Around 4K Potentially Tortured by Both Sides During Ukrainian Conflict: United Nations

A report published by the United Nations human rights agency on Friday said prisoners captured in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine have experienced systematic torture, sexual violence and other horrors.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimated that conflict-related imprisonment from April 14, 2014 until April 30, 2021 at 7,900-8,700. As many as 4,000 were detained by the government side of the conflict and between 4,300 and 4,700 by separatists.

The conflict in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas, began in April 2014 following Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula after the removal of Ukraine's former Moscow-leaning president. Russia-backed separatists took over regions in Donetsk and Luhansk, establishing the "people's republics" and fighting government forces that tried to take back control.

More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Ukraine Memorial
U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampires, Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, arrive to lay flowers at the memorial to Ukrainian soldiers, who were killed in a recent conflict in the country's eastern regions, in Kiev, on June 1. VALENTYN OGIRENKO / POOL / AFP/Getty Images

The report issued by the OHCHR said that prisoners' abuse was particularly rampant in the initial stage of the seven-year conflict, but noted it continues to this day.

"Seven years since the outbreak of the conflict, it is unacceptable that such egregious human rights violation remain largely unaddressed," said Matilda Bogner, Head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. "The prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is absolute. Torture can never be justified."

It said in the report that both sides used secret detention facilities immune from any prosecutorial oversight or access by rights monitors. The government side stopped using them in 2017 but the separatists continue to hold prisoners incommunicado, denying access to their relatives and monitors to that moment, the OHCHR said.

The OHCHR analyzed more than 1,300 individual cases of conflict-related detention. It said in cases that occurred only between 2014-2015, 74 percent of detainees held by government forces and 82.2 to 85.7 percent of those held by the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions respectively were frequently subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

It estimated the total number of conflict-related detainees subjected to torture and ill-treatment in 2014-2021 at around 4,000-1,500 at the hands of government agents and about 2,500 by separatists. They included an estimated 340 victims of sexual violence.

The OHCHR said that both in the government-controlled and separatist-held territories "torture and ill-treatment, including conflict-related sexual violence, were used to extract confessions or information, or to otherwise force detainees to cooperate, as well as for punitive purposes, to humiliate and intimidate, and to extort money and property."

Methods of torture and ill-treatment used by both sides included beatings, dry and wet asphyxiation, electrocution, rape, forced nudity, water, food, sleep or toilet deprivation, mock executions, hooding, and threats of death or further torture or sexual violence, or harm to family members.

Stanislav Aseyev, a journalist who worked for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and spent 28 months in the Izoliatsia (Isolation) separatist prison in Donetsk, said the facility had an elaborate system of torture that put emphasis on electric shock.

"They would strip a person naked tied to a metal chair with a band and then apply electric shock to different body parts," Aseyev, who was released in a 2019 prisoner swap, told the Associated Press.

Aseyev, who was also subjected to torture, said that hearing others screaming in pain under torture in a nearby cell has added to the trauma. "It's unbearable to hear a person crying from torture in a neighboring room," he told the AP.

OHCHR pointed to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) as the most common perpetrator of arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment on the government side, adding that volunteer battalions were also responsible at the initial stages of the conflict.

On the rebel side, the report said various armed groups and later members of separatist "ministries of state security" were responsible for prisoner torture and abuse.

The report noted that most of the abuses have remained unpunished.

"We have observed a lack of political will and motivation to investigate the cases allegedly perpetrated by government actors, as well as misuse of procedures to avoid proper investigation of such cases," Bogner said. "While we can count victims in the thousands, perpetrators brought to account only number in the dozens."

Ukraine Soldiers
In this Thursday, April 16, 2020 file photo, Ukrainian war prisoners wearing masks to protect against coronavirus cross a mine barrier during a prisoner exchange, near the village of Mayorske, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine. The United Nations human rights agency said in a report released Friday, that prisoners taken by the warring parties in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine have faced systematic torture, sexual violence and other abuses. Yevgen Honcharenko, Pool Photo/AP, File