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Scale of alleged torture, detentions by Russian forces in Kherson emerges

More accounts of torture and warcrimes conducted by the Russians continue to surface, Ukrainian authorities are still uncovering more atrocities as the war continues.

Oksana Minenko, a 44-year-old accountant who lives in the Ukrainian city of Kherson, said she was repeatedly detained and tortured by occupying Russian forces.

In the first days of full-scale war, her husband, a Ukrainian soldier, died defending Kherson’s Antonivskyi bridge. According to Minenko, Russian forces tortured her during several interrogations in the spring by submerging her hands in boiling water, pulling out her fingernails, and beating her with rifle butts.

“One pain grew into another,” said Minenko, who had visible scarring around her eyes from an operation to repair the damage, when she spoke in early December at an improvised humanitarian aid center. “I was a living corpse.”

According to interviews with more than a dozen alleged victims, Ukrainian law enforcement officials and international prosecutors assisting Ukraine, the Russian occupying forces have used electric shocks to shock the genitals and other parts of the body, beatings, and various forms of suffocation.

Some prisoners were also confined to overcrowded cells for up to two months without sanitation or adequate food and water.

Kherson’s chief war crimes prosecutor, Andriy Kovalenko, says it was done systematically, exhaustingly to obtain information about Ukrainian forces and suspected collaborators and punish those critical of the Russian occupation.

Several thousand people in the Kherson region who were allegedly abducted and illegally detained by Russian forces during their months-long occupation have been subject to pre-trial investigations, according to the most comprehensive figures to date on alleged torture and detentions.

According to Ukrainian law enforcement, the number of alleged crimes in the Kherson region is much higher than around the capital of Kyiv, due to the fact that it was occupied so long.

Yuriy Belousov, Ukraine’s top war crimes prosecutor, said authorities have identified ten sites in Kherson used by Russian forces for unlawful detentions. Around 200 people who were allegedly tortured or physically assaulted while held at those sites and about another 400 people were illegally held there. Ukrainian authorities say they expect the figures to grow as the investigation continues following Russia’s mid-November withdrawal from Kherson city, the only regional Ukrainian capital it captured during its nearly year-long war against its Western neighbour.

The authorities have opened pre-trial investigations into alleged unlawful detentions of more than 13,200 people nationwide, Belousov said, and a total of 1,900 investigations into allegations of ill treatment and illegal detention have been launched.

Ukraine has been accused by Russia of committing war crimes and the West of ignoring them, including the execution of Russian prisoners. An official of the United Nations said on November 19 that both sides had tortured prisoners of war, with Russian abuse being fairly systematic, while Ukraine has previously said it would investigate alleged abuses by its military.

In March and April, Minenko reported that three times men in Russian military uniforms with their faces covered by balaclavas came to her home at night, interrogated her, and detained her. She was once forced to undress, tied to a chair and had her head covered as the men beat her.

In February, Russia invaded Ukraine, launching Europe’s biggest land war since World War II. In November, Russia withdrew its forces from Kherson city after beginning its occupation in March.

Among more than 50,000 reports of war crimes registered with Ukrainian authorities, Belousov said more than 7,700 came from Kherson. The region still has more than 540 missing civilians, according to him. Kovalenko, the regional prosecutor, says some people have been taken to Russian-held territory in apparent forced deportations.

According to Belousov, more than 80 bodies have been found, most of whom were civilians, with more than 50 having been shot or shelled by artillery. In other areas where Russian forces had withdrawn, hundreds of civilian bodies had been found, Belousov said. Among those were more than 800 civilians in Kharkiv, where investigators have had more time to probe since Ukraine retook large tracts of territory last September.

A Facebook post by Kharkiv’s regional police chief, Volodymyr Tymoshko, on January 2nd described 25 locations in the Kharkiv region as “torture camps.”

Thousands of alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces could be brought before overseas tribunals if deemed serious enough. An investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine has been opened by the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC).

The numbers that are emerging on the scale of alleged detentions and torture, “point to widespread and grave criminality in Russian-occupied territory,” said British lawyer Nigel Povoas, lead prosecutor with a Western-backed team of legal specialists assisting Kyiv in prosecuting war crimes.

According to one 35-year-old Kherson man, Russian forces beat him, made him undress, and shocked his genitals and ears during a five-day detention in August. “You pass out when the current hits you,” said the man, who asked only to be identified by his first name Andriy out of fear of retribution.

As a suspected member of the resistance movement, his captors interrogated him about Ukraine’s military efforts, including the storage of weapons and explosives. According to Andriy, he knew people in the Ukrainian military and territorial defence forces, but was not a member.

Kherson city’s office building was one of the region’s largest detention facilities, according to Ukrainian authorities. In one of the rooms in the warren-like basement that was used for detention and torture during the Russian occupation, more than 30 people are known to have been held. The number of people held is still being investigated, according to authorities.

Kherson residents and Ukrainian authorities said a police building referred to as “the hole” was another place where people supposedly were tortured and interrogated.

During the more than fifty days she spent in detention this summer, Liudmyla Shumkova, 47, and her 53-year-old sister were held captive at the site on No. 3 Energy Workers’ Street. According to her sister, the Russians asked them about her sister’s son because they suspected he was involved in the resistance movement.

Approximately half a dozen people were packed into a cell with little light and as little food as one meal a day, according to Shumkova, a lawyer in the health sector. According to her, she wasn’t physically tortured, but fellow detainees were, including a female police officer with whom she shared a cell. According to her, men were particularly subjected to harsh torture. “They screamed, it was constant, every day. It could last for 2 or 3 hours.”

Investigations continue to identify those responsible for the alleged war crimes, including senior military leadership. According to Belousov, the war crimes chief, more than 70 people have been identified as suspects and 30 people have been indicted for torture.

Most of the suspects are lower-ranking military officials, Belousov said, but some are “senior officers, particularly colonels and lieutenant colonels” and senior members of the pro-Russian Luhansk and Donetsk military-civil administrations. There was no response from representatives of the pro-Russian Luhansk People’s Republic or the Donetsk People’s Republic to questions about whether or not their forces were involved in unlawful detentions or torture.

An investigation into war crimes in the Kherson region included a visit to the village of Bilozerka where investigators examined a courthouse Ukrainian authorities say was used for detention and torture, as well as a nearby school that had been turned into a barracks for 300 Russian soldiers. Besides gas masks and medical kits, there was Russian literature and bullets that were fired into the brick wall of the now abandoned school building, which carries the “Z” symbol that represents Russian support in the war.

At the courthouse, a small team of investigators collected fingerprints and DNA samples. Yellow markers were placed in an adjacent garage to identify evidence. Two prosecutors said the gas mask attached to a tube and pouch for liquid resembled improvised torture devices allegedly used by occupying Russians to create a sensation of drowning.

The Kremlin and Russian defence ministry did not comment about methods of alleged torture.

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