December 2, 2022
In News Russia and Ukraine Russia-Ukraine War
Both Russia and Ukraine Are Committing Atrocities, But One Side Gets a Pass (by Irfan Chowdhury)
I am a PhD student at the University of Brighton, in England. The title of my PhD is: ‘How systematic were the British Army’s war crimes in Iraq between 2003 and 2011?’. I am also a freelance writer, and have had articles published in Iraq Now, Bella Caledonia, Peace News, Roar News, Mondoweiss, Hastings In Focus, The Iranian, Interfere Journal, and other outlets. You can subscribe to my Substack newsletter here, and follow me on Twitter at @irfan_c98.
Coverage of Atrocities in The New York Times
The New York Times (NYT) published two recent articles on revelations of Russia’s use of torture against prisoners of war (POWs), as well as detained civilians, in the now liberated Ukrainian city of Kherson; one, published on 16 November 2022, is titled: ‘Electrical Cords, Metal Pipes: In Kherson, Signs of Torture Emerge’, and the other, published on 25 November 2022, is titled: ‘Under a Cross Atop a Shallow Grave, He Found His Father’. In the former article, journalist Andrew E. Kramer discusses how Ukrainian prosecutors “said they had found 11 detention centers, including four sites they believed the Russians used to hold and torture civilians” in Kherson, and how “Investigators found multiple sites with signs of extrajudicial detention, and indications of abuse in basement prisons”. Kramer quotes Andriy Kovalenko, a prosecutor in the Kherson regional prosecutor’s office, as saying that “The most common type of abuse was electrical shocking and beating with a plastic or rubber nightstick”. According to Kramer, “Ukrainian prosecutors say they are gathering evidence of torture in areas of Ukraine occupied by the Russian army since the invasion in February for what they hope will eventually become an international criminal proceeding”. In the latter article, journalists Lynsey Addario and Marc Santora discuss how when Russian forces withdrew from Kharkiv, “Ukrainian prosecutors and independent journalists moved quickly to document mass graves, torture rooms and other evidence of atrocities”, and how now that Kherson has been liberated, it has become “possible to independently investigate allegations of atrocities, including torture, kidnapping, murder and sexual violence”.
Neither article mentions Ukrainian violations against POWs or detained civilians, which have been documented by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). On 29 June 2022, OHCHR released a report (‘The situation of human rights in Ukraine in the context of the armed attack by the Russian Federation’), which notes that Ukrainian state agents reportedly detained over one thousand citizens on suspicion of allegedly materially or verbally supporting Russia: “The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and National Police have reportedly arrested more than one thousand individuals on suspicion of allegedly providing support to Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. Detainees were alleged to be members of sabotage groups, artillery spotters and informants, but also bloggers, journalists and administrators of social media or messaging channels, who were accused of spreading fake information or expressing support for the Russian armed attack”. OHCHR stated that it is “concerned that many arrests may not have been carried out in line with Ukraine’s international human rights obligations, even taking into account Ukraine’s derogation from certain obligations under the ICCPR and other instruments”, and further confirmed that “In three cases, OHCHR documented the use of torture and ill-treatment”.
The OHCHR report from 29 June 2022 also “documented the widespread use of extrajudicial punishment of individuals believed to be so-called marauders, thieves, bootleggers, fake volunteers (fraudsters), drug dealers and curfew violators”. Most of these extrajudicial punishments occurred in Ukrainian-controlled territory: “OHCHR documented 89 cases (80 men and 9 women) in territory controlled by the Government of Ukraine and three cases in territory controlled by Russian armed forces”. OHCHR described how the victims were usually publicly restrained and humiliated, and sometimes were beaten and subjected to enforced nakedness: “In most cases civilians apprehended the victims believed to be committing crimes, tied them to trees or electricity poles with adhesive tape or plastic wrap, stained their faces or bodies with the words “marauders” or “thieves” or put stickers with these words on them, filmed them and published the videos online. In 19 cases, victims were partially or fully stripped of their clothes, which may amount to sexual violence and torture, especially if they were left without clothes in cold temperature, thereby causing them even more suffering. In 11 cases, victims were beaten by the perpetrators”. OHCHR also confirmed that Ukrainian state agents were involved in this mistreatment of civilians: “OHCHR notes that public officials in different regions called for killing marauders at the crime scene or punishing them, which promoted such violence. OHCHR is particularly concerned that officers of the National Police or members of the Territorial Defence were involved in nine cases of extrajudicial punishment, and even beat tied victims (two cases)”.
