Russian forces controlling much of the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions in northeastern Ukraine from late February through March 2022 subjected civilians to summary executions, torture, and other grave abuses that are apparent war crimes, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
In 17 villages and small towns in Kyiv and Chernihiv regions visited in April, Human Rights Watch investigated 22 apparent summary executions, 9 other unlawful killings, 6 possible enforced disappearances, and 7 cases of torture. Twenty-one civilians described unlawful confinement in inhuman and degrading conditions.
“The numerous atrocities by Russian forces occupying parts of northeastern Ukraine early in the war are abhorrent, unlawful, and cruel,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These abuses against civilians are evident war crimes that should be promptly and impartially investigated and appropriately prosecuted.”
Human Right Watch interviewed 65 people between April 10 and May 10, including former detainees, torture survivors, families of victims, and other witnesses. Human Rights Watch also examined physical evidence at the locations where some of the alleged abuses took place as well as photos and videos shared by victims and witnesses.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russian forces have been implicated in numerous violations of the laws of war that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch previously documented 10 summary executions in the town of Bucha and several other northeastern towns and villages during Russian forces’ occupation in March.
In 1 of the 22 newly documented killings, in the Kyiv region, Anastasia Andriivna said that she was at home on March 19 when soldiers detained her son, Ihor Savran, 45, after they found his old military coat. On March 31, the day after Russian forces withdrew, Anastasia Andriivna found her son’s body in a barn about 100 meters from her house after recognizing his sneakers sticking out the barn door.
Civilians described being held by Russian forces for days or weeks in dirty and suffocating conditions at sites such as a schoolhouse basement, a room in a window manufacturing plant, and a pit in a boiler room, with little or no food, inadequate water, and without access to toilets. In Yahidne, Russian forces held over 350 villagers, including at least 70 children, 5 of them infants, in a schoolhouse basement for 28 days, severely limiting their ability to leave even briefly. There was little air or room to lie down, and people had to use buckets for toilets.
“After a week everyone was coughing violently,” said someone formerly held at the school. “Almost all the children had high fevers, spasms from coughing, and would throw up.” Another said some people developed bedsores from constant sitting. Ten older people died.
In Dymer, Russian forces held several dozen people, the men blindfolded and handcuffed with zip-ties, for several weeks in a 40 square-meter room in the town’s window manufacturing plant, with little food and water, and buckets for toilets.
Human Rights Watch documented seven cases of torture in which Russian soldiers beat detainees, used electric shocks, or carried out mock executions to coerce them to provide information. “They put a rifle to my head, loaded it and I heard three shots,” said one man who had been blindfolded. “I could hear the bullet casings falling on the ground, too, and thought that was it for me.”
Human Rights Watch documented nine cases in which Russian forces fired on and killed civilians without an evident military justification. On the afternoon of March 14, for example, as a Russian convoy passed through Mokhnatyn village, northwest of Chernihiv, soldiers shot to death 17-year-old twin brothers and their 18-year-old friend.
All of the witnesses interviewed said they were civilians who had not participated in hostilities, except for two torture victims who said they were members of a local territorial defense unit.
All parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, and customary international law. Belligerent armed forces that have effective control of an area are subject to the international law of occupation found in the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions. International human rights law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, is applicable at all times.
The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilians, summary executions, torture, enforced disappearances, unlawful confinement, and inhumane treatment of detainees. Pillage and looting of property are also prohibited. The internment or assigned residence of civilians is permitted exceptionally for “imperative reasons of security.” A party to the conflict occupying territory is generally responsible for ensuring that food, water, and medical care are available to the population under its control, and to facilitate assistance by relief agencies.
Anyone who orders or commits serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent, or aids and abets violations, is responsible for war crimes. Commanders of forces who knew or had reason to know about such crimes but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible are criminally liable for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.
Russia and Ukraine have obligations under the Geneva Conventions to investigate alleged war crimes committed by their forces or on their territory and appropriately prosecute those responsible. Victims of abuses and their families should receive prompt and adequate redress.
As a general matter, Ukrainian authorities should take steps to preserve evidence that could be critical for future war crimes prosecutions, including by cordoning off gravesites until professional exhumations are conducted, taking photos of bodies and the surrounding area before burial, recording causes of death as possible, recording names of victims and identifying witnesses, and looking for identifying material that Russian forces may have left behind.
“It’s increasingly clear that Ukrainian civilians in areas occupied by Russian forces have endured terrible ordeals,” Gogia said. “Justice may not come quickly, but all steps should be taken to ensure that those who suffered see justice someday soon.”