(LONDON) — Russian forces have executed civilians in Ukraine in apparent war crimes, Amnesty International said Thursday.
The London-based international human rights group published new testimony after conducting on-the-ground research in areas around Ukraine’s capital amid Russia’s invasion. Its report adds to a growing body of evidence that Russian troops have committed war crimes amid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — a charge that U.S. and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly made, but that the Kremlin vehemently denies.
Amnesty International said its crisis response investigators interviewed more than 20 people from villages and towns near Kyiv, many of whom claimed to have witnessed or have had direct knowledge of Russian soldiers committing horrific acts of violence against unarmed civilians across the region.
“In recent weeks, we have gathered evidence that Russian forces have committed extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, which must be investigated as likely war crimes,” Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard said in a statement Thursday. “Testimonies show that unarmed civilians in Ukraine are being killed in their homes and streets in acts of unspeakable cruelty and shocking brutality.”
The organization noted that deliberate killings of civilians, rape and torture, as well as inhumane treatment of prisoners of war, are human rights violations and war crimes, and that those who commit them should be held criminally responsible along with any superiors who knew or had reason to know about such atrocities but did not attempt to stop or punish the perpetrators.
The International Criminal Court, a United Nations Human Rights Council commission of inquiry and Ukraine’s prosecutor general have all opened investigations into possible war crimes by Russian forces. But the interviews conducted by Amnesty International and published Thursday provide a harrowing window into these kinds of attacks with grisly detail.
According to the report, one of the interviewees, 18-year-old Kateryna Tkachova, told Amnesty International that she was at home with her parents in the village of Vorzel, northwest of Kyiv, on March 3 when several tanks painted with the letter “Z,” which Russian forces have used to mark their vehicles during the invasion of Ukraine, rolled down their street. Tkachova said her mother and father, who were unarmed and dressed in civilian clothing, left the basement where they were hiding to go into the street, after telling her to stay put. Tkachova said she then heard gunshots.
“Once the tanks had passed by, I jumped over the fence to the neighbor’s house. I wanted to check if they’re alive,” Tkachova told Amnesty International. “I looked over the fence and saw my mother lying on her back on one side of the road, and my father was face down on the other side of the street. I saw large holes in his coat. The next day I went to them. My father had six large holes in his back, my mother had a smaller hole in her chest.”
Seven days later, an unnamed volunteer assisting with evacuations from the areas around Kyiv helped Tkachova leave Vorzel. The volunteer told Amnesty International that he had seen the bodies of Tkachova’s parents lying in the street near her house, according to the report. Amnesty International said it has also verified video showing the volunteer and Tkachova writing her parents’ names, dates of birth and dates of death on a piece of cardboard before placing it beside their bodies, which were covered with blankets.
An unnamed 46-year-old woman told Amnesty International that Russian troops entered her village of Bohdanivka, southeast of Kyiv, on March 7 or 8. On the night of March 9, the woman said she heard gunshots through the downstairs windows of her home, where she lived with her husband, 10-year-old daughter and 81-year-old mother-in-law. She told Amnesty International that she and her husband shouted that they were civilians and that they were unarmed. When they came downstairs, two Russian soldiers pushed them and their daughter into the boiler room.
“They forced us in and slammed the door,” she told Amnesty International. “After just a minute they opened the door, they asked my husband if he had cigarettes. He said no, he hadn’t smoked for a couple of weeks. They shot him in his right arm. The other said, ‘Finish him,’ and they shot him in the head.”
“He didn’t die right away. From 9.30 p.m. to 4 a.m. he was still breathing, though he wasn’t conscious,” she added, according to Amnesty International. “Blood was flowing out of him. When he took his last breath, I turned to my daughter and said, ‘It seems daddy has died.'”
A neighbor told Amnesty International that they witnessed Russian soldiers breaking into the woman’s house that night and also confirmed seeing her husband’s body slumped in the corner of the boiler room. The woman and her child escaped from Bohdanivka later that day. The woman’s mother-in-law, who has limited mobility, was left behind, according to Amnesty International.
Another woman, from an unidentified village east of Kyiv, told Amnesty International that two Russian soldiers entered her house on March 9, killed her husband and then repeatedly raped her at gunpoint while her young son hid nearby in the boiler room, according to the report. The unnamed woman managed to escape from the village with her son and they fled to Ukrainian-controlled territory.
“The intentional killing of civilians is a human rights violation and a war crime,” Callamard said. “These deaths must be thoroughly investigated, and those responsible must be prosecuted, including up the chain of command.”
Interviewees also told Amnesty International they had lost access to electricity, water and gas in the early days of the Russian invasion and that there was very limited access to food. There was poor cellphone service in the region, and some interviewees said Russian soldiers had confiscated or destroyed mobile phones whenever they saw residents carrying them, or threatened them with violence for having one.
Amnesty International found that threats of violence and intimidation were also widespread. One man in Hostomel, a town northwest of Kyiv, reported seeing an entire dormitory of people who were sheltering from shelling and were forced to go outside, where Russian military officers immediately fired gunshots over their heads, forcing them to drop to the ground. Two men from Bucha, another town northwest of Kyiv, also said snipers regularly shot at them when they went to salvage food from a destroyed grocery store near their home, according to Amnesty International.
Russian forces invaded neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24, seizing territory and shelling cities seemingly indiscriminately. But they have faced strong resistance from Ukrainian troops, who have retaken some territory in recent days as Russian forces retreated.
According to Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venedyktova, at least 410 civilians have been found dead in recently recaptured towns near Kyiv, particularly in Bucha, which has galvanized global outrage. While graphic evidence of the atrocities has emerged, including eyewitness testimony along with videos and images, Russia has claimed the scenes were “staged.”
Amnesty International said it has obtained evidence that civilians were also killed in indiscriminate attacks in Kharkiv and Sumy Oblasts, documented an airstrike that killed civilians queueing for food in the northern city of Chernihiv, and gathered evidence from civilians living under siege in the battered cities of Kharkiv, Izium and Mariupol.
“As these horrendous accounts of life under Russian occupation continue to emerge,” Callamard said, “the victims in Ukraine must know that the international community is determined to secure accountability for their suffering.”
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