Torture, rape and kidnapping: what crimes Russians committed against Ukrainians under occupation in 2023 and how to bring perpetrators to justice
The second year of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine is underway. Occupying Russian troops are shelling the Ukrainian-controlled territories every day, and the news reports daily about civilian casualties, destroyed houses, infrastructure, and lives
Every day in the occupied territories, local residents are subjected to atrocities by Russian soldiers and the occupation administration - torture, intimidation, abduction, deportation, etc.
Espreso will describe these crimes in more detail based on the UN reports for 2023, but it is clear that the true number of victims and crimes is much higher than recorded by international observers. The full extent of all the pain and awareness of the tragedy will be revealed in the future, after the Victory.
In the article you will learn about:
the killing of civilians;
cases of torture and abduction of Ukrainians;
cases of sexual violence;
forced deportation of Ukrainians and their children;
forced passportization and harassment of religious communities;
where victims of the Russian atrocities should address.
Crimes against the civilian population in the occupied territories are violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
And the first of them is forced mobilization
According to the latest UN report, on October 1, the Russian authorities launched the autumn mobilization, which, of course, involved the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Accordingly, men are obliged to join the ranks of the Russian army and fight against their country. However, there are also many cases of escape from military units. Observers recorded cases of refusal to sign a contract with the Russian army. Seven men did not want to sign contracts, their commanders questioned their courage and patriotism and threatened to send them to the frontline assault units. After the dissenters left their units, the occupation authorities declared them deserters. The military prosecutor's office of the Russian Federation and the military administration searched the men's homes and demanded that their relatives tell about their whereabouts, threatening them with consequences.
For example, the authorities made ten visits to one man's relatives and threatened them with criminal prosecution if they would not tell them where he was. In another case, men in military uniforms visited the mother of a man who had left his unit three times. They threatened to confiscate her house and car, as well as to deprive her minor relative of the opportunity to go to school if she refused to tell them about her son's whereabouts.
"The invaders are sending out summonses and simply handing them out on the streets, bus stops and enterprises. Some companies even had to stop working. Some of the men who work there were mobilized, while others stopped going to work to prevent this from happening. We also know of cases where summonses were handed out to school employees. In one of the schools in Zaporizhzhia region, this was done personally by the collaborator principal," the National Resistance Center noted.
It is important to note here that international law prohibits the occupying authorities from forcing the population of the occupied territories to serve in its armed or auxiliary forces, as well as from using pressure or propaganda to secure voluntary military service. This is a serious violation of the Geneva Convention.
Killing of civilians
Ukrainians are always in danger of death under occupation. The Russians do not disdain killing civilians simply for the sake of looting. For example, on October 28, 2023, seven adults (three women and four men) and two children (a girl and a boy) were found dead in their home in Volnovakha, Donetsk region, with gunshot wounds to the head and back.
According to family members, the murder took place on Friday, October 27. The house was inhabited by husband and wife Natalia and Andriy, as well as their children, a junior high school student Nastya and 4-year-old Mykyta.
Photo: A father and two children who were shot in Volnovakha
"As the police told us, they were killed by soldiers on motorcycles, and they were all lying in bed, so it was done while they were sleeping," a distant relative of the victims said, citing eyewitnesses.
A family friend believes that the murder was committed by a serviceman of the Russian Armed Forces. According to him, the man did not share something with him.
Neighbors said that after the murder, they tried to hide the crime by flooding the house with water.
"Their mother-in-law's birthday was on Friday, and at night everyone was killed. Yesterday, relatives started searching for them, called the police, opened the house, and they were all killed. The house was flooded with water, apparently to hide the evidence. All the neighbors say that the killers are military. No one has been detained, everyone is scared now," complained a neighbor of the family.
In another case confirmed by observers, a group of armed men detained a married couple in their home in the village of Mali Kopani, Kherson region, and took them away in an unknown direction early in the morning of September 16. On the same day, their bodies were found in different places from each other.
In total, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, 142 cases of executions of civilians have been recorded and confirmed (119 men, 18 women, three boys and two girls).
Torture and abductions
From February to July 2023, the UN reported 43 cases of arbitrary detention (35 men and 8 women) by Russian soldiers. From August to November 2023 - 29 people.
For example, in February 2023, almost a year after her son was arrested by the Russian armed forces, the mother of Mykyta Shkryabin, a 19-year-old student from Kharkiv region, received a letter from the Russian Ministry of Defense confirming that he had been detained for "opposing a special military operation." The letter neither indicated his whereabouts nor outlined the official charges against him. As of July 31, she had not received any additional information about her son or the conditions of his release.
Another documented case: On November 19, the occupation authorities of the Russian Federation detained a 28-year-old man who lived in the village of Hornostaivka, Kherson region, accusing him of providing information to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Nine days later, representatives of the local police informed the detainee's mother that the man had died.
Many such abductions are also recorded in Crimea. By July 2023, there were 21 cases of detention of civilians by the FSB.
