Russia hasn’t given the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the site where more than 50 Ukrainian soldiers were killed
By Oksana Grytsenko and James MarsonFollow
August 5, 2022
The Wall Street Journal
DNIPRO, Ukraine—The Russian guards treated their new Ukrainian prisoners with trepidation at first, ex-inmates said. The captives had defended the southeastern port city of Mariupol for months against an overwhelming invasion force. Many of them were from the Azov Regiment, a National Guard unit that Russia tars as a brutal band of neo-Nazis. Then the beatings began, the former prisoners said. Guards turned on loud music to drown out the screams.
Last week, an explosion killed more than 50 soldiers and injured dozens more in the building where they were being held at the prison, located in the part of the eastern Ukrainian province of Donetsk that is under the control of Russian-installed authorities. Videos from the scene published by Russian war correspondents showed charred human remains among twisted metal bunks.
Ukraine said Russia gathered prisoners in the building and deliberately blew it up to cover up torture and executions. Ukrainian military intelligence said Wednesday in a preliminary assessment that Russian mercenaries had blown up the building using a highly flammable substance, causing the fire to spread rapidly.
Russia says the explosion was caused by a strike from a long-range rocket launcher provided to Ukraine by the U.S. Russian media showed what they said were fragments of rockets found near the site of the explosion.
The U.S. expects Russia to try to frame Ukraine for the attack, White House national-security spokesman John Kirby said Thursday, citing “some spurious press reports to this effect where they have planted evidence.”
An independent investigation appears unlikely. Russia has said it would carry out an investigation, but the International Committee of the Red Cross said it hadn’t been given access to the site. Under the Geneva Conventions, the Red Cross has a mandate to inspect the conditions of places where prisoners of war are held.
Accounts from three former prisoners held in the camp from early April to early July describe grim conditions, including torture, overcrowded cells and lice infestations. “The sounds of beatings were so loud and terrifying that we couldn’t sleep,” said 35-year-old Yevhen Maliarchuk, a civilian former captive. “They beat mostly soldiers, but civilians were also punished for any transgression.”
The Russian Defense Ministry and the Information Ministry of the Russian-installed authorities in Donetsk, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, didn’t respond to requests for comment on allegations that guards beat inmates at the prison.
Human Rights Watch said in a July report that it had gathered evidence that Russia had tortured prisoners of war in southern Ukraine, two of whom died, as well as arbitrarily detaining dozens of civilians, torturing many of them.
Ukrainian officials and former prisoners say the Donetsk People’s Republic established a detention center at the abandoned Correctional Colony No. 120 in Olenivka earlier this year.
At first it was used to hold people like Stanislav Hlushkov, a 37-year-old civilian who was seized in spring as he was trying to evacuate people from Mariupol. He said that he painted and plastered the prison block and even paid for building materials as a part of a deal with the administration of the colony to improve his living conditions.
The facility, converted by Soviet authorities from an agricultural school in the 1980s, had no water supply or heating, former prisoners said. Water was scarce and either had a bitter taste or smelled as if it had been collected from a river. The detainees were kept in overcrowded, lice-ridden cells, with as many as 35 people in a room designed for four.
The guards beat some captives on arrival in the colony, the former prisoners said. Mr. Hlushkov said that he and other captives were made to sit on their haunches for around two hours with their hands behind their heads while guards were checking names. If they moved, the guards kicked them, he said.
The prisoners were mostly volunteers who were trying to aid civilians in Mariupol or members of Ukraine’s military. It was much worse for captured soldiers, who had to run a gantlet of guards hitting them with wooden sticks, iron bars and belts, said Mr. Hlushkov. He said he saw one soldier lying motionless after one such beating and then being taken to a mortuary van.
In the middle of May, the camp was prepared for new arrivals. The flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic was replaced with the Russian tricolor. Russian guards arrived. Many of the inmates were moved elsewhere in the Donetsk region to make space, and the rest were moved to another block.
