Ukrainian Activists Urge Reform on Prisoner Swaps and Military Ombudsman
By Brian Dooley
No one knows exactly how many Ukrainian civilians are detained by Russian forces, either in occupied zones in Ukraine or in Russia itself, but it’s likely to be thousands of people. The Russians say they’re detaining people for “interfering with the Russian military operation,” although some have also been charged with crimes including international terrorism or espionage.
Ukraine’s Media Initiative for Human Rights (MIHR) tracks those captured and tries to secure their release. The NGO’s work was recognized in 2022 by the Dutch Embassy in Ukraine, which gave it the embassy’s Tulip Award for Human Rights Defenders.
The organization’s director, Olha Reshetylova, says, “with soldiers who are taken, there are the Geneva Conventions, and the International Committee of the Red Cross plays some part in their welfare, but there is nothing comparable for civilians.”
MIHR has collected harrowing testimonies from people who were detained by Russian forces and have now been released in prisoner swaps or liberated when the areas they were held were retaken by Ukraine’s military.
Reshetylova says the U.S. embassy in Moscow could press the Russian authorities to give more information on who is being held where, and in what conditions.
MIHR details the “screening” or “filtration” process that happens when the Russians take over an area. It starts with general checks on the population’s ID at various checkpoints, and some people are forced into camps or detention centers.
“It was the most humiliating things I’ve ever experienced,” said Kateryna about her experience when Russians took her village of Bezimenne in Donestsk. “They stripped us. Some had to stay in underpants and the others had to get completely naked. They took men aside and kept them much longer… They threatened women who had relatives or friends in the military or law enforcement. They said they would find them and send them the men’s heads in boxes.”
Survivors of the camps describe widespread torture there. Some people, including an unknown number of children, are taken into detention in Russia. Where civilians are being kept is hard to confirm, although some recently-released Ukrainian prisoners of war held with civilians have provided scraps of information. MIHR estimates at least 300 people are currently being held in Novozybkov detention center not far from the Russian city of Briansk.
Hanna Havrylina, head of the village in Hremyach in Ukraine’s Chernihiv region, was captured and held in a detention center in Kursk, Russia, a place notorious for its terrible conditions. She says she was interrogated, and “they put me on a chair and gave me a short haircut. Then to the bath with cold water, and next to the cell.” There were four other girls in the cell, and one girl tried to hang herself with a sheet. “After that,” she said, “they took the sheets and towels away from us.”
In the first months after last February’s invasion, some civilians were included in prisoner swaps with Russia, but then the Ukrainian intelligence service GUR took over negotiations and only Ukrainian soldiers have been included on the lists for prisoner swaps since around August.
What’s needed, says Reshetylova, is a new international mechanism that covers the issue of captured civilians, an organization that can monitor captured civilians’ welfare and press for their release. In the meantime, she wants Ukrainian civilians back on the lists for prisoner swaps.
An investigative journalist, Reshetylova is known for her work covering Ukraine’s military; she’s also pushing for the establishment of a military ombudsman in Ukraine. She estimates there are about 2 million personnel currently in Ukraine’s various military and security services, but that there is too much incompetence driven by a Soviet-style mentality.
She cites Canada’s and Germany’s effective military ombudsman’s offices, and suggests the U.S. government should urge its Ukrainian allies to establish a similar mechanism as soon as possible.
Reshetylova says an independent body is needed to protect the rights and interests of those working in the military, especially since so many civilians have now volunteered to fight.
“In some parts of the military there’s an old-style authoritarian mindset where commanders have total control,” she says. “For our country to have the most effective military, the military it needs and deserves, we have to modernize and have the oversight of a dedicated ombudsman.”