Prisoners of war tortured by both Russia and Ukraine, UN probe shows

A service member of pro-Russian forces, who was exchanged during a prisoners of war (POWs) swap between Ukraine and Russia, meet his relative upon the arrival, as Russia's military operation in Ukraine continues, in the town of Amvrosievka, Donetsk People's Republic, Russia. (Keystone/Sputnik/Alexey Maishev)

An ongoing investigation by the United Nations human rights office reveals abuse of prisoners of war by both sides in the conflict.

Both Russia and Ukraine have tortured and ill-treated prisoners captured during the war in Ukraine in violation of the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations high commissioner’s office said on Tuesday.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said that over the past few months it has conducted interviews with 159 prisoners of war held by Russia and 175 held by Ukraine. 

The "vast majority" of Ukrainian prisoners of war, held by Russia described being tortured and ill-treated during their captivity. They said that these practices were used not only to coerce them into giving military information, but also to intimidate and humiliate them on a daily basis.

Speaking to reporters at a press briefing in Geneva from Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, head of the monitoring mission, said that in some testimonies prisoners described being beaten, including with batons, and given electric shocks with tasers and military phones known as TAPiks.

In one case, a man taken to a penal colony near Olenivka told of how members of a Russian affiliated armed group "attached wires to [his] genitalia and nose" and shocked him. 

“They simply had fun and were not interested in my replies to their questions,” the former prisoner, cited by Bogner, said. 

Others described being stabbed, shot with a stun gun, threatened with mock executions, being hung by the hands or legs, and burned with cigarettes. 

The UN team also interviewed twenty female prisoners of war on the Russian side. Those held in a penal colony near Olenivka were not subjected to physical violence, Bogner said, but described being psychologically tormented by the screams of male prisoners of war being tortured in nearby cells.

Others did recount being beating, electrocuted and threatened with sexual violence during interrogations in other locations.

The interviews with Ukrainian detainees took place after their release as Russia did not grant access to detention sites.

On the Ukrainian side, Bogner said the mission received “credible allegations” of summary executions of persons outside of combat and several cases of torture and ill-treatment, reportedly committed by members of the Ukrainian armed forces.

“In several cases, prisoners of war were stabbed or given electric shocks with the TAPik military phone by Ukrainian law enforcement officers or military personnel guarding them,” she told reporters. 

The “riskiest time” from the accounts given was upon capture, or when they were first interrogated, or moved to transit camps and places of internment.  In some cases, prisoners said they were punched and kicked in the face and body after surrendering and when they were being interrogated. 

Russian prisoners of war, and those from affiliated armed groups,  described poor and often humiliating conditions during their evacuation to transit camps. Often naked, they were packed into trucks or minivans, with their hands tied behind their backs.

The UN monitoring team, which was given access to prisoners at Ukrainian detention sites, also recorded cases of “welcome beatings” on arrival at a penal colony. 

Bogner called on both sides to remember their obligations under the Third Geneva Convention to treat all prisoners of war humanely. 

“The prohibition of torture and ill-treatment is absolute, even – indeed especially – in times of armed conflict,” she said, calling on Russia to allow “full, confidential and unimpeded access to prisoners of war, in particular in their places of internment”. 

Bogner added that it was also awaiting progress from Ukraine on criminal investigations that have been launched into allegations of abuse of prisoners of war by members of its armed forces. 

She said the UN team was also planning to visit the city of Kherson following the departure of Russian forces and had already visited accessible villages in the area, where it had documented summary executions as well as almost 80 cases of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention. 

“We will be following up further on those cases and will  try to understand whether the scale is in fact larger than what we have documented”, Bogner said.