Ukraine: “You Can't Imagine the Horror”

Tens of thousands of civilians have been taken hostage by Russian forces, but investigations into these potential war crimes are progressing slowly.

Ukraine: “You Can't Imagine the Horror”

Tens of thousands of civilians have been taken hostage by Russian forces, but investigations into these potential war crimes are progressing slowly.

Yurii Trehubko is a 50-year-old public activist from Kherson.
Yurii Trehubko is a 50-year-old public activist from Kherson. © Courtesy of Y. Trehubko
Tuesday, 14 March, 2023

On March 11, 2022, a dozen Russian soldiers stormed into Yurii and Natalia Trehubko’s Kherson apartment . The couple’s hands were tied, they were blindfolded and in front of their 16-year-old son forced out of the flat at gunpoint.

Their interrogation began at the regional council building, as did the violence.

“Since I didn't tell them anything, they started beating me with their hands and feet,” Yurii told IWPR. “It was scary because I was sitting on a chair with my eyes blindfolded and my hands tied. I didn't know from which direction I would be beaten. I fell down from the beatings and they continued to beat me on the floor.”

After two hours, the couple was returned home, but a month later they were arrested again. They would spend nearly two weeks held in separate cells and subjected to torture and psychological abuse. 

"Right above the cell was a torture chamber where the Federal Security Service was extracting information from the prisoners,” 50 year-old Yuri recalled. “This happened every day, and in the evening, Russian soldiers dragged the prisoners into the corridor and tortured them just for fun. From 11 pm until 3 am there was wild screaming.”

The Russian soldiers found messages on Yurii's phone indicating that he had helped volunteers collect money for a thermal imager for the Ukrainian military.Yuri was beaten and subjected to electroshock torture until he lost consciousness.

"I didn't know the information they were interested in, but they took it as a refusal to cooperate…Every time the blows became stronger and longer,” he said, adding, “You can’t imagine the horror.”

On May 11, Yurii and Natalia, also 50, were released after agreeing to sign statements that they were ready to cooperate with the Russian military and had no complaints about their treatment. 

Once freed, the couple took their son and fled to Dnipro city, where Yurii went immediately to the police to report the crimes against them. He and his wife also gave a statement to the Security Service of Ukraine detailing the abuse prisoners had been subjected to. 

Tens of thousands of civilians have been taken hostage by Russian forces since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, with at least 20,000 remaining in captivity, according to the Ukrainian Ombudsman Office. 

However, investigations into these potential war crimes have progressed slowly, with activists warning that the burden of pushing for prosecutions lies largely with the victims and their families.

Yurii said it was vital to him and his wife to testify as to the torture they witnessed in detention.

"A lot of people were hurt there. I heard how the Ukrainian military and police officers were abused, only because they defended the country. Therefore, it’s very important for me that everything’s documented and that the war criminals could be punished."

However, progress in registering his case was so and after two months, out of frustration, he turned to human rights defenders to help submit a criminal case.

Maryna Kiptila, a lawyer with the SICH Human Rights Group, took the couple’s testimony.  She noted that the World Organisation Against Torture had already recorded numerous abuses in Kherson when it was under the control of the Russian Federation.

"From the beginning of Russia's full-scale aggression, its military has been systematically capturing Ukrainians,” she said. “Moreover, there are not only military personnel but also the civilians in the territories where the hostilities took place or which are under occupation. 

“The OSCE report on violations of international humanitarian law, human rights, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine since February 24, 2022 states that the mission received several credible reports, according to which the armed forces of the Russian Federation arrested civilians and tortured them - deprivation of food, electric shocks, beatings, etc.”

According to human rights defenders, as well as the illegality of the detentions, people were held in insanitary conditions, deprived of food and water as well as medical assistance. 

That was the Trehubkos experience; they both slept on bare wooden bunks with no blankets or bedding.

“There was a feeling of constant hunger,” Yurii said, explaining that they were brought a few spoonfuls of cooked pasta or rice in a plastic bag once a day. During his time in detention, he lost 11 kg. 

Kiptila also made an application to the ECHR regarding torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary searches and deprivation of liberty in the interests of the Trehubkos. When Kherson was released from occupation, Yurii came back to his home city to volunteer, but his wife and son moved to the safer Western part of Ukraine.

"It’s important that such facts of illegal abduction and torture in captivity be documented,” Kiptial continued. “The application to the European Court of Human Rights is a kind of certification of the aggressor's crimes at the international level. Also, it will help [victims] to receive compensation from the aggressor state in the future, as the rights to the prohibition of inhuman treatment, torture, and deprivation of liberty have been violated."

She said that she advised victims to contact the UN committees against torture or enforced disappearances, which helps states and the human rights groups search for abducted civilians and bring perpetrators to justice.

As far as domestic proceedings were concerned, Kiptila said that victims should contact the security service to open proceedings under Art 438 of the criminal code of Ukraine concerning the violation of laws and customs of war. The investigators must attach all available evidence to the case and conduct an appropriate investigation.

Yuliia Poliekhina, a lawyer and human rights activist with the Tribunal for Putin initiative, which documents Russia's war crimes in Ukraine, said that such cases were being investigated extremely slowly. 

This was primarily because of the ongoing occupation of parts of Ukrainian territory, and also due to the huge volume of prisoners and the overloaded justice system. 

"If a person’s released, the criminal proceedings are often simply closed,” she told IWPR. “In order for the case to be brought to court, the law enforcement agencies must conduct a pre-trial investigation - collect witness statements, forensic medical expertise, official responses from the Red Cross Committee, the National Information Bureau, responses from the Russian side, etc. But, unfortunately, today the function of gathering evidence is actually entrusted to the relatives and the victims themselves.”

Poliekhina emphasized that the burden of ensuring an investigation rested on the victim, who had to take responsibility for collecting evidence to include in the case file.

Key to this was also identifying the perpetrator and formally informing the investigators. 

"For consideration in the national court, there must be a person whom the victim can identify,” she continued. “That is, they must know the identity of the offender or offenders. And if it is possible to bring witnesses to the case, then with a high probability the case will be transferred to the national court, where a verdict will be passed in absentia against the Russian war criminals.”

In practice, identifying those responsible was extremely difficult, because not only were victims often in a state of shock but also the perpetrators routinely hid their faces.

"We are collecting evidence and proving who did it. We are working with the International Criminal Court and an investigative group from six countries,” said Yurii Bilousov, head of the war crimes department at the office of the prosecutor general of Ukraine. “Already 20 countries around the world have started their own investigations into Russian crimes in Ukraine, and we are cooperating with them."

Bilosouv did not comment specifically on the issue of the illegal detention of civilians, but acknowledged that the justice system faced numerous challenges. 

"Everything is complicated by the fact that the fighting is still ongoing, investigative actions are often dangerous for the investigative team due to the threat of shelling, and sometimes impossible when it comes to a crime in the occupied territory. But the system is adapting, and very quickly,” he said.

Ukrainian prosecutors have already documented about 70,000 Russian war crimes, and  Bilousov was clear that Ukraine will have to investigate most of them.

"No international court will prosecute tens of thousands of crimes,” he continued. “We don't wait for someone to do the work for us.”

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