OHCHR also confirmed in this report that eleven acts of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) were carried out by the Russian armed forces, and five acts of CRSV were carried out by Ukrainian state agents: “Five acts of CRSV were committed by Ukrainian armed forces, including territorial defence, or other law enforcement bodies, which consisted of forced public stripping and threats of sexual violence”. OHCHR further confirmed violations against POWs on both sides, including cases wherein members of the Ukrainian armed forces tortured and summarily executed Russian POWs: “OHCHR is particularly concerned about two documented cases of summary execution and torture of Russian prisoners of war and persons hors de combat reportedly perpetrated by members of Ukrainian armed forces. In the first case, members of Ukrainian armed forces shot the legs of three captured Russian soldiers and tortured Russian soldiers who were wounded in the Kharkiv region. In the second case, members of Ukrainian armed forces reportedly shot dead a bleeding and choking Russian soldier lying on a road in Kyiv region. Through confidential interviews, OHCHR also received information about incidents where Ukrainian servicemen killed persons who were wounded and hors de combat, as well as prisoners of war”.
The NYT’s Crucial Omissions
Thus, when Kramer states that “Ukrainian prosecutors say they are gathering evidence of torture in areas of Ukraine occupied by the Russian army since the invasion in February for what they hope will eventually become an international criminal proceeding”, it would be relevant to note that there is a need for justice and accountability for violations carried out by both sides, with regards to torture and other abuses. To its credit, the NYT did publish an article on 20 November 2022, titled: ‘Videos Suggest Captive Russian Soldiers Were Killed at Close Range’, wherein journalists Malachy Browne, Stephen Hiltner, Chevaz Clarke-Williams and Taylor Turner discuss videos which “show the grisly before-and-after scenes of the encounter earlier this month, in which at least 11 Russians, most of whom are seen lying on the ground, appear to have been shot dead at close range after one of their fellow fighters suddenly opened fire on Ukrainian soldiers standing nearby”. They further note that the videos’ “authenticity has been verified by The New York Times”. After discussing how these videos could be evidence that Ukrainian soldiers committed a war crime, Browne, Hiltner, Clarke-Williams and Turner state the following: “United Nations investigators said last month that they had documented cases of Russian forces torturing civilian and military prisoners. The investigators also found that Ukrainian troops had tortured and abused prisoners of war, but “on a lesser scale”’. The journalists reference a UN report here that was published on 18 October 2022, which focused mostly on Russian violations, but do not reference a detailed OHCHR statement (‘More than 8 months into Russia’s armed attack on Ukraine and the ensuing escalation in hostilities the UN reports widespread abuse, torture of prisoners of war’) that was published on 15 November 2022 – five days before this NYT article was published – which extensively discusses violations on both sides. This latter OHCHR statement is evidence that the aforementioned OHCHR report that was published on 29 June 2022 (‘The situation of human rights in Ukraine in the context of the armed attack by the Russian Federation’) is not outdated, as OHCHR has continued to document serious violations on both sides, with practically no accountability, which I will now explore.
In its statement, ‘More than 8 months into Russia’s armed attack on Ukraine and the ensuing escalation in hostilities the UN reports widespread abuse, torture of prisoners of war’ (published on 15 November 2022), OHCHR documents abuse and torture of POWs by both Russia and Ukraine, based on interviews with “159 POWs (139 men and 20 women) held by the Russian Federation (including by affiliated armed groups), and 175 POWs (all men) held by Ukraine”. OHCHR states the following: “OHCHR has identified patterns of torture and ill-treatment of POWs held by the Russian Federation (including by affiliated armed groups), particularly during internment. OHCHR has also documented violations committed by Ukrainian state agents towards POWs, which revealed a pattern of ill-treatment at initial stages of capture and evacuation, and sporadic cases of torture and ill-treatment at later stages of internment”. Note that with regards to both Russia and Ukraine, OHCHR describes there being ‘patterns’ of abuse, at different stages of detention of POWs.
