Russian forces have held Ukrainian prisoners of war in horrific conditions, subjecting them to beatings and denying them food to the point that many became severely malnourished, a senior Ukrainian government official said on Thursday.
The captors allegedly held meetings in which the prisoners were forced to go through a barrage of beatings with rubber batons, said Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s parliamentary commissioner for human rights.
“These canes were even broken, and after that they used wooden sticks,” he told reporters.
Around 800 prisoners of war have been returned to Ukraine in about 20 exchanges since the invasion of Russia began in February, according to Andriy Yusov, who represents the intelligence department of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. His statement to reporters did not give details of the mechanism of the swaps and he did not say how many Russians were swapped.
The treatment of prisoners of war is an emotional issue for Ukraine, which holds its fighters in high regard for their defense of the country. The evidence of Russian abuse of captives, as well as being an apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions, has fueled outrage and added to a litany of reports of Russian war crimes.
Reports include the massacre of civilians in communities outside the capital Kyiv early in the conflict, the shelling of a maternity ward and a theater where civilians were sheltering in the southern city of Mariupol, and rocket attacks on civilian targets, including apartment buildings, shopping malls, train stations, and busy public squares.
In addition, Ukraine is collecting evidence about an explosion in July that killed at least 50 prisoners of war at a Russian prison camp in Donetsk province in eastern Ukraine. Russia said Ukrainian forces shelled the camp, but Ukraine said it was a war crime committed by Russian forces. Some of the dead had fought to defend a steel mill during a siege in the port city of Mariupol that became a symbol of the country’s suffering.
President Volodymyr Zelensky noted the national importance of prisoners in a speech on Wednesday night. “We remember all our people and try to free each and every one of them from captivity, not a single Ukrainian has been forgotten,” he said.
Mr Lubinets said the prisoners he had spoken to were being held in “terrible conditions”, with no food or water, no toilet paper, soap or toothbrushes and also forced to sleep on concrete floors with no blankets or mattresses. All the prisoners lost weight, he said.
Ukrainian officials have avoided giving details of the prisoner swaps or saying how many prisoners it has, citing security reasons. But on Thursday, a senior official in the president’s office, Andriy Yermak, said six people, including four marines who had fought in Mariupol and two civilians, had been returned in an exchange.
Military experts say Ukraine had captured many new Russian prisoners during a recent counteroffensive in the northeast.