Original report by Regina Gimalova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
International law prohibits participants in armed conflicts from taking civilians captive. Nonetheless, abducting civilians and holding them prisoner has become one of the hallmarks of Russia’s war against Ukraine, according to human rights workers. In occupied territories, Russian forces often imprison people who have no links to the Ukrainian military at all. Some of the victims are charged with official crimes, while others are told they’re being held captive for “resisting the special military operation,” despite the fact that no such offense exists in Russia’s Criminal Code. The independent outlet Verstka Media carefully examined Russia’s practice of imprisoning civilians, both in the current war and during past conflicts. In English, Meduza is publishing an abridged version of their report.
‘They took males who could hold weapons’
Nineteen-year-old law student Nikita Shkryabin was taken captive in his home village near Kharkiv on March 29, 2022. According to his mother, Tatyana Shkryabina, Nikita left the house one day and never returned. The family’s neighbors later told Tatyana that they saw Russian soldiers put him in a vehicle and drive off.
“As far as I know, they were arresting males who could hold weapons and taking them to Russia,” said Leonid Solovyov, Nikita’s lawyer in Russia. “Since then, [Nikita’s family] hasn’t had any contact with him. No legal case against him has been opened. They’re holding him on the grounds that he ‘opposed the special military operation,’ but they haven’t pressed any charges.”
According to Tatyana Shkryabina, her son has no combat or military experience. “What kind of resistance could he put up if he didn’t have any military equipment? My son is a civilian and doesn’t have ties to any [military] formation. He’s still enrolled in the [law] institute.”
Tatyana says the last update she received about her son’s condition came from Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova in May 2022. A letter from Moskalkova said that Nikita was located on Russian territory and that his condition was “satisfactory.”
Solovyov’s requests to visit his client have been denied. In a written response, the Russian Defense Ministry said that “necessary investigation procedures regarding N. Shkryabin are currently ongoing, and requests for personal visits cannot be considered until they are completed.” Nikita’s exact location is unknown.
‘A form of torture’
International law prohibits the imprisonment of civilians who aren’t involved in military service at the time of their capture. But human rights advocates say the capture of civilians has been a defining aspect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk, the head of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties and a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told Verstka Media that, in the year after February 24, her organization received requests from 915 people whose civilian relatives have been taken captive by Russian forces. Ukrainian lawyers have been working together with colleagues inside Russia to locate the prisoners and help relatives contact the Russian authorities.
“Among the detainees, there have been 118 women and 797 men,” said Matviichuk. “Out of those, 306 people have been released, while 594 remain in captivity. In terms of the regional breakdown, we’ve received requests from the Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kyiv, Luhansk, Mykolaiv, Odessa, Sumy, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Chernihiv regions, as well as from Crimea.”
Russian human rights lawyer Roman Kiselyov told Verstka Media that he and his colleagues are currently working on roughly 70 cases of Ukrainian civilians taken captive by Russia.
“On Russian territory, we’re able to send a lawyer physically to the site and get in touch with the authorities promptly,” said Kiselyov. “On all Ukrainian territory, we’re unable to work physically on the ground, which is a fundamental issue for us. We only work there with Ukraine’s permission. We don’t currently have that permission, so all of our advocacy work there consists of correspondence with the current authorities.”
According to Kiselyov, Russian forces have shown a willingness to take captive anybody they suspect of having ties to the Ukrainian military or even a sense of loyalty to the Ukrainian authorities. The military typically holds its civilian captives in prisons or pretrial detention centers.
Even if the Russian Defense Ministry views civilians as military personnel, the Third Geneva Convention, which outlines the rights of POWs, still makes it illegal to hold these prisoners in penitentiaries.
“They’re supposed to be given the right to correspond [with people on the outside] and to receive packages. [The administrators] of the detainment sites are supposed to notify the people’s home countries [of their location],” said Kiselyov. “In addition, prisoners are supposed to receive rations and to have a fairly high level of autonomy from the institution’s administration. They shouldn’t be made to wear prison uniforms. But in reality, as our surveys indicate, they’re being held in conditions far worse than those of regular prisoners. They’re not being allowed anything. We consider this treatment to be a form of torture.”
“Separately, I should mention the cruelty and torture to which [captive] civilians are subjected,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk.
Types of prisoners
To get a better understanding of Russia’s systematic imprisonment of Ukrainian civilians, human rights lawyers have divided the prisoners into several categories:
1. Civilians taken captive for ‘resisting the special military operation’
The first category includes civilians who have never served in the army or had any ties to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The Russian authorities accuse these people of “opposing the special military operation” and essentially equate them with soldiers.
“This is a kind of new status that, on the one hand, doesn’t exist in [Russian] law, but, on the other hand, is constantly mentioned in Defense Ministry documents related to these cases,” said Roman Kiselyov. “It’s important to note that this is the same status given to Ukrainian soldiers; they’re also recorded as ‘detained for opposing the special military operation.’”
Some Ukrainians, such as Nikita Shkryabin, have been taken captive in their home villages during periods of Russian occupation. Others have been detained while undergoing “filtration” at the Russian border. For example, 24-year-old Ivan Gonchar disappeared at a border checkpoint in Russia’s Rostov region after escaping shell-battered Mariupol with his parents and girlfriend. After months without answers, his mother learned in November that Ivan is being held captive in Russia for “opposing the special military operation.”
