Torture, Sexual Violence, Murder: Investigating War Crimes in Kherson
One year after its de-occupation, investigators continue to record thousands of war crime cases amid continuous shelling.
On November 11, 2022 Ukraine’s armed forces entered Kherson, regaining control of the southern port city after eight months of Russian occupation. One year on, the 60,000 residents - out of a pre-war population of 300,000 - live under relentless Russian shelling from the left bank of the Dnieper river, which remains under Russian control.
Andriy Kovalenko, who leads the department for combating crimes in armed conflicts at the regional prosecutor's office in Kherson, tells IWPR Olga Golovina how his 21-strong team has recorded evidence of thousands of war crimes in the de-occupied territories and is trying to look into offences committed in areas which remain under Russian control.
IWPR: How many cases of torture, forced disappearance and deliberate murder were discovered in Kherson and the liberated areas?
Andriy Kovalenko: As of November 1, regional law enforcement agencies have opened over 16,000 criminal cases regarding more than 19,000 violations, specifically war crimes committed by Russian military forces, both in the de-occupied and occupied territories. We lack access to verifiable information about crimes committed in the occupied territories, [there] the number is likely to be significantly higher.
In the de-occupied territories, investigators and prosecutors have identified 19 places of illegal detention where civilians were detained from a few hours to several months, and subjected to torture. Eleven were located within the territory of the Kherson community and four in the Berislav district. They were located in various places, including the basement of a commercial building, and had cells with metal doors. One of the largest was in the temporary detention facility of the Kherson police. About 400 civilians were held there.
Men and women were kept in the same room, with no opportunity to attend to their personal hygiene. Some detainees were taken to other occupied territories, in Kherson and Crimea. We have documented about 1,600 cases of illegal detention of civilians; about 800 people have been released and nearly as many remain in detention or their fate is unknown.
Since the occupation, Russian forces have committed over 200 intentional killings of civilians [as a result of shelling].
How do you prove torture as a war crime?
Torture, including ordering it, is prohibited under international humanitarian law, regardless of whether the victim is civilian or military. To prove torture as a war crime, we must establish that it was committed in the context of, and linked to, an armed conflict. We have to assert that it was systematic and aimed to subjugate the civilian population to the control of the Russian Federation.
We collect evidence with various methods: we carry out pre-trial investigations, gather testimonies, monitor open sources and analyse documents seized from the occupying forces.
In the Kherson region pre-trial investigations are complicated. As a result of the constant shelling of civilian infrastructure, many residents have left and relocated to other regions of Ukraine or abroad.
Nevertheless, we have identified Russian military personnel, including in command positions, who organised a torture chamber in a commercial building in Kherson city. We have submitted one indictment regarding individuals involved in this case to the court. [Among them is] Alexander Yakimenko, former head of Ukraine’s security service (SBU) during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, who defected to the Russians.
We have also informed a representative of the occupation authorities in the Kherson region about the suspicion that he was involved in organising and running this torture chamber.
Additionally, we have initiated pre-trial investigations and submitted six indictments for individual acts of torture against the civilian population and the organisation of a torture chamber in a detention facility temporarily controlled by the Russians.
Are there enough investigators and prosecutors investigating war crimes on the de-occupied territory of the Kherson region?
Ukraine’s justice system is undergoing development, particularly in the field of investigating war crimes. In February 2022, there was no specialised unit for investigating war crimes in Kherson; since then, specialised units have been established in the prosecutor's office, in the SBU and the national police. In addition, law enforcement personnel from other regions are being engaged to enhance the efficiency of pre-trial investigations. This allows us to focus on particularly severe war crimes committed within the region.
We have submitted more than 20 indictments to the court, resulting in three convictions against four Russian military personnel. War crimes have no time limit, so Ukrainian law enforcement agencies will continue to pursue the guilty parties to restore justice.
Is there any work being done to document, record and investigate war crimes committed in the territory of the Kherson region which remains under Russian occupation?
There are fewer criminal cases currently due to our limited access, but we continue to work. After the liberation of the left bank there will be a substantial workload. There we use various legal sources to collect information to document crimes.
There is a case where charges have been brought and an indictment has been sent to court against a Russian serviceman for committing a war crime after he was taken captive. There are registered cases of intentional killing of civilians. Soon we will announce charges and send the indictments to court.
Do victims approach law enforcement officers themselves or remain silent? Have many left?
There are difficulties in working with the victims, primarily because a significant portion of the Kherson region is still under Russian control. Many have relatives in the occupied areas, so do not come forward because they fear for the lives of their family members.
We protect the victims’ personal information and involve psychologists in the process. This is especially critical with victims of sexual violence. I want to emphasise that not enough attention is paid to the issue of sexual violence against men. Victims of these crimes, both women and men, often refuse to provide testimony.
The electrocution of men's genitals was a common forms of torture. Victims reported that it was widespread, but unfortunately, we do not receive a large number of statements as men are reluctant to testify. Therefore, we wait for psychologists to work with the victims; eventually some agree to testify.
The number of recorded cases is huge but there have been few sentences. What complicates the investigation process?
Our international partners provide us with regular training on international humanitarian law. The only thing we need is time and access to the occupied territories. Quick access is urgently needed. That's why we hope that western partners will provide more assistance to Ukraine’s armed forces to liberate the regions still under occupation.
I cannot disclose details of what the enemy is doing in the occupied territories, but believe me, such systematic crimes were probably only perpetrated during World War II. Therefore, the sooner we can get to those territories and document the crimes, the better we can perform our work. All individuals involved in committing war crimes will be held accountable.
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