Terror, disappearances and mass deportation

On 1 March 2023, Yevhen Zakharov, director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG), addressed the European Parliament’s sub-committee on human rights, and described the fate of Ukraine’s citizens in territories now occupied by Russia. This is an updated version of his address.
14 March 2023UA DE EN ES FR IT RU

Євген Захаров. Фото: Олександр Війчук Yevhen Zakharov (© Oleksandr Viichuk) Yevhen Zakharov. Photo : Oleksandr Viitchouk Евгений Захаров. Фото: Александр Вийчук
Yevhen Zakharov (© Oleksandr Viichuk)

Individual targets

Russia’s goal in unleashing its all-out war late in February 2022 was to destroy the Ukrainian State and those of its citizens who defended and supported the State. To this end Russia’s political and military leadership adopted a ‘scorched earth’ policy: every town or city that resisted Russia’s advance was promptly bombed and attacked from the air, the civilian population and civil sites being singled out for attack. Thousands of civilians were killed or wounded; tens of thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed; millions became refugees or were internally displaced.

In the territories it now occupied, Russia’s aims were to destroy all politically aware Ukrainians, intimidate the rest of the population, and force them to move to Russia or to parts of Ukraine where the inhabitants were ‘loyal’ to the Russian regime. Russian counter-intelligence divided Ukraine’s citizens into four groups,

those who

  1. merited physical destruction or elimination,
  2. were to be oppressed and intimidated,
  3. could be persuaded to collaborate, and
  4. those already willing to collaborate.

Particular targets of the occupying forces were priests and pastors, journalists, businessmen & women, public figures, local deputies, staff of local authorities, rescue workers, border police, law-enforcement officers and, especially, former soldiers who fought in 2014-2021 against the occupying Russian forces. The invaders, it almost seemed, had ready-made lists of such people. They were kidnapped and disappeared. Or they were unlawfully arrested and detained in unofficial and frequently quite unsuitable premises. The conditions were themselves a form of torture.

The detainees were cruelly treated to obtain useful information or induce them to collaborate. After the Kharkiv Region was liberated in autumn 2022 no less than 25 such torture centres places were discovered — in Izium, Kupiansk, Balakliya, Vovchansk and other locations. Descriptions of some of these places, and testimony from the victims may be found on the KHPG website.

The disappeared

KHPG lawyers are currently dealing with 26 cases of torture; they know all too well the methods the invaders use to try and break the will of their captives. Our lawyers are pursuing 111 cases where people have disappeared. This is a very difficult task. The occupying forces, the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”, and the Russian authorities do not want to say where detainees are being held. We know that 40 of those 111 individuals were detained, but only in two instances do we know where they are today.

What is the full extent of these crimes? As of 8 March 2023, the Tribunal for Putin (T4P) database recorded the details of 614 individuals who were unlawfully detained (including 18 children), but of no less than 3,639 who had disappeared, among them 118 under-age victims. Most of the disappeared were reported in the Kharkiv Region (2,065 including 86 children) and in the Kherson (537, three children), Zaporizhzhia (434, seven children) and Luhansk (310, 14 children) Regions.

The great majority of these cases can provisionally be classified as ‘enforced disappearances’. All efforts by their relatives to find them have been met either with a refusal to reply or the assertion that their current location is unknown. In the best cases, the International Red Cross can say that the person is in Russia — but where exactly is not specified. This enormous figure, 3,639 disappearances, represents only the tip of the iceberg. The number of enforced disappearances may in reality be much higher. As of 7 February 2023, the authorities registered well over nineteen thousand people (19,635) as missing. Since not all relatives of the missing report their absence to the police the figure may be higher still.

Unlawful detention or custody without a court order, and enforced disappearances that conceal the whereabouts of the missing person, are gross violations of human rights. They may be provisionally classified, under Article 7:1 [i] of the Rome Statute, as ‘Crimes against Humanity’.

Deportation and filtration

Another terror tactic against the population of the occupied territories is enforced deportation to Russia. This occurs from ‘considerations of safety’ because Ukraine’s armed forces are about to attack, as happened in the Kherson Region, or on the pretext of saving people from the danger of remaining in a zone of active hostilities, as was the case in Mariupol (Donetsk Region). At times, it has happened for no good reason at all. Why did the Russians, for example, deport two thousand prisoners serving time in Ukraine’s prisons and penal colonies to Russia, or move several hundred patients there from mental hospitals?

In order to prevent Ukrainian citizens who do not support Russia from entering the country, everyone travelling to Russia must pass through ‘filtration’.

‘Filtration’ is the enforced, unregulated process whereby the personal details of detained individuals are clarified; as are their social contacts, views and opinions about the occupying power; whether they represent a danger to the regime or the Russian occupiers; and if they are ready to collaborate with the occupying forces.

There are two stages in the filtration process.

One, the ID documents of all refugees must be checked, their finger-prints taken, and an initial questioning is held at filtration ‘points’. These procedures may only take a few hours; they may go on for days, depending on the number of people queuing up at the filtration point. Attention focuses particularly on the men, especially those of conscription age, who are questioned with especial thoroughness that sometimes involves the use of violence. Those in charge attempt to find out whether someone served earlier in Ukraine’s armed forces, law-enforcement or border guards, or in other local and national government posts. Women are asked where their husbands are: perhaps they’re away in the ranks of the army? Everyone’s mobile phone is examined for pro-Ukrainian slogans or songs. If a person is suspected of ‘disloyalty’ to Russia he or she is detained and separated from the family, even mothers from their children.

The detainees are sent under armed escort for a longer and more intense form of filtration, spending 30 days in a filtration camp. These locations, in most cases unofficial, are distinguished by their bad conditions: overcrowding; poor food; frequently no access to water, light, fresh air or toilets; and a lack of medical treatment. Interrogations involve violence, torture and the participation of FSB officers: the goal is to break the individual and obtain an admission of loyalty to Russia. People who undergo this second stage of filtration disappear without trace and nothing is known of their ultimate fate. Some say they are tried by Russian courts “for resisting the Special Military Operation” (Russia’s name for the war); at least one case of this happening is known.

How many people have been sent to filtration camps? How many have been released from such camps? We don’t know; we don’t have access to the statistics. In 2022, between two and 2.7 million Ukrainian citizens were transferred to Russia. The majority of families were forced to move — they were given no opportunity to go to less dangerous parts of Ukraine.

It’s hard to say how many of these ‘refugees’ have subsequently left Russia. Rights activist and volunteers in Russia have strongly supported Ukrainian citizens to move to Europe, even when they lack the necessary papers; they have aided them to overcome all obstacles and the reluctance of the Russian authorities to let them go.

I’d like to finish my address with words of thanks to those fearless Russians.

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