It is a town in Ukraine whose name is now sadly associated with the discovery of a “mass grave” and 440 graves. It is indeed in a forest located near Izioum, a city under Russian occupation from April to early September, that the Ukrainian authorities announced this macabre discovery. On site, at least 17 bodies of Ukrainian soldiers buried in the mass grave were exhumed.
Ukrainian authorities suspect that some of the bodies found are those of people who were tortured by Russian occupying forces. At least two of the bodies already exhumed were found with their hands tied.
According to Vitaliy, a 55-year-old undertaker in Izioum questioned by The world, about twenty people have not been identified and about twenty others were reportedly shot dead, suggesting an execution. Most were victims of violent death, bombardments or combat. In Izioum, there are six other cemeteries, where Vitaliy explains having helped families to bury 300 additional bodies, lending only a van or digging the grave.
“They beat me for two hours almost every day”
Day after day, in Izium as in Kupiansk and Balakliïa, in the east of Ukraine, towns recently reconquered by the Ukrainian forces, the stories of arbitrary detentions and torture by the occupiers multiply and come to light. From Izioum hospital, Mykhaïlo Tchindeï, 67, testifies to AFP. “On August 27 at night, the school near my house was bombed. There were Russian soldiers inside and there were many dead and wounded,” he says. After this bombardment, the Russians arrested Mykhaïlo Tchindeï accusing him of “having given the coordinates of the school to the Ukrainian forces”. They wanted to know where the Ukrainian troops were and if he had communicated with them.
“They put a bag over my head and took me away (…) when I could see, I recognized the place, it was the Izioum police station”, says- he. Mykhaïlo Tchindeï was then held in this building for 12 days, in a cell measuring five meters by five. There were up to eight of them in this cell in a damp basement. “On the second day, they broke my arm. One person held my hand and another hit my arm with a metal bar. They beat me for two hours almost every day. I lost consciousness several times.” , he assures.
“They hit my heels, back, legs and kidneys,” he describes. “I could hear people screaming 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” the man said. A female detainee not far from her cell was screaming “very loudly”, he said. According to him, at least one man died in this basement.
“He put a rod in my hand and attached a clamp to my ear”
The conditions of detention of Anton Volosnikov, in one of the jails held by the Russian forces in his town of Enerhodar, which houses the nuclear power plant of Zaporozhya, were also trying. Near Release, this 30-year-old former prisoner draws on a piece of paper a room comprising two sleeping benches and a table, with arrows to designate the location of each lying body. “We were up to 23 in this room, usually there were 16. We tried to use the whole place to sleep.” The room, which was in a police building, measured about 4 by 4 meters, with only one small window.
Anton Volosnikov says he was detained and tortured. “They wanted names, the names of people who had guns in the city,” he says, saying he was often beaten up, hit with a wooden bat as he stood with his hands propped up against a wall. He was also allegedly tortured with electric shocks: “I was seated on a normal office chair. The one who called himself ‘the lawyer’ put a rod in my hand and attached a clip to my ear. I felt the electricity all over my body. They were shouting ‘Say the names, where are they?’ As soon as I remained silent, they started again.”
Constituency MP Iuliia Yatckyc tells Release to know about these “torture chambers”: “The occupation forces are looking for members of the territorial defense. They arrest them and take them to torture chambers, one of them is in the police national in Enerhodar” where Anton Volosnikov spent most of his detention before his ordeal ended, when he delivered “false names”. Iuliia Yatckyc also specifies that “most of the people who were tortured do not know where they were taken, because they had a bag put on their head”. “We know these places thanks to locals who have seen the Russians take people to these places”, explains the deputy.
In addition, Serhii – the name has been changed – a former member of a local administration, relates to Release the alleged rapes of detainees, a widespread punitive practice in Russian prisons. “One of the guys was raped,” also says Anton Volosnikov.
At least ten torture chambers in the Kharkiv region
In Koupiansk, in the Kharkiv region, Maryna Mikhaïlytchenko, 32, arrested during the Russian occupation, spent a week in prison. “My brother is in the Ukrainian army,” she told AFP to explain her arrest, adding that she was not tortured. A little further in the partially destroyed town, a volunteer who goes by the nickname “Bronik” explains to AFP that according to him, “the police detained and tortured those who had fought in the army since 2014, and the pro- Ukrainians”. “I don’t know if people died from torture. But there were people who were physically injured. With broken hands,” said the man.
In Balakliïa, in the same region of Kharkiv, Viktor Priliepov, 68, says he was held for three days at the police station by the Russian occupiers. “They took me there with a bag over my head and locked me in a cell,” he testifies. He was not mistreated because, according to him, of his “health problems”. But others were less fortunate than him and were “beaten”, he says.
Also in this region, Vasiliy, 37, recount at the New York Times being transported from one place of detention to another, where he was beaten and repeatedly subjected to electric shocks during his interrogation – “it’s as if your whole body was pricked with needles” – recounts -he. He does not know where he is or why he is being held. The interrogators ask him for information on Ukrainian military positions and groups, but he receives blows before he can even answer a question. “They don’t believe anything you say, even if you’re telling the truth,” he says. “You cannot prove your innocence.” On September 16, the head of the Ukrainian national police Igor Klymenko announced the discovery of “at least ten torture chambers in localities in the Kharkiv region”.
More than 400 arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances
Russian forces have been accused of numerous abuses in the territories they control in Ukraine, and in particular in Boutcha, on the outskirts of kyiv, where the corpses of civilians coldly executed in the streets were found after their departure at the end of March. Moscow denies having committed these crimes, citing Ukrainian “falsification”. The Czech presidency of the European Union, for its part, called on Saturday for the creation of a special international tribunal for Izioum and the UN said it wanted to send a team “soon”.
On September 9, the UN said it had documented more than 400 arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances by Russian forces in Ukraine. Of these people, 16 were found dead and 166 were released. The mission also recorded 51 arbitrary arrests and 30 other cases that could be similar to enforced disappearances perpetrated by the Ukrainian security forces. Torture in particular, if proven in court, “would be a war crime”, explained Matilda Bogner, who heads the human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine.
“We have documented that prisoners of war in the hands of “the Russian armed forces or affiliated armed groups” have suffered acts of torture and ill-treatment and that in some places of detention they do not have food, adequate water, health care and sanitation,” she added.