An investigation by the BBC's Russian service, corroborated by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), has revealed disturbing details about the treatment of Ukrainian civilians by Russian authorities.
According to reports, numerous Ukrainians are being held in penal colonies and pre-trial detention centers across Russia and occupied Ukraine without formal charges, investigations, or trials.
This situation, devoid of legal protocols and access to legal representation, essentially renders these detainees invisible within the Russian penitentiary system.
The situation, as reported on 8 January, indicates that these civilians are being held for allegedly "countering the 'special military operation'." However, the absence of official detention protocols or criminal/administrative cases means that the detainees officially do not exist in the eyes of the law. This alarming circumstance has stripped them of basic human rights, including access to legal counsel.
Former Ukrainian civilian prisoners have shared harrowing accounts of their treatment, describing instances of torture and inhumane conditions.
They allege being treated "not like human beings" by Russian authorities. In a stark contradiction to these claims, the Russian Ministry of Defense has cited adherence to the "requirements of the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War."
Yet, the Geneva Convention explicitly prohibits the capture of civilians who are not combatants, thereby raising questions about the legitimacy of these detentions.
The complexities of international law further complicate the situation. There is no established mechanism for the release of civilian captives, as the Geneva Convention primarily facilitates the exchange of prisoners of war. In this context, the role of third parties like the United Arab Emirates, which has successfully brokered prisoner exchanges including civilians, becomes crucial.
The Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine has reported that as of November 2023, 4,337 Ukrainians, including 763 civilians, are held captive by Russia. These figures, sourced from the Red Cross, are likely conservative estimates since access to many detention facilities is restricted.
Ukraine’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets, estimates that approximately 25,000 Ukrainian civilians are missing, many suspected to have been abducted by Russian forces. The "Find Ours" project supports this claim, suggesting that about 7,500 Ukrainian civilians might be illegally detained in Russia and occupied Ukraine. Investigations by Russian and Ukrainian human rights activists have identified over 30 colonies and detention centers where these unlawful detentions are allegedly taking place.
As international concern grows, the plight of these civilians remains a pressing issue, calling for immediate attention and action from the global community.