him, stripped him of his clothes and gave him electric shocks to his genitals and ears. “It’s like a ball hit him in the head and he faints,” the man recalled when the electric current passed through him. Out of fear of reprisal, he agreed to be interviewed on the condition that only his name, Andry, be made public.

Detainees suspected Andriy of being linked to the resistance movement and questioned him about Ukrainian military activities, including where weapons and explosives were stored. Andriy told Reuters he had acquaintances who served in the Ukrainian army and regional defense units, but he had not taken part.

According to Ukrainian authorities, one of the largest detention facilities in Kherson Oblast was an office building in the city of Kherson. More than 30 people were reportedly crammed into one of the burrow-like basements used as a base for detention and torture during the Russian occupation. Authorities say an investigation is ongoing to ascertain the total number of people detained.

When I visited the basement of the building in December, it smelled of human excrement and the light from the windows was blocked by piles of bricks. Iron pipes and zip ties for restraint were scattered about, and wires hanging from the ceiling, which were believed to have been used to deliver electric shocks, were all visible marks of tools Ukrainian authorities said the Russians had used for torture. Scale-like scratches were carved into the wall. Officials say they may have left it to count the days people were detained. A message was also left behind. One read, “I live for her.”

Another place in Kherson where people are said to have been interrogated and tortured is the building of the police complex. Nearly a dozen Kherson residents interviewed by Ukrainian authorities and Reuters said the area was called “the hole” by locals.

Lyudmila Shumkova, 47, was detained for more than 50 days last summer. She said she spent most of that time with her 53-year-old sister in the same building on Enerhetkiv (meaning “energy worker”) street No. 3. The Russians believe that her sister’s son is involved in resistance activities and have questioned her about it.

Shumkova, who works as a medical lawyer, said about half a dozen people were crammed into cells with only small windows to let in light and were fed only once a day. Shumkova herself escaped physical torture, but other prisoners, including a female police officer, were tortured in the same cell. Shumkova said men were the most severely tortured. “I was screaming. It was constant, every day. Sometimes it lasted two hours, three hours.”

Investigators continue to seek to identify those responsible for the alleged war crimes, including the possible involvement of high-ranking military officials. When asked if he had initiated criminal proceedings against the perpetrators of torture, Belousov, head of the war crimes prosecutor’s office, said he had identified more than 70 suspects and had prosecuted 30 so far.

Belousov did not identify individual names, but said most of the suspects were military non-commissioned officers. Some also include “senior officers, especially colonels and lieutenant colonels,” as well as pro-Russian militant leaders from Lugansk and Donetsk. Insurgent representatives in both Lugansk and Donetsk did not respond to inquiries about any involvement in illegal detention or torture.

The Russian government and the Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to questions about war crime suspects.

On a cold December day, war crimes investigators were in the village of Birozerka, Kherson province, in a courthouse that the Russian military said had been used as a base for detention and torture, as well as a quarters for about 300 Russian soldiers. I searched nearby schools. On the walls of the now-abandoned school building, the letter “Z”, which became a symbol of Russia’s support for the war, was painted, and miscellaneous items such as gas masks, medical kits, and Russian-language books were scattered about. Bullets were lodged in the brick walls.

At the courthouse, a small investigative team took fingerprints and collected DNA samples. In the adjacent garage, leave yellow plates with numbers to identify the evidence. Office chairs were overturned, zip ties were strewn nearby, and gas masks with water tubes and drinking pouches were found. Two investigators say it resembles an improvised torture device allegedly used by the occupying Russian military to create the sensation of drowning.

Inquiries to the Russian government and the Russian Ministry of Defense regarding the methods of torture allegedly used were unanswered.

(Anthony Deutsch, Anna Voitenko, Olena Harmash, translation by Erklelen)

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