A Ukrainian human rights official who visited what he described as “children’s torture chambers” in Kherson after Russian forces fled says charges should be tried separately from other war crimes if brought before an international court.
Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian Parliament’s Commissioner for Human Rights, visited Kherson in November after Russia’s eight-month occupation. While the key region’s liberation was seen as a huge victory for Ukraine, authorities made some grim discoveries in the wake of Russia’s retreat.
“This is the first time we have recorded the torture and presence of children in torture chambers,” Lubinets told Context.ro in an interview. “We have identified several children aged 14 and older … child torture should become a separate component for the international tribunal.”
Authorities have recorded cases of children being held captive by Russian forces for prolonged periods of time in darkened rooms, some were subjected to psychological torture which included forced confessions, and others were given distressing and false news that their parents had abandoned them, the official said.
One of those victims is 14-year-old Vitaliy Mukharsky, who said he was kidnapped by Russian soldiers in his small village in the Kherson region along with his health-afflicted uncle. The boy said the pair were blindfolded and forced to spend 10 days in the basement detention cells of the district’s court of appeal.
“A car stopped, there were Russians – and they picked us up,” Mukharsky said in a video interview with Radio Liberty, which granted permission to Context.ro to use. “They took me into the corridor and beat me.”
The teenager said 13 of them, including adults, in total held in the illegal detention facility and that drinking water was sparse. His Russian captors, he said, accused him of being a spy and tried to force a confession from him.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Moscow’s forces have been accused of committing hundreds of war crimes. Since its de-occupation of Kherson, Ukrainian prosecutors have opened more than 400 potential war crimes cases allegedly carried out by Russian troops, said Denys Monastyrsky, Ukraine’s interior minister.
Lubinets, the human rights official, said that torture inflicted on adults in Kherson, like other occupied locations, included mass beatings which often resulted in broken bones, people were subjected to mock executions, and most commonly, he said, electric shocks were administered to captives’ genitals, ears or tongue.
“I talked to one man … about 50 years old, who lost 50 kilograms,” he said. “He was hysterical when he talked about it it. He said that there were moments when he begged to be killed because he could not stand the torture.”
Lubinets describes Russia’s brutal tactics as a systematic approach to “create a system of total pressure on the civilian population” and that in every Russian settlement, “there is a torture chamber, where civilians of Ukraine are tortured, killed, raped.”
While the grim discovery of children subjected to torture shocked many, evidence that Russian forces have committed subtler but equally grave crimes against minors are also mounting. Lubinets highlights that Russia is carrying out what he calls “systemic” forced deportations of Ukrainian children – which would also constitute a war crimes.
“We also recorded that all children from orphanages, boarding schools, and family homes were forcibly deported to the territory of the Russian Federation,” Lubinets said, “children were simply put in a bus and taken to Russia.”
The official said that Ukrainian authorities have recorded cases parents begged against their children’s deportations, but they were “forced into the bus without their belongings, and their Ukrainian documents were taken away and destroyed.”
“The Russian Federation is trying to forcibly move representatives of one ethnic group to another, or to destroy them as representatives of an ethnic group,” he said, “this is genocide.”
The system of total pressure
Rep: Sharе your impressions of what you saw in de-occupied Kherson, what exactly did you see, what are your observations?
Dmytro Lubinets: The most important thing that our Romanian partners, friends, colleagues should understand is that this is not something unique, what I saw in Kherson torture chambers, we saw the same thing in Bucha and Irpin, I personally saw it in Balakliya and Izyum. It is a systematic thing when Russian servicemen create a system of total pressure on the civilian population in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. A military commandant’s office is necessarily created in every settlement, next to which, or right in this building, there is a torture chamber, where civilians of Ukraine are tortured, killed, raped. So when I was in Kherson I knew that I would see it.
Rep: However, what you didn’t expect to see was the presence of children?
D.L.: Yes, this is the first time we have recorded the torture and presence of children in torture chambers.
Currently, we have identified several children aged 14 and older. They were beaten, practically not fed, given very little water. The boy about whom I can already publicly say Vitaliy Mukharsky, he is from Kherson region, all his fault was that he went with his uncle to the broken Russian military equipment and his uncle photographed it.
Russian soldiers immediately arrived, they searched for them, the boy did not have a phone, but his uncle had a phone (his uncle is disabled – without one kidney and with heart problems). They beat them immediately, tied their hands, blindfolded them, threw them into a car and drove them for more than an hour, and then they ended up in one of these torture chambers in Kherson.
The guy was there for 10 days. He was thrown into a very cold room and the first food he received was on the sixth day of his stay there. It was 2 spoons of buckwheat.
Twice Vitaliy was taken for interrogation, they told him that you are 14 years old, and in Russia criminal liability for espionage is from the age of 14, let’s confess that you are a Ukrainian spy.
The boy heard people screaming many times because they were beaten and his uncle was beaten in the same way. After 10 days Vitaliy was released (I do not know what happened there).