More than 2,000 new prisoners were brought to the camp from Azovstal, the steel mill in Mariupol where the surrounded defenders of that city made a last-ditch stand. Running low on ammunition, food and medical supplies, they surrendered in May in a deal facilitated by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The defense of Mariupol was led by the Azov Regiment, part of Ukraine’s National Guard that was originally established as a volunteer militia in 2014 to support the country’s threadbare armed forces. It shot to prominence by liberating Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists in 2014. Russian propaganda channels highlighted the unit’s large contingent of nationalists and commander, Andriy Biletskiy, who had led groups that espoused neo-Nazi ideas. The regiment was integrated into the National Guard later that year and Mr. Biletskiy left in 2016.
These days, the regiment is a mix of people from all walks of life, including hard-core soccer fans, lawyers and professional musicians, attracted to its ranks by its reputation as a powerful fighting force.
The Azov Regiment enhanced its reputation in Ukraine further by its dogged defense of Mariupol since February, drawing further ire from Moscow, which continued to denounce it. Still, the Kremlin said that the nearly 2,500 soldiers who surrendered at Azovstal would be treated humanely and “in accordance with international norms.”
The majority of the prisoners were bused to Olenivka prison camp, while those wounded were sent for treatment at a hospital in the town of Novoazovsk, both located in Russian-controlled parts of the Donetsk region, according to Ukrainian officials.
In late June, 95 injured Azovstal defenders were released as part of a prisoner exchange, 43 of them from the Azov Regiment.
The swap outraged many in Russia. Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian Parliament, said that only seriously wounded soldiers of Azov were eligible for exchange. Igor Girkin, a Russian former security-service officer who commanded Russian irregulars in Ukraine in 2014, called the exchange “treason.”
Arriving at the camp, the Azov members were housed in the relatively better blocks and at first not subjected to beatings like other prisoners, the former inmates said.
Russian propaganda channels published videos of Ukrainian prisoners in prison blocks with freshly painted walls praising the living conditions and food. It couldn’t be determined whether they were speaking under duress.
Dmytro Bodrov, a 32-year-old civilian who was also captured and held in Olenivka after trying to evacuate people from Mariupol, recalled Russian guards wearing helmets and carrying guns when bringing food to Azov fighters. “The Russians were asking each other, ‘Aren’t you afraid to go there?’” he said. “It seems they were scared of Azov.”
But a few weeks later, the guards started mistreating the soldiers, the three former prisoners said, which they say they saw themselves and heard about from the soldiers at meals. The guards searched their prison blocks, stripping them for checks and bringing anyone accused of misbehavior to the disciplinary section of the camp for beatings.
Mr. Bodrov, who was kept in the disciplinary block, said his cell had a grate instead of a door, meaning he could see captives being brought from torture rooms after beatings. He said he didn’t witness the beatings, but saw prisoners taken to the rooms then returning limping and moaning. Guards forced some captives to crawl back to their cells. “The guards would turn on loud music to drown out the screams,” he said. One of the prisoners who was regularly beaten there was found dead in his solitary prison cell and his body, covered by a sheet, was taken to a mortuary van, said Mr. Hlushkov. The guards told other inmates it was a suicide. Neither the Russian Defense Ministry nor the Donetsk People’s Republic’s Information Ministry responded to a request for comment.
The former prisoners said videos and photos from after the explosion showed the dead in a block in an abandoned part of the prison camp that wasn’t used during the period they were at the camp until early July. Ukrainian officials said they had evidence, including telephone intercepts, that showed the prisoners were moved to the building where they were killed not long before the explosion.
The Russian Embassy to the U.K. wrote on its Twitter feed: “Azov militants deserve execution, but not death by firing squad but by hanging, because they are not real soldiers.
On Tuesday, the Russian Supreme Court designated Azov a terrorist group, which could allow soldiers to be tried under strict antiterror laws. The next day, the Azov Regiment called on the U.S. Department of State to recognize Russia as a terrorist state.