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This winter, 32 Ukrainian POWs were executed by Russian forces, UN report reveals

Before being executed, one Ukrainian soldier was forced by the Russians to conduct demining work.
Photo illustrative. Source: Depositphotos
This winter, 32 Ukrainian POWs were executed by Russian forces, UN report reveals

A new report from the United Nations has uncovered evidence of widespread torture, ill-treatment, and summary executions of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) by Russian forces, amounting to war crimes under international law.

The report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), covering December 2023 through February 2024, documents dozens of cases of Ukrainian POWs being brutally executed by Russian troops after being captured and detained.

“In the reporting period, OHCHR recorded 12 cases of executions of at least 32 captured Ukrainian POWs,” the report states, noting that three of those incidents involving the killings of seven Ukrainian soldiers were directly verified by UN monitors.

One particularly horrific case investigated by OHCHR involved three Ukrainian POWs who were captured by Russian forces in Zaporizhzhia Oblast in December 2023. According to a witness, two of the Ukrainian soldiers were executed immediately upon surrendering, while the third, who had been injured by a mine, was forced by the Russians to conduct demining work before also being executed.

In another incident from mid-December in the same region, a Ukrainian POW was interrogated overnight in a basement by Russian troops. A witness reported that one of the Russian servicemen first shot the POW in the leg for allegedly “not speaking clearly,” before then fatally shooting him twice in the back while he was defenseless.

The report presents a pattern of Russian forces deliberately killing Ukrainian POWs who had been captured and were no longer participating in hostilities, which constitutes a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and qualifies as a war crime.

Previously reported incidents of Russian soldiers executing Ukrainian soldiers

There have been several reported incidents of Russian soldiers executing Ukrainian soldiers who were attempting to surrender, which have been documented by Euromaidan Press:

Execution near Bakhmut: On February 24, 2023, a video released by Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets showed Russian troops shooting at least 7 Ukrainians who were trying to surrender near Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast. The Ukrainian soldiers were seen surrendering with their hands raised, but instead of taking them prisoner, the Russians ruthlessly shot them.

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Execution in Zaporizhzhia Oblast: A video filmed by a Ukrainian recon drone revealed the brutal murder of three unarmed Ukrainian soldiers near Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. After the execution of the unarmed Ukrainian prisoners of war, one of the Russian soldiers finished off the apparently dead military with a last shot at close distance.

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Execution near Stepove: A video circulating online shows Russian soldiers executing two Ukrainian troops who were attempting to surrender near Stepove, a village near Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. The video depicts one Ukrainian soldier emerging from an underground bunker with his hands raised in clear surrender, followed by a second Ukrainian soldier. As soon as the second soldier exits the bunker, Russian troops stationed nearby open fire with their rifles, shooting both Ukrainians multiple times at close range.

These incidents have sparked outrage and have been condemned as war crimes, with calls for the prosecution of those responsible. Ukraine’s parliamentary human rights ombudsman, Dmytro Lubinets, has stated that he would formally appeal to both the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross regarding these alleged war crimes, emphasizing that the execution of those surrendering is a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a demonstration of disrespect for international humanitarian law.

Torture and mistreatment of Ukrainian POWs

Beyond the summary executions, the OHCHR found overwhelming evidence of the widespread torture and mistreatment of Ukrainian POWs by Russian captors during detention. Of the 60 recently released POWs interviewed, 58 gave firsthand accounts of being viciously beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to mock executions, and enduring various forms of torture.

“The cumulative impacts of repeated torture, ill-treatment, isolation and poor conditions in Russian captivity severely affected the physical and mental well-being of many POWs, with risk of long-lasting adverse effects,” the report states.

The findings also detail Russian authorities compelling detained Ukrainian POWs to give forced confessions under torture, which were then used as evidence in prosecutions by Russian-appointed courts in occupied parts of Ukraine. At least 76 Ukrainian POWs were convicted by these extrajudicial processes in the reporting period alone.

UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk condemned the “catalogue of inhumane acts” committed against Ukrainian POWs, calling them “unacceptable abuses” that Russia must be held accountable for.

“Every life unlawfully taken in the course of Russia’s armed attack against Ukraine must be duly investigated and those responsible held to account,” Türk stated. “The findings add to the gruesome trail of evidence already documented about the intense human suffering caused by Russia’s aggression against its neighbor.”

Ukraine conducts largest prisoner exchange since Russian full-scale invasion’s start

The report concludes that despite these latest revelations, the OHCHR is “not aware of any systematic efforts by the Russian authorities to investigate these violations.” It renews calls for Russia to immediately cease summary executions and torture of POWs, grant access to independent monitors, and cooperate with investigations to ensure accountability.

Human rights groups have echoed the UN’s censure, calling the abuses against Ukrainian POWs blatant war crimes that demonstrate a blatant disregard for the laws of war by Russian forces. “The torture, abuse, and wanton executions of prisoners of war are deeply disturbing acts that must be prosecuted as war crimes at the highest level,” said Steve Kostas, a legal officer at the International Human Rights Clinic. “Russia has shown an utter contempt for the Geneva Conventions and the basic dignity of captured combatants.”

Another report by UN published earlier this month has also documented widespread and systematic use of torture against Ukrainian prisoners of war in various detention facilities across Russia, reinforcing previous findings of such abuses by Russian authorities and soldiers. One former detainee described enduring brutal beatings in Correctional Colony No. 1 in Donskoy town, resulting in severe injuries including a broken collarbone, gangrene, anal bleeding, knocked-out teeth, and a broken tailbone. The report also highlighted a brutal “admission procedure” upon arrival at detention facilities, involving beatings and electric shocks, with one prisoner recalling being told, “Welcome to hell.” Interrogation sessions often involved torture, with victims being questioned about the Ukrainian armed forces.

The conditions of detention were inhuman or degrading, with detainees facing extreme hunger and inadequate sanitation. The torture led to severe physical and psychological issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide attempts. The report suggests that the mistreatment of Ukrainian prisoners of war is systematic and endorsed or condoned by the hierarchy of the involved Russian forces, indicating a policy of brutality with a sense of impunity among the perpetrators.

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

As Russia’s war against Ukraine rages on amid a battle along the frontlines, the UN and global community are demanding Russia face consequences for its egregious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The execution of POWs, the report makes clear, represents a brutal new low even amid the horrors of this protracted conflict.

Human Rights Watch’s Associate International Justice Director Aisling Reidy stated, “The harrowing testimonies of torture, forced confessions, and summary killings raise grave concerns that these war crimes are being committed as part of an institutionalized pattern rather than just rogue, isolated acts. Russia must be held accountable.”

The report’s findings seem destined to further isolate Russia and embolden efforts to pursue justice and reparations for victims through bodies like the International Criminal Court. As the trail of evidence documenting Russian atrocities grows, so too does pressure to bring perpetrators to justice, no matter how high the crimes go.

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