Absence of law and international control

What happens to Ukrainian civilians in Russian captivity.
Iryna Skachko06 March 2024UA DE EN ES FR RU

© Український кризовий медіа-центр © Украинский кризисный медиа-центр

@ Ukrainian Crisis Media Center

“Humiliation, torture, humiliation” — the wife of Serhii Tsyhipa, who was kidnapped by the Russians, reads a line from an acrostic poem written by her husband. The status of civilian prisoners is uncertain. They rarely get exchanged. Relatives often know nothing about their fate.

The Ukrainian Crisis Media Center hosted a round table dedicated to the fate of Ukrainian civilians imprisoned by the enemy or missing as a result of Russian aggression. It was attended by human rights activists, representatives of authorities, and public organizations uniting families of civilian hostages.

Even though International Humanitarian Law prohibits the taking of civilians as prisoners, the Russians have been detaining our people for ten years. Back in 2015, the report “Survivors of Hell” was published. In it, people who managed to free themselves from places of detention in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories told their stories.

— Even then, a general policy of repression in the occupied territories was emerging, — recalls Oleksandr Pavlichenko, executive director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group for Human Rights (UKHHR). — Demonstrative reprisals against civilians to intimidate the rest of the population — this is the policy of the occupiers, which began ten years ago.

Олена Цигіпа © Український кризовий медіа-центр Елена Цигипа © Украинский кризисный медиа-центр

Olena Tsyhipa © Ukrainian Crisis Media Center

Scope of crimes

It is difficult to name the exact number of Ukrainian civilians who are now hostages of the Putin regime. On February 26, Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets announced that there were 28 thousand Ukrainians in captivity — military, civilians, and children. According to the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, there are about 14 thousand civilians among them. At the same time, the whereabouts of only 1,600 people were confirmed, and a scanty number were returned — 147 civilians.

Among the prisoners were volunteers, social activists, people with pro-Ukrainian views, representatives of law enforcement agencies, former military personnel, or border guards, those who resisted, and those who did not pose any threat to the occupiers. In addition, Russia illegally holds approximately 3,500 prisoners brought to its territory from Ukrainian colonies. We must not forget about the 208 patients of psychoneurological dispensaries and hundreds of lonely elderly people abducted from the occupied territories.

How does this happen?

The initiative group, “Our Dearest Ones”, unites 89 families from the Kyiv Region. In each of them, there is a civilian kidnapped by the occupiers. People have been in captivity for almost two years, says Anna Mushtukova, a representative of the organization.

— 42 people were arrested in the Dymer community. They were not military, had civilian professions, and worked in the economic sector. We contacted the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross} and received answers about 33 of our relatives. We were told that they were being held as prisoners of war. We are not aware that any of our relatives have been charged with criminal offenses; we are not aware that anyone has been convicted under Russian law.

Анна Муштукова, ініціативна група

Anna Mushtukova, initiative group “Our Dearest Ones” © Ukrainian Crisis Media Center

The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) investigated the scheme by which the occupiers usually act when kidnapping our citizens. They created a two-level structured internal network of places for illegal detention and torture of civilians.

— First, the detainees end up in torture chambers,” says KHPG director Yevhen Zakharov.— As a rule, these are informal premises with deplorable conditions. In the Kharkiv Region alone, we know of 33 torture chambers that existed during the occupation. Detainees are kept in secret prisons for up to six months. There are 4,334 such people registered in our T4P database, including about 200 minors.

After this, some of the detainees are released, and the majority are transported to official places of detention: pre-trial detention centers and penal institutions in Russia or the occupied territories of Ukraine.

— Here, they are kept separately from other prisoners, — continues Yevhen Zakharov. — They are not included in official statistics. The general penal system of the Russian Federation does not count them and does not know about them. Civilians are very rarely put on trial. These people are behind bars without reason, without a court verdict, without investigative actions, without charges — just like that because Russia believes that this is normal.

Separately, mention should be made of the filtration introduced by the invaders in the occupied territories at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. From the filtration points, people who seemed suspicious to the occupiers were sent to filtration camps for 30 days.