Russia’s Use of Torture
OHCHR notes that most of the abuse and torture carried out by the Russian Federation against Ukrainian POWs occurred during internment, not during the initial capture stage: “the majority of former Ukrainian POWs interviewed by OHCHR did not complain about physical violence upon capture. Although some were beaten, most stated that Russian soldiers had treated them with respect at the time of surrender and officers protected them from any attempts to humiliate, threaten or beat them”. Once interned, however, Ukrainian POWs were “subjected to torture and different forms of ill-treatment while held by the Russian Federation, including through affiliated armed groups”. OHCHR documents widespread and egregious abuse and torture during this internment stage, for the purposes of interrogation and humiliation, including POWs being subjected to electrocution, “stabbing, strangling, attacks or threats of attacks by dogs, shooting with stun guns, threats with weapons, mock executions, placement in a hotbox or a stress position, hanging by hands or legs, burns with cigarettes or lighters, exposure to cold temperatures, threats of sexual violence coupled with actions such as stripping, and the twisting or breaking of joints or bones”. OHCHR further notes that it “documented other forms of torture or ill-treatment, such as inserting burning cigarettes in a victim’s nostrils, applying a tourniquet to cause pain, with the victim fearing loss of limb due to constriction of blood circulation, and forms of sexual violence such as pulling a victim by a rope tied around his genitalia”.
You can read the full statement here for more details of Russia’s use of torture. I will now move on to Ukraine’s use of torture, because Russian atrocities are amply covered in Western media, and Ukraine’s atrocities are the most relevant for those of us in the West, as our governments are actively arming and training the perpetrators of those atrocities.
Ukraine’s Use of Torture
With regards to Ukraine’s treatment of POWs, OHCHR states that it “documented cases of torture or ill-treatment, mostly during initial capture, first interrogations or movement to transit camps and places of internment”. With regards to this initial phase, OHCHR states the following: “In many cases, POWs (from Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups) complained of physical violence towards them, such as being punched in the face, and punched and kicked in the torso after surrendering and during their first interrogations by Ukrainian armed forces. In several cases POWs were stabbed or subjected to electric shocks with ‘TAPik’ [military phone] by Ukrainian law enforcement officers or military personnel guarding them”. Note that these POWs are not just Russian soldiers, but also Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were part of separatist groups (“affiliated armed groups”). OHCHR provides the following testimony from one POW, who was electrocuted: “We were most afraid of the military phone. The feeling was awful. Your whole body froze and then you would fall to your side”. OHCHR also notes that in another case, “a POW told OHCHR that the Ukrainian servicemen who captured him did not let him sleep, tied him to something, kicked him and beat him on the head with some hard object the whole night”. Several other POWs reported to OHCHR “that officers of Security Service of Ukraine punched and beat them with a rifle butt right before their interrogation, often on camera”.
While POWs were being transited to camps and internment centres, OHCHR notes that they were packed together, restrained, and stripped naked, and that Ukrainian soldiers sometimes filmed them in this state and posted the videos online; the POWs were also regularly beaten: “Many POWs reported poor and often humiliating conditions during their evacuation to transit camps and places of internment. Often naked, they were packed into trucks or minivans, with their hands tied behind their backs. On some occasions this was filmed and placed online. The humiliation of POWs and their exposure to public curiosity are prohibited under IHL [International Humanitarian Law]. Beatings during evacuation occurred in many documented cases, either during transport or at checkpoints”. One Russian POW told OHCHR: “On the way from the evacuation point to a transit camp, the car stopped at seven or eight checkpoints and at each one, the Ukrainian servicemen accompanying us offered the military at the check point the chance to beat us. Some agreed and punched us”.