2. Civilians charged under Russia’s Criminal Code
The second category consists of prisoners who have officially been charged with felony offenses.
Matvey (name changed), a 19-year-old Kherson resident, was first taken captive in the summer of 2022, when the city was under Russian occupation. Like Nikita Shkryabin, Matvey left his house one day and never returned. His relatives later learned that he was been held on suspicion of treason in the occupied part of the Kherson region. Several weeks later, his charges were reclassified as espionage.
In October — six months after Matvey’s initial capture — human rights activists learned that Matvey’s case was now classified under “reasonable suspicion” of murder. The occupation authorities have refused to grant Matvey access to a lawyer, citing the fact that there’s currently no bar association in the occupied region.
According to lawyer Roman Kiselyov, Matvey is far from the only prisoner in this situation; all of the incarcerated civilians in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, he said, are essentially in a “legal vacuum.”
“For example, we have a priest from the Kherson region who was detained in November,” he said. “We know where he’s being held. We call them, and we’re told, ‘Yes, we have him, but we’ll release him [only] after we finish investigating.’ We write to the [Russian] Defense Ministry, and they say that they don’t know who the person is. Those are the prevailing conditions in these two regions.”
3. Former military servicemen
Another common reason Russian forces cite when taking civilians captive is past military experience. This is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
“I have one such case. [It involves] a former dog handler for the Azov Regiment — emphasis on ‘former,’” said Roman Kiselyov:
Thirty-year-old Dmytro Lisovets, a former member of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army, is in a similar situation. He was taken captive on April 2 at a “filtration” center while escaping war-torn Mariupol. He’s now facing life in prison and is currently awaiting trial.
4. Civilian ‘POWs’
In some cases, Russian security officials end criminal proceedings against incarcerated civilians and declare them to be prisoners of war. The practice is most widespread in the Donetsk region, according to Roman Kiselyov.
“There, unlike in Russia proper, they have their own rules regarding prisoners of war,” he said.
According to Kiselyov, the status is given both to soldiers and to civilians, like the charge of “opposing the special military operation” is elsewhere.
“As far as we understand, there are many prisoners in the ‘DNR’ that the Russian authorities don’t know about,” said Kiselyov. “Nonetheless, civilians are effectively being held as prisoners of war in Russia; the annexation happened, so they can’t say that these are prisoners being held in a different country.”
5. Missing persons
The last category consists of people who were captured by Russian soldiers in front of eyewitnesses and taken to Russian territory, but whose capture or incarceration has never been confirmed by Russian officials.
“Literally yesterday, we received an answer regarding one of these people,” said Roman Kiselyov:
‘Nobody is safe’
The practice of taking civilians captive is nothing new for the Russian army. According to Oleksandra Matviichuk, Russia began taking civilians hostage as a way to blackmail Ukraine all the way back in 2014.
“The whole time, Russia has put forth political demands for exchanging these people,” Matviichuk said. “It held them as hostages and blackmailed Ukraine in order to exchange people for geopolitical concessions. This applies to Crimea, and to amnesty for war criminals, and to amending the Constitution, federalization [and so on]. It clearly showed that Russia uses civilians as hostages to achieve its aims.”
The Russian army took civilians captive even before the conflict in Ukraine that began in 2014. According to Vladimir Malykhin, a human rights advocate who works for the Memorial Human Rights Center, Russian security forces would detain anybody they suspected of having ties to militants in both the First and Second Chechen Wars. They also created a system of “filtration points” and illegal prisons.
“The feds tried to use civilians in exchanges for POWs captured by [Chechen] militants,” said Vladimir Malykhin. “Especially during the First Chechen War, when the militants had quite a few Russian POWs. The militants realized [what the Russians were doing], and they sometimes refused to trade POWs for civilians, though not always.”
According to Malykhin’s colleague, Memorial head Alexander Cherkasov, it wasn’t rare for civilian prisoners in Russian filtration centers and illegal prisoners to face torture (and not always for the purpose of extracting confessions).
“I can give you a specific example,” said Cherkasov:
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Memorial estimates that the number of people who disappeared in Chechnya from 1999 to 2009 is between 3,000 and 5,000. It’s unclear how many of these cases involved criminal charges, and it’s unknown how many of these missing persons were killed.
“Our Ukrainian colleagues are also currently saying that there’s a huge gap between the number of POWs and the number of people who disappeared,” said Cherkasov:
According to Matviichuk, Russia’s system of secret illegal prisons in Ukraine’s occupied territories is operating in full force too. Human rights advocates have discovered them in apartments, basements, and police stations in territories that have been liberated by the Ukrainian military after periods of Russian occupation.
“These kinds of detention facilities are used not only to destroy the active minority from the artistic community, volunteers, journalists, civil activists, or people who simply ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re also part of [Russia’s] policy of terror, in order to maintain control,” said Matviichuk. “In these conditions, nobody is safe. Combined with fear, it’s a way to maintain control and to overcome even non-violent resistance among the populations of occupied territories. It’s an organized and systemic problem.”