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torture chamber Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast

“Welcome to hell”: UN report exposes Russia’s systematic torture, killings, and crimes against humanity in Ukraine

“No creature alive deserves to be treated like Russians treat Ukrainians in their detention facilities,” a Ukrainian POW told the UN commission
Torture chamber in Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast. Photo: National Police
“Welcome to hell”: UN report exposes Russia’s systematic torture, killings, and crimes against humanity in Ukraine

As the Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine enters its third year, a chilling by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine lays bare the grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws committed by Russian authorities. The report, presented to the Human Rights Council, paints a harrowing picture of civilian suffering, disregard for basic principles, and an escalating pattern of crimes against humanity that demands immediate action.

Torture of POWs: a widespread and systematic practice

The Commission’s findings reinforce previous reports of widespread and systematic use of torture by Russian authorities and soldiers, both in Ukraine and Russia. New evidence strengthens these findings, documenting horrific cases of torture against Ukrainian prisoners of war in various detention facilities across Russia.

One former detainee recounted the brutal treatment he endured in Correctional Colony No. 1 in Donskoy town. He reported being beaten frequently, which resulted in a broken collarbone and further injury that led to gangrene despite needing to recover from foot surgery.

The torture continued with beatings on his buttocks that caused anal bleeding and additional beatings to his face and injured foot, causing more bleeding and knocked-out teeth.

He begged his tormentors to kill him, stating, “I lost any hope and will to live,” and attempted suicide in his cell. At one point, the brutality led him to lose feeling in his feet, prompting him to attempt suicide.

When discovered, he was beaten yet again, suffering a broken tailbone and toe. He also described enduring electric shocks for two weeks. Since his release, the soldier has had to be hospitalized 36 times as of January 2024 due to the injuries and trauma sustained from the torture.

Upon arrival at various detention facilities, prisoners of war were subjected to a brutal “admission procedure” involving beatings and electric shocks, with one recalling the chilling welcome phrase, “Welcome to hell.”

Interrogation sessions often involved torture, where detainees were questioned about the Ukrainian armed forces and their units. This torture wasn’t limited to interrogations but was also used to intimidate and punish them throughout the facilities, including cells, corridors, courtyards, and even bathhouses.

A perpetrator told a victim: “We will now teach you how to fight against the Russians.” Another victim heard a prison guard stating: “Our goal is that you never return to war.”

Another victim recounted that during beatings, perpetrators said: “when will you finally die?”

Detention conditions in several facilities investigated were deemed inhuman or degrading, with inadequate or entirely denied medical support. Detainees faced extreme hunger, being forced to eat worms, soap, paper, and remnants of dog food, leading to significant weight loss. Sanitation facilities were often just a hole in the ground, with limited access to showers and toilets.

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Torture resulted in a range of severe physical and psychological issues for former prisoners of war, including breathing problems, sleep disturbances, mobility issues, broken bones, lost teeth, bleeding, infections, gangrene, diminished eyesight, and internal trauma.

Many developed post-traumatic stress disorder, suffered from anxiety, and some attempted suicide. A former detainee expressed that the treatment by Russians in these detention facilities made them feel subhuman.

The mistreatment of Ukrainian prisoners of war is systematic, with signs that such actions were endorsed or at least condoned by the hierarchy of the involved Russian forces, reflecting a sense of impunity among the perpetrators.

Interviews suggest that high-level officials from FSIN and Spetsnaz units set a clear tone for the harsh treatment of detainees, using dehumanizing language and giving direct orders to employ torture. Continual torture practices, regardless of personnel rotations, indicate an established policy of brutality, with incoming staff reportedly receiving explicit approval to abuse detainees.

“Russians tortured us so badly we thought we wouldn’t make it out alive,” civilian survivors say

Previously, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights reported cases of torture and inhumane treatment of Ukrainian prisoners by Russian forces. The widespread and systematic torture of Ukrainian prisoners of war has been documented also by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Rape and sexual violence

The report sheds light on additional cases of rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by Russian authorities against women in Kherson, Kyiv, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. These acts, often accompanied by physical violence and threats, constitute war crimes and torture, leaving victims with severe physical and mental trauma.

In one case, a 54-year-old woman was beaten, subjected to electric shocks, and repeatedly raped by two Russian soldiers who told her,

“We will make sure to show you what happens to the nazis and Ukrainian armed forces’ fans like you.”

The victim stated that the ordeal lasted for hours, leaving her shattered.

Former Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russia have also spoke of being threatened with sexual violence, inappropriate touching during invasive searches, and torture focused on their genitals.

One male victim shared a harrowing detail where the perpetrator said, “I will beat everything out of you, so you can’t make children.” Another male detainee received a similar threat.