— For those who did not pass filtering in the “DPR” (Donetsk People’s Republic), a separate decree in April 2022 introduced the status of prisoners: they received ten years in prison without a sentence, — explains the human rights defender. — This absolutely illegal and harsh statute, even for Russians, was canceled after the “referendum” on the annexation of the “DPR” to the Russian Federation at the end of September 2022, and some of the prisoners were released. Exactly which prisoners and where the rest went is unknown. There is an account that they were transported to Russian prisons, where they were convicted by Russian courts “for opposing a special military operation.”

“Courts” and hidden lawlessness

Russia considers some civilian hostages prisoners of war. Some receive the status of “people who oppose the so-called special military operation.”

— This is not a legal term, — emphasizes Yevhen Zakharov. —There is no such qualification in the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation — this is nothing from the legal point of view!

A person can remain in such an illegal status for a very long time. Or have no status at all — all requests regarding a person receive the answer: “The verification is ongoing.”

However, as Oleksandr Pavlichenko says, only a tiny number of abducted people go through so-called “judicial procedures”: they are charged, they have lawyers, and visible legal procedures or trials take place. There are up to several hundred such individuals.

— Many more people are simply hidden; they sometimes do not even have personal data but are under numbers in institutions, mainly in territories not controlled by Ukraine. The Russians transport prisoners to Mariupol and Berdyansk, where they simply disappear into the gray zone. They do not fall into the system of the FSIN (Federal Penitentiary Service of the Russian Federation). It is a dark hole and the absence of law. It is the deliberate movement of people with the impossibility of tracking who is where and in what conditions... It is impossible to establish the personal data of such individuals.

This is precisely how Tetiana Marina’s husband, Spanish volunteer Mariano Harsiia Kalataiud, disappeared. The woman joined the NGO “Citizens in Captivity”.

— It is still unknown where my husband is. — The last known place of his stay, confirmed by witnesses, is pre-trial detention center No. 2 in Simferopol. And then, he was transported to prison in Chonhar. It is a new institution in the FSIN system. He has not yet passed through Zonatelecom and is not in any file. It is such a secret prison. I think they decided to remove Mariano from the information space. I received a letter from the Black Sea Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation stating: “On June 1, 2023, Spanish citizen Mariano Harsiia Kalataiud crossed the international automobile checkpoint Dzhankoy in the direction of the Kherson Region.” How he crossed this border is unknown — as a free person or part of a convoy. In Chonhar, his trace was lost...

Тетяна Маріна, ГО

Tetiana Marina, NGO “Citizens in Captivity” © Ukrainian Crisis Media Center

Conditions in captivity

According to human rights activists, today, we know about more than a hundred places for the detention of Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war.

— The conditions there are terrible, — says Nataliia Yashchuk. — People suffer from tuberculosis. According to our data, it is about 20% of illegally detained individuals. They do not receive medical care, and their food is terrible.

Наталія Ящук, координаторка управління проєктів ЦГС © Український кризовий медіа-центр Наталья Ящук, координатор управления проектов ЦОС © Украинский кризисный медиа-центр

Nataliia Yashchuk, project management coordinator for the Center for Civil Liberties. © Ukrainian Crisis Media Center

Prisoners are often kept in the same clothes they were taken in. The hygiene products are not provided. They are fed poorly and sometimes with intentionally spoiled food. Even knowing where the prisoner is, their relatives cannot send them the most necessary things — medicine and warm clothes. At the same time, Ukrainians are often transported deep into Russia to places with a harsh climate.

— Another international crime committed against our civilians already in captivity is forced passportization, — recalls Nataliia Yashchuk.

— If a person is not broken, he is placed in a punishment cell, where he is tortured until the person agrees to take the passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation.

What about international bodies?

Олександр Павліченко, виконавчий директор УГСПЛ © Український кризовий медіа-центр Александр Павличенко, исполнительный директор УХСПЧ © Украинский кризисный медиа-центр

Oleksandr Pavlichenko,executive director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. © Ukrainian Crisis Media Center

The lack of effective monitoring and control by international players was apparent ten years ago. Since then, this problem has not been resolved.

