‘Climate of fear’: UN accuses Russia of abuses in occupied Ukraine

Russia says it has annexed Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia, the four Ukrainian regions it partly occupies [File: Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik via Reuters]

In its first in-depth report on the situation in occupied Ukraine, UN says it found evidence of intimidation, arbitrary detention and torture.

Russia has tortured and arbitrarily detained people in the parts of eastern Ukraine it occupies, creating a “climate of fear” and suppressing Ukrainian identity, according to the United Nations.

The UN’s Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) was denied entry to Russian-occupied Ukraine and based its report on remote and in-person interviews with more than 2,300 witnesses and victims.

Since launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow has seized large tracts of southern and eastern Ukraine and currently occupies just over 17 percent of the country.

In September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of the regions of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Luhansk and Donetsk in a move rejected by Kyiv and most of the international community.

“Many people living under occupation have endured intimidation and repression, facing a constant threat of violence, detention, and punishment,” the report, which was released on Wednesday, concluded.

The UN investigators said they had verified the executions of 26 civilians, including two children, on the spot, for instance during house searches, as well as the killing of a further 30 civilians during detention. Most executions were committed between March and May 2022.

It said no one had been held accountable for the abuses, and noted Russia was actively trying to suppress Ukrainian identity as it imposed its “language, citizenship, laws, court system, and education curricula on the occupied areas”.

It added that the school curriculum had also been changed to one that sought to “justify” Moscow’s invasion, and access to Ukrainian media and phone networks was blocked.

“The actions of the Russian Federation have ruptured the social fabric of communities and left individuals isolated, with profound and long-lasting consequences for Ukrainian society as a whole,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk was quoted as saying.

Ukraine has accused Moscow of widespread war crimes in its occupied regions, while the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Putin and Russia’s children’s commissioner over the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

The Kremlin denies committing atrocities against civilians.

The report accused Russian forces of using torture in detention centres, saying it had received “credible and reliable accounts regarding the treatment of 171 civilian detainees and found that 90 percent of them had been tortured or ill-treated”.

It accused soldiers, police and prison authorities of using violence including kicking, waterboarding, and electric shocks and subjecting some 48 civilian detainees, including a child, to conflict-related sexual violence. It also documented 16 cases of sexual violence by Russian armed forces on civilians outside of detention, almost all of them against women.

Arbitrary detention and forced disappearances have also been widespread under Russian occupation, the report found.

In total, it documented 687 cases of arbitrary detention until December 2023: 587 men, 92 women, seven boys and one girl.

Local residents were also pressured into getting Russian passports, which were linked to access to social benefits and healthcare, and the Russians used intimidation and violence to get civil servants in fields such as law enforcement and education to work for them.

However, the report also criticised the wording of Ukraine’s law punishing collaboration with occupying forces as “vague and imprecise”.

“The Ukrainian law on collaboration also risks criminalizing conduct which the Occupying Power can lawfully compel individuals to carry out … and which might be essential for or benefit the normal life of the population of the occupied territory,” the report noted.



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