Many Ukrainians who were held by Russian forces in detention centres in Ukraine’s Kherson region say they witnessed or experienced acts of torture while they were detained, according to a team of international lawyers and analysts.
The group, known as the Mobile Justice Team, has been supporting Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General with investigations and prosecutions of conflict-related sexual violence. In a news release this week, it said it had documented wide-ranging torture and sexual violence committed against Ukrainians during the eight months last year when Kherson, located in Ukraine’s south, was occupied by Russian soldiers. Ukraine has since recaptured some of the region, including the city of Kherson.
Investigators analyzed an initial pool of 320 cases of detention in Kherson, across more than 35 detention centres, the group says. The investigation found that at least 43 per cent of those detainees mentioned torture committed by Russian guards. Some said they were victims, and others said they were witnesses.
The group says at least 36 detainees mentioned the use of electrocution during interrogations, often genital electrocution. Others mentioned threats of genital mutilation, and at least one was forced to witness another detainee being raped by an object covered in a condom, according to the group.
The investigation found that Russian guards had also subjected prisoners to suffocation, waterboarding, severe beatings and threats of rape. The group says work to identify the Russian perpetrators, including one soldier who allegedly ordered that genital electrocution be used on 17 prisoners, is already under way.
The Mobile Justice Team was set up in April, 2022 by Global Rights Compliance, an international human rights law firm and foundation, and is part of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group, an initiative sponsored by the United States, Britain and the European Union.
The team’s efforts are led by British lawyer Wayne Jordash, and its members include foreign and Ukrainian prosecutors, investigators, lawyers and analysts. They work across the country to assist with the documentation, investigation and prosecution of war crimes, including sexual crimes.
Mr. Jordash, who is managing partner and co-founder of Global Rights Compliance, said in a statement that the torture and sexual violence tactics the Office of the Prosecution is uncovering suggest Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “plan to extinguish Ukrainian identity includes a range of crimes evocative of genocide.”
“At the very least, the pattern that we are observing is consistent with a cynical and calculated plan to humiliate and terrorize millions of Ukrainian citizens in order to subjugate them to the diktat of the Kremlin,” he said.
Anna Mykytenko, a senior legal adviser and Ukraine country manager for Global Rights Compliance, said in a statement that the evidence collected so far shows contempt for international humanitarian law by Russian forces.
She added that the Mobile Justice Team is unique in its ability to deploy rapidly and work alongside Ukrainian prosecutors.
“This is helping to successfully identify perpetrators, and to build strong cases against them,” she said. “Strong cases built on a foundation of truth will in turn deliver justice to more victims, and justice to more victims will destroy the confidence of many Russian soldiers who think they can act with impunity and outside of international law.”
The group says the documented “patterns” of rape and other sexual crimes committed against Ukrainians in occupied areas “may speak to a premeditated plan on a systemic level.”
Those detained in Kherson included military members, ex-military members, current and former members of law enforcement, volunteers, community leaders, activists, medical workers and teachers, according to the group. Based on the group’s preliminary analysis, military members were the most likely to be tortured.
Ms. Mykytenko said the scale of Russia’s war crimes is unknown, but that Kherson “is just the tip of the iceberg in Putin’s barbaric plan to obliterate an entire population.”
Earlier this year, the Mobile Justice Team released evidence of financial links between torture chambers in Ukraine and the Russian state.
The group says it is now working with a newly established task force of investigators and prosecutors to create a set of protocols for investigating and prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine. It says this will align these investigations with international best practices and ensure more perpetrators are brought to account.
In June, a United Nations monitoring mission released a report with similar findings. It detailed hundreds of cases of civilians being detained, tortured and in some cases summarily executed by Russian forces in Ukraine.