— In the occupied Ukrainian territory and in the Russian Federation, where Ukrainians are being taken, there is no control on the part of international institutions, such as the ICRC, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) mission, — says Oleksandr Pavlichenko. — They must conduct independent visits to places of detention and find out who is being held, under what conditions, on what grounds... International treaty law is very selective. When we see some pictures of ICRC representatives visiting, for example, the Simferopol pre-trial detention center, this is, to a certain extent, an arranged process. Even when a person is prepared for exchange, he is fed, treated, and allowed to live in better conditions. And then, on his way out, he is filmed, and representatives of international institutions meet with him, which creates a more or less prosperous picture.

State response

Ukraine is trying to involve as many foreign partners as possible in rescuing our civilians.

— On February 6, the first meeting of the international coalition to create a platform for the release of civilians took place, — says Oleksander Kononenko, representative of the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights in the system of security and defense sector bodies. — The platform was created by analogy with the International Coalition for the return of Ukrainian children. In addition to Ukraine, the co-chairs of this coalition are Canada and Norway; many states have expressed a preliminary desire to join this group. Positive experiences gained from the return of children may encourage the return of other civilians.

Олександр Кононенко, представник Уповноваженого Верховної Ради з прав людини в системі органів сектору безпеки і оборони © Український кризовий медіа-центр Александр Кононенко, представитель Уполномоченного Верховной Рады по правам человека в системе органов сектора безопасности и обороны © Украинский кризисный медиа-центр

Oleksandr Kononenko, representative of the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights in the system of bodies in the security and defense sector © Ukrainian Crisis Media Center

Viktoriia Petruk, an expert at the Coordination Headquarters on the treatment of prisoners of war, said that changes will be made to the legislation shortly, and the issue of the return of civilians will officially fall under the responsibility of the Coordination Headquarters. However, they have been doing these things unofficially for a long time.

Вікторія Петрук, експертка Координаційного штабу з питань поводження з військовополоненими © Український кризовий медіа-центр Виктория Петрук, эксперт Координационного штаба по обращению с военнопленными © Украинский кризисный медиа-центр

Viktoriia Petruk, expert of the Coordination Headquarters for the treatment of prisoners of war © Ukrainian Crisis Media Center

Still, Ukrainian legislation needs major changes.

— The law prohibits transferring funds to uncontrolled territory, even to Crimean Tatars who are in litigation and need a lawyer, — explains Oleksander Pavlichenko. — The possibility of humanitarian assistance, the need for medical care, nutrition, and hygiene should become one of the directions of state policy. In addition, a unified register of detained individuals should be created. There are registers in different departments: the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Security Service of Ukraine, the Coordination Headquarters, and non-governmental organizations. We need consolidated and verified information in one place to understand how many people are in captivity and to develop international mechanisms for the return of civilians.

Assistance from human rights defenders

The new KHPG project is dedicated to the search for prisoners of war and civilians who are missing or detained in the occupied territories. It also includes assistance to their families.

— We interview those who have already been exchanged — Yevhen Zakharov explains the search process. — They tell who they were detained with and where. In addition, we use open sources. The third search method is query letters. For each person, we send up to ten requests to Ukrainian organizations and up to 40 to Russian and quasi-state bodies of the “LPR” (Luhansk People’s Republic) and Crimea. Sometimes, they confirm where a person is being held. In the so-called “DPR”, two prisoners were released after our appeals. Sometimes, they answer that the person is in Russia but do not say where exactly. This is also a positive result. The family knows the person is alive.

Євген Захаров, директор ХПГ © Український кризовий медіа-центр Евгений Захаров, директор ХПГ © Украинский кризисный медиа-центр

Yevhen Zakharov, director of KHPG © Ukrainian Crisis Media Center

KHPG also helps those who have already been convicted and are serving a sentence in the Russian Federation. Russian human rights activists and lawyers, who by law have the right to enter the penal institution and see Ukrainian prisoners, are involved in the work.

Families of prisoners and missing persons can receive legal, psychological, humanitarian, and, in some cases, even medical assistance at KHPG.

In addition, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group has launched a hotline that can be called by people who know at least something about prisoners of war and civilians or missing persons in the occupied territory. The hotline number is 0 800 20 24 02.

— Of course, we cannot give any guarantees, — says Yevhen Zakharov. — However, over the years of our work, we have detected more than 30% of the people reported to us.

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