Bombings, executions, torture, sexual violence

UN says Russia committing war crimes on ‘massive scale,’ victims young as 4

Investigators find evidence of executions, beatings, electric shocks, rape and torture of children, but too soon to prove crimes against humanity

A member of an extraction crew works during an exhumation at a mass grave near Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
A member of an extraction crew works during an exhumation at a mass grave near Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

AFP — UN investigators accused Russia of committing war crimes on a “massive scale” in Ukraine, listing bombings, executions, torture and sexual violence, but said it was too soon to prove crimes against humanity.

Speaking before the United Nations Human Rights Council, the head of a high-level investigative team listed numerous serious violations committed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seven months ago.

Erik Mose, chairman of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) set up by the council in March, said the team had seen evidence of numerous executions and the rape and torture of children.

“Based on the evidence gathered by the commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine,” he said.

The categorical nature of that statement was unusual for UN investigators, but the team of three independent experts said the evidence they had found was clear.

‘Massive scale’

In the few months they have been on the job, they said they had initially concentrated on crimes committed in the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions in late February and March.

They had visited 27 towns, interviewed more than 150 victims and witnesses, and had “inspected sites of destruction, graves, places of detention and torture, as well as weapon remnants.”

“We have been on the ground… and concluded that what we saw amounted to, according to our evidence, war crimes,” Mose told journalists.

Erik Mose, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, at a press conference following an update to the UN Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, September 23, 2022. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

The team said they had found two cases where Ukrainian soldiers had abused Russian soldiers, but far more and diverse cases of war crimes by the Russian side.

“There is a world of difference between massive scale war crimes on the one hand and on the other hand two cases that we are aware of,” commission member Pablo de Greiff told AFP.

Dozens of countries welcomed the findings, with Ukraine’s representative Anton Korynevych telling the council they marked “an important milestone on a path to accountability for Russia’s crimes.”

Russia’s representative was absent from the room, however, and did not respond to the report.

Funeral workers carry a coffin containing the body of an unidentified civilian who died in Bucha during the Russian occupation in February-March 2022, during a funeral in Bucha, near Kyiv, Ukraine, on September 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Mass graves

Mose said the team had been especially “struck by the large number of executions” and the frequent “visible signs of executions on bodies, such as hands tied behind backs, gunshot wounds to the head and slit throats.”

He said the commission was investigating such deaths in 16 towns and settlements, and had received credible allegations regarding many more cases.

Mose said the team had drawn some of its evidence on executions from findings in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where hundreds of bodies were discovered after the Russian army was driven out in March.

Mose also pointed to “consistent accounts of ill-treatment and torture” of Ukrainians held by the Russians, including “beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity.”

And he decried the forced transfer of detainees to Russia, where some had subsequently “disappeared.”

The team also documented sexual and gender-based violence against victims as young as four and as old as 82.

A funeral for a Ukrainian serviceman who died in combat, held in Bucha, Ukraine, August 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

And while they had not yet examined the case of Izyum, where mass graves were discovered when Ukrainian forces recaptured the area this month, he said, “We certainly intend to look into it.”

Ukrainian officials, separate from the UN investigation, said Friday that 447 bodies had been exhumed from a mass burial site in Izyum.

Regional prosecutors said they uncovered the bodies of 425 civilians, including five children, and 22 Ukrainian servicemen.

“Most of them have signs of violent death, and 30 have signs of torture. There are bodies with rope around their necks, with their hands tied, with broken limbs and gunshot wounds,” said Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov, putting the number of bodies at 436.

Two forensic technicians dig near a cross in a forest on the outskirts of Izyum, eastern Ukraine on September 16, 2022, after Ukrainian forces recaptured the eastern city from the Russians. (Juan Barreto/AFP)

List of perpetrators?

In some cases, the investigators had established that Russian soldiers were the perpetrators, Mose told the council.

“There are examples of cases where relatives were forced to witness the crimes,” he added.

The commission also documented a wide range of crimes against children, he said, including some who were “raped, tortured and unlawfully confined.”

While the team was clear in its conclusion that war crimes had been committed, it said it did not yet have enough evidence to determine if violations could amount to crimes against humanity, which are more systematic in nature.

Numerous crimes were committed by individuals, especially under Russian command, but “we didn’t find [yet] that such behaviors present patterns,” commission member Jasminka Dzumhur told reporters.

Looking forward, the team will broaden its investigation to look, among other things, at allegations that Ukrainian children are being taken to Russia for adoption.

They will also seek to establish blame for the violations and a list of suspected perpetrators before they present their final report to the council next March.

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