There was also an account of a victim who described an assailant’s attempt to mutilate his genitals to “prevent him from having more children.” These individuals also reported various methods of torture that were applied repeatedly over several months in the detention facilities where they were held.

Freed medic: Russians raped girls as young as 14 in Ukraine prisons

Previously, Human Rights Watch documented a case in the Kherson Oblast where a Ukrainian woman was subjected to repeated rape by Russian soldiers, echoing the findings of this report. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has also reported on sexual violence committed by Russian military personnel in Ukraine, further substantiating the claims of widespread abuse.

Testimonies from former Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russia, as reported by the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, corroborate the report’s findings of sexual violence and genital mutilation threats.

Unlawful transfer of children

The investigation uncovered evidence of the unlawful transfer of children from Ukraine to Russian-occupied areas or the Russian Federation. The report details the case of 46 children from the Kherson Oblast Children’s Home being transferred to Crimea in October 2022, with most of them still not returned to areas under Ukrainian control as of November 2023, despite assurances from Russian authorities of their temporary evacuation.

One mother shared her anguish, stating that she had not been informed of the transfer and had to travel to Crimea herself in October 2023 to bring back her son.

The unlawful transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children to Russian-occupied areas or the Russian Federation is part of a broader and deeply concerning pattern observed since the onset of the conflict. This issue has been extensively documented and reported, highlighting its scale and the serious implications for the affected children and their families.

Deportation in the 21st century: what you need to know about Russia’s crime in Ukraine

The forced deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children have been reported across multiple regions affected by Russia’s full-scale invasion. These actions are not isolated incidents but part of a systematic effort by Russian authorities, raising alarms about the violation of international laws and the potential long-term impact on the children’s well-being and identity.

The deportation of Ukrainian children by Russia has been condemned by the international community, including human rights organizations. These actions have been classified as violations of the Genocide Convention.

Ukrainian authorities, along with international organizations, have been working to document the cases of deported children and to facilitate their return. Despite these efforts, the process is challenging due to the lack of cooperation from Russian authorities and the complexities involved in identifying and locating the children.

Willful killings and torture of civilians

The Commission has documented and examined evidence of willful killings attributed to Russian forces.

In Novopetrivka village, Mykolayiv Oblast, they investigated the summary executions of four civilian men aged between 38 and 52. These men, last seen under Russian military custody, were suspected of collaboration with Ukrainian forces, and their bodies were later discovered with gunshot wounds to the head and other injuries; two of the men had their hands bound.

In one instance, a victim’s body was only found nearly a year later, despite his wife’s repeated inquiries to Russian forces about his whereabouts, constituting an enforced disappearance.

Additionally, there was evidence that these victims endured torture and inhumane treatment before their execution. Instances of Russian soldiers beating victims, using tools to file a victim’s teeth, employing pliers on a victim’s fingers, and other forms of mutilation and burning were reported.

These crimes were being classified not only as willful killings but also as war crimes and human rights violations due to the accompanying torture and maltreatment.

Ukraine investigates over thousand cases of torture by Russian troops against civilians

The Commission has reported ongoing torture by Russian authorities in occupied areas of Ukraine, with victims often detained during house searches on suspicion of supporting Ukrainian authorities.

Torture occurred in various detention facilities, including the Police Department in Melitopol, the District Police in Vasylivka, and the Temporary Detention Centre in Kherson. Perpetrators included Russian armed forces, FSB members, and facility guards, using methods like beatings and electric shocks.

For example, former detainees described torture methods such as “beatings using various tools and the administration of electric shocks with tasers and the so-called “tapik.” Torture aimed to extract information about the Ukrainian armed forces and their supporters. In some cases, special services from Russia operated in detention facilities, with FSB members leading interrogations and ordering the mistreatment of detainees.

One victim noted that the way in which interrogations were held and torture committed was part of a “well-established procedure that they repeated with everyone.” Another victim overheard FSB representatives instructing guards to “work” with a detainee, leading to beatings and electric shocks.

UN expert: Russia systematically uses torture in occupied parts of Ukraine

The Commission’s investigations revealed a pattern of indiscriminate attacks with explosive weapons in populated areas, leading to numerous civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects. These attacks, carried out by Russian armed forces, violated international humanitarian law and constituted war crimes.

The torture of civilians by Russian forces in Ukraine is a deeply troubling aspect of the conflict, reflecting a broader pattern of human rights abuses and violations of international law. This issue extends beyond individual incidents and highlights a systemic approach to the mistreatment of civilians.