OHCHR also documents cases of Ukrainian soldiers subjecting POWs to ill-treatment during the internment phase, including beatings, electric shocks, and suffocation: “OHCHR documented cases of ill-treatment of POWs in a penal colony in the Dnipropetrovska region and in several pre-trial facilities, including so-called ‘welcome beatings’ and afterwards during internment. Such treatment was used as a tool to maintain discipline. Guards forced POWs to kneel for several hours, and beat them with sticks or shocked them with tasers if they moved. In one case, a POW told OHCHR about being suffocated with a piece of fabric placed over his mouth and nose during an interrogation by law enforcement officers”.
OHCHR condemns Ukraine for prosecuting Russian-speaking Ukrainians simply for being part of separatist groups; under international law, POWs cannot be prosecuted simply for participating in hostilities: “OHCHR remains concerned that Ukraine continues to prosecute Ukrainian nationals for their membership in Russian-affiliated armed groups. OHCHR recalls that in international armed conflicts, POWs enjoy combatant immunity and may not be prosecuted for mere participation in the hostilities”. OHCHR further expresses concern that POWs are not being given fair trials in Ukraine: “In court proceedings involving these POWs, OHCHR has documented a pattern of poor or untimely legal aid. One Russian POW on trial before a Ukrainian court told OHCHR: “I saw my legal counsel for the first time during the court hearing via videoconference, with no possibility to even discuss the case in private.”’ OHCHR further notes that it “documented a pattern of rushed proceedings where guilty verdicts were pronounced on the same day or the next day after the preliminary hearing”, and that POWs were pressured to plead guilty: “During interrogation, prosecutors usually tried to pressure POWs to plead guilty, saying that it was the only way to get ‘exchanged’”.
OHCHR documents a similar lack of fair trial rights on the Russian side: “In relation to fair trial rights, OHCHR documented numerous cases where Ukrainian POWs were subjected to coercive interrogations and forced confessions and testimony obtained by torture or ill-treatment was used in trials… OHCHR also spoke with foreign nationals serving with the Ukrainian armed forces who were accused of crimes in Donetsk. They described to OHCHR being tortured to make them confess, denied access to a lawyer of their own choosing, denied adequate interpretation during proceedings, and that they were tried by biased judges. None of the POWs with whom OHCHR spoke described being visited by any human rights or other independent monitors – either international or national – while held by the Russian Federation. The lack of access by independent monitors to places of internment significantly augments risks of ill-treatment of POWs and deprives them of protection”.
OHCHR ends its documentation of Ukrainian violations against POWs by noting “the credible allegations of summary execution of persons hors de combat, and several cases of torture, reportedly committed by members of the Ukrainian armed forces”, and observes that “While Ukraine has launched criminal investigations in at least two cases, OHCHR has not seen progress in these proceedings”. With regards to accountability for Russian violations against POWs, OHCHR states that it “is not aware of any investigations of allegations of violations against POWs by the Russian authorities that have led to prosecutions”. OHCHR ends by noting that “Both Ukraine and the Russian Federation are parties to the Third Geneva Convention that sets out requirements relative to the treatment of prisoners of war”, and by emphasising “that the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment is absolute, even – indeed especially – in times of armed conflict”. OHCHR finalises its statement as follows: “Both parties to the armed conflict have clear legal obligations to investigate and prosecute all allegations of violations of IHL in relation to the treatment of POWs within their control, regardless of their affiliation. Both parties must do so, fairly, promptly and impartially”.
It should be noted that the atrocities carried out by Ukrainian state agents are not just the responsibility of Ukraine, but also the responsibility of NATO, as NATO is propping up the Ukrainian state with different forms of military, logistical, financial, and diplomatic support. This is what makes the lack of attention paid to these atrocities in Western media – the NYT being a crucial example – so pernicious, as it serves to convince Western audiences that the war being fought by their governments, with their money and in their name, is a morally uncomplicated war, completely black-and-white, almost fairytale-like in its separation of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. This self-serving, childish narrative does not correspond with reality.