Investigators say sites set up during occupation of Ukrainian city were part of ‘calculated plan to terrorise’ locals
1 Mar 2023
Evidence collected from Kherson in southern Ukraine shows Russian torture centres were not “random” but instead planned and directly financed by the Russian state, according to a team of Ukrainian and international lawyers headed by a UK barrister.
The city was under Russian control for eight months, from 2 March last year until Ukrainian forces entered the city on 11 November.
The lawyers, called the Mobile Justice Team, said on Thursday they had investigated 20 torture chambers in Kherson and concluded they were part of a “calculated plan to terrorise, subjugate and eliminate Ukrainian resistance and destroy Ukrainian identity”.
The evidence collected by Ukrainian prosecutors and analysed by the Mobile Justice Team includes plans used by Vladimir Putin’s occupying forces to establish, manage and finance the 20 torture centres in Kherson. “The mass torture chambers, financed by the Russian state, are not random but rather part of a carefully thought-out and financed blueprint with a clear objective to eliminate Ukrainian national and cultural identity,” said the British barrister Wayne Jordash, who is leading the team.
More than 1,000 survivors have submitted evidence and more than 400 people have vanished from Kherson, the lawyers say.
The centres were run by the Russian security services, the FSB, as well as the Russian prison service and local collaborators, according to the lawyers, and were designed to subjugate, re-educate or kill Ukrainian civic leaders and ordinary dissenters.
The prisoners included anyone who had a connection to the Ukrainian state or Ukrainian civil society, such as activists, journalists, civil servants and teachers. Other victims said they were stopped randomly on the street and then detained for allegedly having “pro-Ukrainian” material on their phones.
The prisoners – male and female – were subject to physical beatings, electric shock torture and waterboarding. They were forced to learn and recite pro-Russian slogans, poems and songs, say the team.
It is unclear whether the more than 400 people who have disappeared were killed during the occupation or have been taken to Russia. “Putin’s plan is to occupy Ukraine, subjugate the
Ukrainian population to Russian rule and destroy Ukrainian identity. This plan is becoming clearer as the evidence of war crimes proliferates and as our investigations progress,” Jordash said.
He set up the Mobile Justice Team in May to help the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office investigate and prosecute alleged Russian war criminals. It is funded by the UK Foreign Office, the EU and the US state department and aims to fill a void in Ukraine’s national prosecution service through training and mentorship. Before the invasion, Ukraine had 8,000 prosecutors but none with specialised war crimes experience.
One of the torture facilities that the team examined was in the basement of an office block, and others were repurposed detention facilities, according to the team.
Reporters for the Guardian were among dozens of journalists who saw and heard evidence of torture immediately after the city was freed.
In November, the Guardian visited one juvenile detention centre and spoke to victims who had been kept there. The victims and witnesses who lived around the centre said they never saw the faces of the men who ran the centre as they wore balaclavas, and they dressed head to toe in black.
Three neighbours and two local shopkeepers outside the repurposed juvenile detention centre said they started hearing screams about six weeks after they saw Russian soldiers take over the building. The witnesses said they started to see people being taken in with bags on their heads, and some bodies being removed. “They only beat me a little, I was lucky, but my cellmates were heavily beaten,” said Zhenia Dremo in November. Dremo described how Russian soldiers “attached one electro-rod to his [cellmate’s] testicles and the other to his penis. Then for two hours I would sit there and listen to him scream.”
Another man, Roma, whom the Guardian also interviewed, was accused by the Russians of taking part in underground resistance activities during the occupation. Roma said the Russians attached rods to his testicles but then decided not to switch on the electrical charge.
But he said his cellmates, some of whom were kept in detention for the entire eight months of occupation, were subjected to electric shocks. “There was no life in their eyes; these were broken people,” Roma said.
Isobel Koshiw is a correspondent for the Guardian covering Ukraine. She is a British journalist currently based in Kyiv. She has previously worked on investigations into transnational crime. and corruption at NGOs and for international publications. Her investigations have appeared in OCCRP, The Verge, The New York Times, The Financial Times and The Times and Kyiv Post.