Erasing cultural heritage

For the first time, the report documents attacks affecting cultural objects and historical sites, as well as the unlawful seizure of cultural property. Incidents in Odesa city, where waves of attacks on July 20 and 23, 2023, damaged 29 cultural buildings within the historic center inscribed on the World Heritage List, highlight the disregard for the protection of cultural heritage.

Russia destroyed over 800 Ukrainian cultural heritage sites

One survivor recalled the aftermath of an attack that severely damaged the Transfiguration Cathedral, stating, “This was supposed to be the happiest moment in my life, but it was one of the scariest,” as she gave birth to her son in a freezing room with no water amidst the chaos.

Unlawful seizure of cultural property, including artworks, historical artifacts, and religious items not only constitutes a violation of international law but also represents a significant loss for the cultural heritage and collective memory of the affected communities.

The attacks on cultural heritage in Ukraine, particularly in cities like Odesa, are part of a broader pattern of destruction and disregard for cultural and historical assets during the conflict. This issue extends beyond individual incidents and highlights a systemic problem with far-reaching consequences.

Attacks on healthcare facilities

The report also details attacks on healthcare facilities, depriving communities of much-needed medical services. Incidents in Dnipro city, where a functional clinic providing psychological care was struck, and reports of an attack damaging a hospital in Donetsk city, underscore the grave consequences of such violations.

On 26 May 2023, an attack on a medical clinic in Dnipro city killed 3 men, 1 woman, and injured over 30 others, including patients and medical staff, destroying the facility. The Commission concluded that Russian armed forces committed this indiscriminate attack, violating international humanitarian law and the special protection afforded to medical institutions.

The attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine, such as those in Dnipro and Donetsk cities, are part of a broader pattern of targeting medical infrastructure, which has severe implications for civilian access to healthcare and the overall humanitarian situation.

Russia’s bombardment of Ukrainian cities over the first 15 months of the full-scale invasion included more than 1,000 strikes on healthcare facilities and services, according to UN’s World Health Organization (WHO). These attacks not only cause immediate casualties and destruction but also have long-term effects on the availability of medical services in affected areas.

The siege of Mariupol: crime with far-reaching consequences

The siege of Mariupol city, a significant event at the outset of the invasion, stands as a stark reminder of the horrors endured by civilians. Residents described periods of relentless shelling and aerial bombardments, leaving buildings and houses collapsed, and entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble. Satellite imagery reveals the devastating toll, with 15,555 structures affected, including 831 destroyed and thousands more severely damaged.

“It was hell. Explosions. Destroyed buildings. Houses on fire. Wounded people crying,” recounted one woman who witnessed the devastation firsthand as she evacuated an injured man to a hospital.

Moscow to relocate 300,000 Russians to occupied Mariupol – Ukraine’s National Resistance Center

As the fighting intensified, energy facilities and supply lines were damaged, plunging the city into darkness and depriving residents of essential resources. Water, power, heating, and gas were cut off, forcing people to resort to melting snow or drinking from radiators to survive. Food became scarce, and the lack of basic necessities pushed residents to risk their lives in search of sustenance, often resulting in casualties.

“We lived happily in wonderful Mariupol … but someone’s decision caused us to lose everything, our lives, our friends, our houses, our relatives … nothing could replace our loss … all this cannot be returned,” lamented a young woman, encapsulating the trauma and despair that engulfed the city.

The report highlights the impact on medical facilities, with at least 58 infrastructure buildings damaged or destroyed. Witnesses recounted horrific scenes of hospitals being struck, with injured patients left untreated and medical personnel struggling to provide care amid dwindling supplies and resources.

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One medical practitioner shared the harrowing experience of witnessing “an endless number of wounded people coming in,” while another described the stairway as the “pathway of death,” where severely injured individuals, missing body parts, begged for water that could not be provided.

Survivors from Mariupol described the trauma and fear that haunt them, having lost loved ones, homes, and possessions in the devastating siege. The report emphasizes the need for continued investigations into potential crimes against humanity committed during the conduct of hostilities and the siege.

Call for action

“No creature alive deserves to be treated like Russians treat Ukrainians in their detention facilities. Over there, you don’t feel like a human being anymore,” one former prisoner of war stressed, highlighting the importance of holding perpetrators accountable and implementing measures to prevent such atrocities.

The report emphasizes the need for timely, effective, thorough, and transparent investigations and prosecutions of all international crimes and violations.

“The Commission is concerned at the scale, continuation, and gravity of violations and crimes it has investigated and the impact on victims and the affected communities,” the report states, underscoring the urgency of the situation.

The report calls on other states and international organizations to strengthen national, regional, and international accountability mechanisms, support the effective participation of civil society and victim groups, and integrate the human rights dimensions of the armed conflict into the Security Council’s agenda.

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