According to a UN report, 1118 civilians have been abducted by the Russians, of whom 514 were released after various periods of illegal detention. In addition, at least 100 people have been killed.
According to Ukraine's Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, at least 3,800 civilians have been officially reported to have been tortured by the Russians:
"As of today, we officially know about 3,800 civilians who were tortured by the occupiers. However, the full figures may be much higher. Currently, more than 1,100 criminal proceedings are being investigated into torture. More than 80 people have been notified of suspicion, 18 of whom have already been convicted."
According to Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets, there are currently 28,000 civilian Ukrainians in Russian captivity.
The Russian invaders also confirm their terrible actions in private telephone conversations. For example, in November, the Ukrainian Intelligence intercepted a conversation with one of them:
"A woman was caught in the city, raped, and killed. Then they tied her husband to a tree, beat him, broke all his f*cking fingers. And they broke his head with a hammer," the Russian soldier told his interlocutor, adding that it was mortar men from his battalion who did it.
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the UN has been able to document 169 cases of sexual violence (101 men, 63 women, four girls and one boy) committed by members of the Russian armed forces, as well as Russian law enforcement and penitentiary personnel.
According to the Prosecutor General's Office, 13 children suffered from sexual violence.
In addition, there have been cases of rape of both civilian women and men in residential areas where Russian military personnel were based.
For example, in August 2023, a case was brought to court against the commander of the 4th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade of the Russian Armed Forces, call sign Bublik, who raped a local woman while serving with the occupation forces in Kharkiv region.
"The accused, together with representatives of the LPR illegal armed groups, forced the couple to go to the basement, threatening them with firearms. Standing behind, the Russian soldier struck the back of the man's head with the butt of an automatic firearm, causing him to lose consciousness and fall near the basement," the Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor's Office wrote.
At that time, the woman ran toward the gate and tried to hide behind a car. However, the Russian soldier noticed her, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her along the ground to the house. At first, the suspect ordered the woman to undress, took off her clothes and began to sexually assault her.
Sexual violence was also used as a form of torture or ill-treatment of men in detention. People were subjected to rape, electric shocks and beatings on the genitals and buttocks, forced to be naked and beaten on the naked body, unreasonable searches of body cavities, homophobic insults, threats of castration, and threats of rape against them or their relatives.
In addition to all these atrocities, Ukrainians are also being forced to leave their homes and move to Russia. As early as the beginning of 2023, there were talks of at least 2 million deportations of our citizens.
However, the most painful fact is that the Russians are abducting children in this way, separating them from their families and parents who, due to certain circumstances, remained in Ukraine-controlled territories.
Since February 24, according to the Children of War portal, 19,546 Ukrainian children have been deported or forcibly displaced, and according to the National Information Bureau, 744,000 children have been deported.
The UN report describes one case in which a grandmother learned through social media that her 8-year-old grandson had been deported, first to Crimea and then to Russia. After she appealed to the Russian authorities, her grandson was relocated to the occupied territory of Ukraine again without informing her. When the woman did find out about it and went to return the child, they could not leave the occupation because a Ukrainian citizen does not have the right to custody of the "Russian citizen" her grandson was made into. Despite this, the grandmother managed to leave and take the child to a safe place.
On February 14, 2023, at a press briefing by the US Department of State, spokesman Ned Price said:
"First, as we near the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the scale, the scope, the brutality of Russia’s efforts to subjugate the country continue to appall the world. A report released today by Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab, through the department-supported Conflict Observatory program, details Russia’s systematic government‑wide efforts to permanently relocate thousands of Ukraine’s children to areas under Russian Government control via a network of 43 camps and other facilities. In many cases, Russia purported to temporarily evacuate children in Ukraine under the guise of a free summer camp, only to later refuse to return the children and to cut off all contact with their families. Such actions obviously will have serious long-term implications on these children’s development. The network of facilities which these children are sent is vast, spanning from Russia-occupied Crimea across Russia itself, from the Black Sea region to its far east. The report indicates how these abusive practices involve officials and other individuals at all levels of Russia’s government."
Fortunately, Ukraine is working to return every child. For example, the Office of the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights reported that during the period from August 1 to November 30, 2023, 19 children were returned to Ukraine, 11 of whom returned from the occupied territory and 8 from the Russian Federation. In total, we are talking about 300 children returned home. Yes, compared to the number of abductees, this is too few.
There are also cases when teenagers try to return on their own, such as Bohdan Yermokhin, who was abducted to Russia along with 30 other children.
He tried to escape through Belarus twice on his own, but was caught. He publicly appealed to the President of Ukraine and this caused a big media event, which eventually helped him return. In Russia, although Bohdan was not yet an adult, they served him with a summons and tried to use him for their propaganda purposes. However, the young man's resilience was unwavering.
"The main thing for me was that I was met with the Ukrainian flag. I saw our military, I saw that I was being handed the flag of Ukraine. That's it. I am standing with my sister with the Ukrainian flag, and for me it is the best thing that has happened in two years of my life. The happiest moment," the guy comments on his return and notes that at least half of the group of 31 who were taken to Russia wanted to return home to Ukraine.