Besides him, there are 12 other adults there and they were given 5 liters of water a day. It turns out 400 ml of water per day per person.
Rep: Do you know how many children were in Kherson torture chambers?
D.L.: The data varies, we are currently determining it. But we decided to start publicly disclosing information about children who were there with the consent of their parents and children. I am sure that child torture should become a separate component for the international tribunal. This is all within the criminal proceedings, so everything is recorded.
„The goal of the Russian Federation is to intimidate and make people afraid to say anything”
Rep: What else did you record during your visit to Kherson?
D.L.: If we compare with another territory (liberated Kharkiv region), for example, for the first time in the torture chambers of Kherson we have recorded more than 2 weeks in one room both men and women are kept – here for the first time we have recorded simultaneous detention. Approximately 20 square meters, where there were 20 people. For two weeks, they were not released anywhere at all. This was recorded through people’s testimonies.
Personally, I was surprised that there were such five-liter plastic bottles for water, but it is clear that there was not water, there was urine. We were given an explanation that all men and women went to the toilet in the presence of each other – and this is also a kind of torture.
The second thing that surprised me was that video and audio surveillance was installed in the torture chambers. Witnesses emphasize that as soon as they started even very quietly discussing the Russian occupation or the actions of the Russian military, after a while masked men burst in and massively beat everyone. The goal of the Russian Federation is to intimidate and people are afraid to say anything.
Rep: What actions did Russians take towards children, what kind of torture did you record?
D.L.: Tortures that were recorded in relation to children are detention in unsuitable conditions, failure to provide assistance, children were without food.
One of the boys (I cannot disclose his name yet) said that he was kept for 3 days in a completely dark room.
Also, children were there without parents and were taken for interrogation – which is also a violation of International Humanitarian Law. As well as psychological torture – they insisted that the children confessed to something, and that their parents abandoned them.
„We have recorded various pins that they (Russian military) insert into anal holes and also use current”
Rep: As far as we know from many investigations, the torture to which the adult population is subjected is very cruel. Was it the same in Kherson?
D.L.: Of course, it was. Mass beatings, bones are broken, hammers are used, and they are taken to the execution – they shoot over the head.
Most commonly, they use current – when one wire is tied to the genitals, and the other to the ears or tongue and a machine that produces current is turned. I talked to one man – he is about 50 years old, he lost 50 kilograms, he was hysterical when he mentioned it. He said that there were moments when he begged to be killed because he could not stand all this torture.
His tongue was completely torn by the current. He is already communicating now, but is undergoing rehabilitation, because the tongue has grown back incorrectly.
One of the types of torture we have recorded is different pins that they (Russian military) put in the anus and also use current – it is also massive.
Rep: What evidence did you collect when you visited the torture chambers in Kherson?
D.L.: The data is collected by our law enforcement agencies, the Security Service of Ukraine, the National Police under the procedural guidance of the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine. As an ombudsman, I record data from what I personally saw and from communication with people, from the evidence we receive from our international partners, NGOs.
As for the investigation procedure – DNA, crime scene, search for witnesses – this is the responsibility of law enforcement agencies.
Rep: Why are civilians detained and tortured?
D.L.: First, they deliberately search for those who are related to the Armed Forces, NATO, law enforcement, as well as people with an active position. So, if you are an active person, you have pro-Ukrainian sentiments – this is a reason for detention.
There are categories of people who took part in pro-Ukrainian rallies – in Kherson, already during the occupation, it is clear that they were all detained and tortured.
For example, there is one case with a Ukrainian athlete. I personally talked to him, he was a member of the Olympic team for Ukraine. And when his apartment was searched, they found a sports uniform of the Ukrainian national team and medals. Russian troops accused him of being a nationalist and detained him. They broke this guy’s hands with a metal pipe and when he shouted „Why are you doing this?” – the answer was, „So that you would never play for the Ukrainian national team again”.
„Children were simply put in a bus and taken to Russia”
Rep: No less important and at the same time difficult topic is the war crimes of Russia regarding the forced deportation of Ukrainian children and adults to the territory of the Russian Federation, many families are separated, parents are looking for their children. What is known in this area?
We proceed from the fact that the Russian Federation by its actions has made it so that people are forcibly either leaving for the territory of the Russian Federation or have been forcibly deported there.
We also recorded that all children from orphanages, boarding schools, and family-type homes were forcibly deported to the territory of the Russian Federation. Children were simply put in a bus and taken to Russia. And we have cases when the parents were against it, but they were forced into the bus without their belongings, and their Ukrainian documents were taken away and destroyed. And already there they received a document of the Russian sample, because people had nothing.
Russian officials are involved in this, for example, President Putin’s representative for children – Lvova-Belova. She showed on social networks that there are children from Mariupol, they wanted to go to the territory of the Russian Federation. She had a post like this „That the children (Ukrainian) are very badly brought up, they first sang Ukrainian songs, shouted „Glory to Ukraine”, and below the post „We will re-educate them”.
