Kyiv asks allies for help against alleged Russian abuse of Ukrainian POWs

Washington — While the debates around the U.S. aid to Ukraine focus on military assistance, Kyiv is asking Washington for support in another crucial area — locating POWs and civilian hostages held in Russia and their rehabilitation after they return home. 

Ukraine has also called on the United States to introduce sanctions against those who abuse Ukrainian captives in Russian prisons.

Tеtiana, who asked her surname be kept confidential for her family’s safety, said her father, a civilian pensioner, was taken during the Russian occupation of his small Ukrainian village in April 2022.

She found out about his fate only after Ukrainian forces liberated the village. Later, she learned more from Ukrainian POWs who had shared jail cells with him before being released in prisoner swaps.

“They are given just enough food to keep them alive. … They are not allowed to sit. They constantly stand,” she told VOA. 

Tetiana said other treatment amounts to psychological torture.

“They may be told that they’re being taken for a [prisoner] exchange and then returned on the same day and told, ‘We wanted to exchange you, but Ukraine doesn’t want you back,’” she said.

Tetіana talked to VOA in March during visits to the U.S. Senate and State Department with other relatives of prisoners and representatives of the Ukrainian Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War (KSHPPV).  

Olha Pylypey, a member of the small delegation of relatives, told VOA about her brother, Yuliy Pylypey, a marine who fought in Mariupol. On April 12, 2022, he, along with other Ukrainian marines, was captured by the Russian forces at the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works plant. 

Released prisoners told her that her brother is jailed in Kursk, Russia. They also told Yuliy’s family that the administrators and guards of Russian prisons treat Ukrainian captives much worse than regular Russian inmates. 

“They line up [Ukrainian prisoners] and release aggressive dogs on them and don’t allow them to defend themselves,” Pylypey said. She is afraid Yuliy may have also been raped.

Officials at the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, or HRMMU, interviewed and documented 60 Ukrainian servicemen recently released from captivity and found that most of them had experienced sexual violence.

“Almost every single one of the Ukrainian POWs we interviewed described how Russian servicepersons or officials tortured them during their captivity, using repeated beatings, electric shocks, threats of execution, prolonged stress positions and mock execution. Over half of them were subjected to sexual violence,” said Danielle Bell, who heads HRMMU.   

Russian officials deny accusations of mistreatment of Ukrainian prisoners. On November 30, 2023, Russian Commissioner for Human Rights Tatiana Moskalkova said she visited 119 Ukrainian POWs in Russian prisons and found the prisons adhered to international standards.

Andriy Kryvtsov, head of the Military Medics of Ukraine nongovernmental organization, helped find his sister-in-law, military medic Olena Kryvtsova, who was part of a prisoner swap after six months in Russian captivity.  

“They were tortured, beaten and used as punching bags,” Kryvtsov said. “Russian special forces trained on them. They beat them like meat. She lost a lot of weight. When she came home, she weighed 77 pounds.”

Along with other relatives of prisoners, Kryvtsov asked the U.S. and its partners for sanctions not only against the leadership of Russia but also against prison personnel.

“Putin is not personally torturing these people,” he said. 

Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s military intelligence and a member of the KSHPPV, told VOA that Ukrainian officials understand that the U.S. can’t force Russia to comply with the Geneva Convention treaties, which establish standards of humane treatment for people affected by armed conflicts, including POWs. 

But he said the U.S. can help by locating the whereabouts of Ukrainians in Russian prisons so they can be included on the prisoner exchange lists.

The Red Cross has confirmed the identities of 5,000 Ukrainians in Russian captivity. But tens of thousands of people, both civilians and prisoners of war, remain missing, Ukrainian officials say. 

Yusov also emphasized the importance of rehabilitating released prisoners and assisting their families. 

“Thousands of family members of our defenders who ended up in captivity, as well as thousands of Ukrainians who’ve returned from Russian captivity, need social, psychological and medical support, and all this is a subject for our cooperation with partners,” he told VOA.   

Russia does not differentiate between civilians and military captives, considering both to have been “detained for counteracting the SVO,” a Russian abbreviation for special military operation – Moscow’s official designation of its invasion of Ukraine – Ukrainian human rights lawyers told the BBC. 

Lawyers at the Center for Civil Liberties, the Ukrainian organization that received the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, told the BBC that they believe there are about 2,000 Ukrainian civilian prisoners in Russia and the occupied territories.

According to a report by the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine published in March, at least 32 Ukrainian servicemen were executed in Russian captivity between December 1, 2023, and February 29, 2024.

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