Forced passportization and oppression of religious communities
International humanitarian law prohibits the imposition of citizenship on residents of an occupied territory through pressure, threats, or force, which is tantamount to forcing them to swear allegiance to an enemy state. Ideally, Russia should have left the current Ukrainian legislation in the occupied territories. However, Russia is forcing citizens to accept its citizenship in order to introduce its laws and facilitate the annexation of the occupied territories.
In the summer of 2023, the Russians intensified their policy of mass provision of Russian citizenship to residents of the occupied parts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions. Those who refused to receive Russian passports risked losing their jobs, access to public services, including healthcare and education, and social security benefits. Those without Russian passports also face increased risks of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and ill-treatment due to the increasing number of stationary and mobile checkpoints by the Russian armed forces throughout the occupied territory.
At the same time, the Center for National Resistance reported on December 13 that despite the policy of forced passportization, under which the Russians threaten Ukrainians for not having their passport, most Ukrainians ignore their initiatives. Starting this year, Ukrainians without a Russian passport will be considered foreigners in their native land, and currently, 60 to 70% (depending on the region) of Ukrainians refuse to receive a Russian passport.
Given all of this, it is not difficult to imagine how the Russian invaders feel about freedom of speech or religion. The situation in Crimea, where they have been repressing pro-Ukrainian activists and Crimean Tatars since 2014, is a vivid example.
For example, on June 25, 2023, in Bilohirsk, police officers arrested two Crimean Tatar men for flying Tatar flags on their cars. Their trial lasted only 2 minutes.
In Crimea, in May 2023, the occupation authorities evicted the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) from the Cathedral of the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Volodymyr and Princess Olha in Simferopol. As this was the only OCU building left in the city, parishioners lost access to their religious building and could not practice their faith with others.
Even Jehovah's Witnesses, who were classified as extremist organizations in the Russian Federation, were under pressure. On February 27, 2023, for example, the Yalta City Court sentenced three men and one woman to various terms of imprisonment, ranging from 3 years with a suspended sentence to 6.5 years in prison.
Pro-Ukrainian priests from the OCU are also being persecuted in the occupied territories. Thus, the UN recorded the abduction of two clergymen belonging to the OCU. One victim, a pro-Ukrainian priest, was detained by the Russians from August 2022 to May 2023 in three different places in the Kherson region. In one of them, he was subjected to torture and ill-treatment. The second victim, Archpriest Kostiantyn Maksymov, was detained by the Russian armed forces in May 2023 when he tried to cross the administrative border with Crimea. As of July 31, 2023, his fate and whereabouts remained unknown.
Victims of Russian crimes have several ways to bring their offenders to justice
Kateryna Busol, a lawyer and international law specialist, told Espreso about the procedure for victims of Russian crimes. She lists several possible ways, and the first is through the national criminal process in Ukraine.
"We all hear almost every day about new criminal proceedings opened by the Ukrainian prosecutor's office. As of December 22, 2023, there are already more than 118 thousand such proceedings," the lawyer comments.
The second is to provide their stories for inclusion in the cases of alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide that have been or may be opened by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
"So far, as we know, the ICC has issued two arrest warrants: for Putin and Human Rights Commissioner Lvova-Belova for alleged war crimes in the transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia," adds Busol.
The third is to initiate investigations in third-country prosecutors' offices on the principle of universal jurisdiction. Currently, more than ten countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, and France, are investigating crimes committed during the Russian aggression.
The fourth is filing individual complaints with specialized UN committees. For example, the Committee against Torture or the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
These committees are established on the basis of special international agreements on relevant issues, such as the prohibition of torture or gender discrimination. They can consider cases of alleged violations of these agreements by their parties, including Russia.
Taking into account the information provided and individual complaints, the Committees can also provide general conclusions and recommendations on the (non)compliance of parties, including Russia, with the relevant UN human rights treaties.
"One or more of these ways can be activated through cooperation with the Ukrainian prosecutor's office and/or human rights defenders. For obvious reasons, cooperation with Ukrainian investigators and prosecutors is necessary for criminal prosecution in Ukraine. The Prosecutor General's Office also actively cooperates with the ICC and foreign national prosecutors - they can facilitate the transfer of certain evidence to strengthen the relevant proceedings in The Hague or partner countries," explains the expert.
Even if the victims already have a certain vision of how they would like to "move forward" with their case, it would be appropriate to consult with human rights organizations that have long been involved in the issue of Russian war crimes and determine which option for securing justice is most effective in their particular case. Among the leaders of human rights protection and victim support in Ukraine are Truth Hounds, Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, Center for Civil Liberties, Media Initiative for Human Rights, ZMINA, Regional Center for Human Rights, Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association JurFem, Clooney Foundation for Justice, Eastern Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives and other organizations that are members of the Ukraine 5 AM Coalition and Tribunal for Putin initiatives.