Rep: Do you manage to return children and how complicated this process is?
D.L.: We managed to return one such child from the territory of the Russian Federation. His name is Serhiy, he is 16 years old, he is from the village of Nikolske near Mariupol. When the open hostilities started, he was taken from Mariupol to Donetsk, and from there he was taken to the group that was in charge of Lvova-Belova and taken to the territory of the Russian Federation. He was forcibly told that you live in this foster family. We did everything to return the boy. It was St. Nicholas Day – December 19.
Rep: How does the mechanism work when the child is already on the territory of the Russian Federation?
D.L.: Through his (Serhiy, 16, “Serhiy has no parents, they died, but he has a sister in Zaporizhzhya and she tried to take him. Russia does not stop whether these children have relatives or not”) testimony, we saw the whole machine, how it works. No one asks anyone, children are taken away and thrown into buses, forcibly taken away, settled in Russian families.
Rep: Let’s clarify – are these children from Ukrainian orphanages or children who have parents in Ukraine?
D.L.: In different ways. For example, Serhiy has no parents, they died, but he has a sister in Zaporizhzhya and she tried to take him. Russia does not stop whether these children have relatives or not, they do their job.
I emphasize that Russian officials are involved in this, because it is a systemic thing. The Russian Federation has changed the legislation, the Russian Duma has changed the national legislation to remove any obstacles to the adoption of Ukrainian children. No one asks children. They are issued documents of Russian standard and there are many such cases.
Therefore, we draw the attention of the world community, because what Russia is doing should be officially legally called genocide of the Ukrainian people.
Dmytro Lubinets ucraina
source: Facebook Dmytro Lubinets (Serhiy, who was returned home to Ukraine )
Rep: In your opinion, what happens to Ukrainian children while they are in Russia?
We observe that children are enrolled in the Young Army – this is a unit for Ukrainian children, who are taught anti-Ukrainian sentiments and military skills.
In the Middle Ages there was such a widespread phenomenon – janissary. This is when children were taken away from the captured peoples. And they created janissaries from them, that is, military men who were brought up all their lives to fight for some ideals of this colonial state.
In the modern world, we see the manifestation of Janissaries, when Ukrainian children are forcibly deported from Ukrainian territories to the Russian Federation, they will be taught military affairs, taught to hate Ukraine and then potentially sent to war with Ukraine.
„Here is the whole list of signs of a war crime – which is called genocide”
Rep: Do you consider the actions of the Russian military in Ukraine as genocide of the Ukrainian people?
D.L.: What is genocide? It is a clearly defined war crime under international humanitarian and criminal law. When there are signs in the actions that the Russian Federation is trying to forcibly move representatives of one ethnic group to another, or to destroy them as representatives of an ethnic group – this is genocide. Now let’s analyze!
What is the Russian Federation doing? The first thing that Russians do when they capture Ukrainian territories is to ban the use of the Ukrainian language – total. During the first 3 days, all cultural monuments related to Ukraine are destroyed. Next, all books published in Ukrainian are searched for and burned. There are pyres of Ukrainian books near every school, kindergartens in the occupied territories.
Next – street names are being changed. And another thing – the educational process is launched, where Ukrainian children are told that you are not Ukrainians, you are Little Russians, you are representatives of a kind of Russians, that you have been deceived by the Nazis for more than 30 years.
In addition, there is a process of passportization, forced mobilization. That is, Russia is trying to destroy such an ethnic group as Ukrainians.
Filtration, torture, forced deportation of children, search for pro-Ukrainian population. That is, all those who can potentially come out and say that „I am a Ukrainian!” must be destroyed, or scared through torture to come out and say „Yes, I am a Russian, I am a Little Russian”. That is, these are not just signs, here is the whole list of signs of a war crime – which is called genocide!
Rep: What are your conclusions and how to further counter Russian aggression?
D.L.: We should not expect that this war will end easily, we should not believe in the good intentions of the Russian leadership, in any peace talks. They need peace talks only for a military pause to accumulate forces again.
Presidents and the Russian government will change, but the colonial policy of Russia towards Ukraine will remain. Throughout our history we see how Russia is trying to destroy our nation. This has been happening for centuries. We already had an independent state in 1918, we created the Ukrainian People’s Republic, which united with the Western Republic, that is, we got an independent state. It existed only 2 years, Russian troops came and occupied Kyiv, seized our territory. Then there was the first genocide, 1932-1933 – the artificially created Holodomor. To destroy the ethnic Ukrainians, and now we are experiencing the same thing.
Therefore, we must return all our territories, we must receive security guarantees from our partners, we must join the EU and NATO and thus protect the right of Ukrainians to live in an independent democratic European country, where human rights are protected and just have the opportunity to call themselves Ukrainian.
Edited by Stephen McGrath
Photo: Facebook/ Dmytro Lubinets