Torture in the occupied territories: global consequences of terror
ZMINA Human Rights Center has been documenting war crimes committed by representatives of the Russian Federation since the beginning of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine. In particular, it interviews victims of arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment. Unfortunately, the practice of committing these crimes remains widespread and systemic. On December 7, Prosecutor General of Ukraine Andriy Kostin reported that 104 torture chambers had been discovered in the regions liberated from the occupiers. There is evidence that in the Zaporizhzhia region, the Ukrainian military found places of illegal detention and torture immediately after deoccupying new territories this past summer.
The main goal of collecting testimonies from people who have been through the Russian “cellars” is to identify those involved and bring them to justice—proving both the personal guilt of the perpetrators and the disclosure of the chain of command, as well as a proper legal assessment of the brutal methods of terror committed by Russian armed groups, security forces, and occupation administrations.
However, we can also try to go beyond the purely normative, legal interpretation of what we see. The vast number of cases of torture against literally all categories of civilians – men, women, and even children – reveals the existential nature of this war like nothing else.
The Russian army uses torture as one of the elements of comprehensive terror in the occupied regions. This can lead to significant, unpredictable, unintended consequences for both victims and perpetrators.
In the territories controlled by the Russian Federation, the population is constantly being “filtered.” Here, we refer to filtering as the Russian administration’s attempts to collect information from all available sources about people who may be at least potentially disloyal to it. Former military personnel, volunteers, and civic activists are targeted. But also teachers, cultural workers, and anyone who might sympathize with Ukraine. These people are detained, “checked,” and often “worked with” in the same basements and police stations. Unfortunately, most of the detainees face some form of torture and almost always ill-treatment. A significant resource for the occupiers is the willingness of some of the population to cooperate with them, pass on information, or otherwise assist.
In general, in the course of researching this complex topic, we have already seen that Russian units have turned torture into a universal tool. The Russian occupation administration is trying to take root primarily by spreading fear. Therefore, the very fact that a “basement” exists in a certain district, city, or village is already a perverse sign of the durability of the newly established “government.” People who leave the occupation usually point to this constant feeling of threat, fear, and the destruction of mutual trust between neighbors, old friends, and acquaintances. The Russians are fueling the snitching as if trying to cut up the social body to digest it in parts.
Torture is one of the main tools for gathering information. Unfortunately, it is a standard and even standardized practice. Most victims speak of the leading role of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in this process, describing the same methods of detention and torture, which were repeated in the territories from Kupiansk to Kherson, literally down to the details. Russians usually operate with a consistent set of charges, ask the same questions during interrogations, and use similar methods of detention and treatment in places of detention (which refers to the widely adopted practices of Russian penitentiaries, a long-standing prison subculture that flourished behind the new “Iron Curtain” of the Russian Federation). The uniformity of psychological and physical torture, needless to say, ranges from intimidation by rape to electric shocks.
The prevalence of this type of war crime would not have been possible if violence as an acceptable course of action had not been so commonplace among the Russian military, law enforcement, and penitentiary institutions. This perverse culture is deeply rooted and leads to a distortion of social norms that helps construct the image of the enemy.
Russian special services and police structures (Russian Guard or FSB) are at the top of the hierarchy in this system. They try to manipulate and direct it skillfully. But to what extent can this militarized, violence-based structure be stable? What are the consequences of its degeneration and degradation for the victims and, paradoxically, for the perpetrators? Since it looks like, even at the highest levels of leadership, Russians are forced to rely on outright bandits and marginalized individuals. The spiral of finding enemies cannot go on forever.
In general, this is the reason why our society perceives the Ukrainian-Russian war as a struggle against an absolute barbaric evil. The way the Russians are waging the war, including the war against civilians, makes it more brutal. The growth of internal tension in the war had the most significant impact on those communities that were under occupation. A significant, traumatic fact for most victims of torture is that they personally know people who, in one way or another, contributed to the detention of neighbors and fellow villagers while realizing the level of cruelty of the Russians. Because of this, any form of cooperation with the occupiers, including forced cooperation, is perceived as absolutely unacceptable by the victims, their families, and the communities as a whole. Without evaluating such cases in the legal context here, we can say that the breakdown of social ties and fragmentation of local communities was one of the main tasks of the Russian administration. After the liberation of the occupied cities and villages, we are already dealing with the consequences of this.
Therefore, in addition to bringing to justice the representatives of the Russian Federation who committed war crimes, we must focus on restoring mutual trust and rehabilitating entire territorial communities in Ukraine.
Borys Petruniok, documentation specialist of ZMINA. Human Rights Center