September 25, 2023
The Kremlin is implementing a carefully choreographed “state policy” of torture in occupied Ukraine, the leading United Nations expert on the abuse has said. “It’s not just that it’s so widespread,” Dr Alice Jill Edwards, the UN special rapporteur on torture, said in Kyiv as she concluded a seven-day visit. “You can see from the way the method is set up and mirrored across different regions — there is the supervising officer, the torturer and the interrogator. The methods of doing it, the purposes for doing it and the targets are consistent. To me, that is a state policy.”
Edwards said she had spoken to about a dozen victims and reviewed scores of testimonies gathered by civil society organisations and Ukrainian law enforcement. The Ukrainian prosecutor-general’s office told her that 90 per cent of Ukrainians held in Russian captivity had reported being tortured.
Their stories had revealed a pattern to the Russian treatment of prisoners — both military and civilian — that demonstrated it was orchestrated from above, she said. Asked whether President Putin could be held responsible, Edwards said: “With torture, the buck stops at the top. [Preventing it] is a state obligation. It’s also an individual obligation on every individual soldier.”
On June 12, she sent a diplomatic letter to Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, detailing 50 “forensic” accounts that should have triggered an investigation under the Kremlin’s obligations to the UN. She received no response. “It’s hard to wrap our heads around that such a level of brutality could be organised — it’s a struggle for everyday people to understand, but this is well beyond acceptance, it’s endorsement.”
Victims had described torture being carried out in stages. It would start without questions, “to oppress, to intimidate, to humiliate and subjugate the Ukrainian detainees”, Edwards said.
Russian soldiers set dogs upon one group of prisoners. A detainee released afterwards told Edwards: “The Russians loved it, they laughed, they were taking videos on their phones. The dog mauled my legs, I fell and lost consciousness.”
Several described having to “run the gauntlet” between ranks of Russian soldiers beating them with batons, and one woman told Edwards after interrogation she had been told to make her way back to her cell blindfolded, down several corridors and flights of stairs. If she touched the wall the Russians would beat her, she said, they would shove her and if she fell they would laugh at her.
Former detainees told Edwards that the Russians would feed them only one bowl of soup a day, keep 15 prisoners in unhygienic conditions in a room designed to hold four, and force them to share one bar of soap while they were washing themselves.
One captured Ukrainian soldier said he had been hung by his feet upside down and beaten, then forced to watch a comrade hung by his arms being beaten. The Russians broke his nose and teeth and then forced him to wash up the other’s blood. “This was done without any questions, almost
as though there were a process of humiliation first and the questions would come later,” said Edwards. Many victims reported sexual violence during this process, she added. “A large number of men recounted different forms of sexual abuse, in particular the attachment of electrodes to genitals and that kind of mocking humiliation. Threats of sexual violence or threats of rape were quite common.”
She said women had been less willing to come forward to report rape, but a humanitarian organisation entering freshly liberated regions had reported a huge demand for emergency contraception, giving out 5,000 doses. “That was just a shocking kind of statistic. You know, it really spoke to me of the consequences of all of this,” said Edwards.
One Ukrainian public official told Edwards she was held in a cell with two collaborators who tried to extract information from her by trying to bond with her. Eventually they confided that the Russians received a bonus equivalent to 10 per cent of their monthly salary for capturing a Ukrainian partisan, 25 per cent for extracting a confession, and 50 per cent if they turned that person into a collaborator.
She was taken by the Russians along with her son, beaten and then forced to stand outside the room where her son was being held and watch him being tortured. There were also efforts to “recruit people for intelligence gathering, by video recording their torture, confessions or votes, then threatening to release the videos to show them collaborating”, said Edwards, who will present her final report to the UN Human Rights Council in March next year.
Most of the prisoners she interviewed had been exchanged in prisoner swaps, afterwards telling her of a systematic effort to erase the evidence of their torture. “In my view there is a ‘systemisation’ of the effort to cover up the torture they have perpetrated in advance of prisoner swaps,” she said. “I had interviewees indicate that prior to their transfer under a prisoner of war exchange, they were taken to a particular detention facility where they were well fed, where they were clothed, where they were bathed – for two full weeks with the hope that any bruising and so forth would pass.”
The Russians had warned several detainees not to report their torture when they returned home or their comrades still in captivity would be tortured in retaliation, she said.
The Kremlin’s efforts to cover up their crimes often fall flat, however. In one instance, Kyiv exchanged Russian prisoners of war for 12 Ukrainian soldiers captured alive. The Ukrainian soldiers were returned as corpses.
Maxim Tucker was Kyiv correspondent for The Times between 2014 and 2017 and is now an editor on the foreign desk. He has returned to report from the frontlines of the war in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February. He advises on grantmaking in the former Soviet countries for the Open Society Foundations and prior to that was Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Ukraine and the South Caucasus. He has also written for The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, Newsweek and Politico.