- Russian forces tortured and deported civilians from Ukraine
- Children were separated from their families after being forcibly displaced
- The elderly, the disabled, and children struggle to leave Russia
Russian authorities have forcibly relocated civilians from the occupied territories of Ukraine in the context of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.
The report, “Like a Prison Convoy”: Illegal Transfers of Civilians in Ukraine and Russian Abuses during the ‘Sifter’, describes how Russian and Russian-controlled forces have forcibly transferred civilians from occupied Ukraine to Russian-controlled or Russian-controlled areas. Children were separated from their families during this time, in violation of international humanitarian law.
Residents told Amnesty International how they were treated through repressive practices – known as ‘filtering’ – which sometimes resulted in arrests, torture, and other ill-treatment.
Russia’s deplorable practice of deportation and deportation is a war crime
Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International
“Separating children from their families and forcing people hundreds of kilometers from their homes is proof of the extreme suffering inflicted by Russian violence on Ukrainian citizens,” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“Since the start of their violent war in Ukraine, which itself is an international crime, Russian forces have attacked indiscriminately and unlawfully killed civilians, destroyed countless lives, and torn apart families. No one was left behind, not even the children.
“Russia’s deplorable strategy of forced transfer is a war crime. Amnesty International believes that this should be investigated as a crime against humanity.
“All those forcibly displaced and still in illegal detention must be allowed to leave, and everyone responsible for these crimes must be held accountable. The children in Russian custody must be reunited with their families, and their return to areas controlled by the Ukrainian government must be done.”
Amnesty International has documented cases in which members of specific groups – including children, the elderly and people with disabilities – have been forcibly deported to Russian-occupied territories or illegally deported to Russia. In one case, a woman was separated from her 11-year-old son while surfing, arrested, and never reunited with him, in clear violation of international humanitarian law.
People detained during the search told Amnesty International that they had been subjected to other ill-treatment, including beatings, electric shocks and death threats. Some were deprived of food and water, and many were kept in dangerous and overcrowded places.
Amnesty International interviewed 88 people from Ukraine. Most were civilians from Mariupol, as well as civilians from Kharkiv, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Many, especially those from Mariupol, described a coercive situation that meant they had no rational choice but to go to Russia or other Russian-occupied territories.
Amnesty International considers Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory, including the so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR) in the Russian-controlled Donetsk Region, illegal.
Forced evacuation from Mariupol
In early March 2022, the south-eastern city of Mariupol was completely surrounded by Russian troops, making the evacuation possible. The city was constantly bombed, and ordinary people had no access to running water, heat or electricity.
Thousands of people managed to leave the city for areas held by the Ukrainian government in mid-March, but as Russia gradually took over the city, it forcibly removed some residents to the controlled area, cutting them off from other means of escape. The public said they felt compelled to go on “evacuation” buses to the DNR.
Milena, 33, told Amnesty International what happened to her when she tried to flee Mariupol: “We started asking questions about fleeing, where it was possible to go… [by a Russian soldier] that it was only possible to go to the DNR or to Russia. Another girl asked about other possibilities [to evacuate]for example to Ukraine… The answer came immediately, the soldier interrupted and said, ‘If you don’t go to the DNR or the Russian Federation, you will stay here forever’.
Milena’s husband, a former marine with the Ukrainian army, was recently arrested while crossing the border into Russia, and has not yet been released.
Forced transfer of children and other vulnerable groups
The laws of war prohibit the forcible transfer of protected persons, including civilians, from an occupied territory by an individual or group. In several cases, children fleeing without parents or other guardians towards Ukrainian-held territory have been stopped at Russian military checkpoints, and taken into the care of Russian authorities in Donetsk.
As mentioned earlier, the 11-year-old boy was separated from his mother during the surfing, which violates international humanitarian law. The boy and his mother were taken and detained from the Illich Steel and Iron Works in Mariupol in mid-April by the Russian army.
They told me that I was going to be taken from my mother… I was shocked…
An 11-year-old boy was separated from his mother
He told Amnesty International: “They went with the mother to a tent. He was being interrogated… They told me that I would be taken from my mother… I was shocked… They didn’t say anything about where my mother was going… I haven’t heard from her since then.”
The report also describes the forced transfer to Donetsk of all 92 residents of a government facility for the elderly and disabled in Mariupol. Amnesty International has documented several cases in which elderly people from Ukraine appear to have been resettled in Russia or Russian-occupied territories after fleeing their homes. This practice violates the individual’s rights, and makes it difficult for him to leave Russia or to be reunited with family members in Ukraine or elsewhere.
At one point in Russia, several people said they felt pressured to apply for Russian citizenship, or that their travel was restricted. The process of obtaining Russian citizenship is simplified for children who are said to be orphans or not in the care of their parents, and for some people with disabilities. This was intended to facilitate the adoption of these children by Russian families, in violation of the country’s law.
These actions demonstrate Russia’s deliberate policy of deportation from Ukraine to Russia of its citizens, including children, indicating that in addition to the war crime of deportation and illegal deportation, Russia may have committed the crime of deportation or forced deportation.
Abuse of surveillance, detention, and torture
Ukrainian citizens who fled or were transferred to the territories occupied by Russia or to Russia were often subjected to forced checks when entering the DNR, when crossing the border into Russia, and again when leaving Russia for a third country. This method violates their rights to privacy and physical integrity.
During the investigation, officers took pictures of people, took fingerprints, searched people’s phones, forced some men to remove their waistcoats, and interviewed people at length.
Amnesty International documented seven cases where people were tortured and otherwise ill-treated during detention. One case involved a 31-year-old woman, a 17-year-old boy, and five men in their 20s or 30s.
They tied my hands with tape and put a bag over my head and put tape around my neck…
Vitalii, 31, was abused by Russian soldiers while being detained
Vitalii, 31, was detained when he tried to leave Mariupol on an outbound bus on April 28. After the Russian military said there was an issue with his documents, he was forced into a bus with several other men. He was taken to Dokuchaevsk, a town near Donetsk, where he was held in a cell with 15 men, before being taken for questioning.
They told Amnesty International: “They tied my hands with tape and put a bag over my head and put tape around my neck… Then they said, ‘Tell us everything… Tell us where you work, what is your job?’ [When I said I wasn’t a soldier] they started beating me hard… I was on my knees, they were kicking me a lot. When they took me back to the garage, they said, ‘Day by day, we’re going to do this for you’.”
Amnesty International has documented some cases of disappearance under international human rights law, and war crimes of illegal detention, torture and inhuman treatment.
Hussein, a 20-year-old student from Azerbaijan, was detained while fleeing Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia in mid-March, and was held for nearly a month. He was accused of being a member of the Ukrainian army, and was beaten during interrogation.
Hussein told Amnesty International: “One of the soldiers said, ‘He doesn’t talk like that, bring an electric cable’… There were two wires, they put them on my big toes and started to shock me several times… They hit me several times… I fainted.” They poured a mountain of water on me and I woke up again. I couldn’t do it anymore, I just said, ‘Yes, I am a soldier’. They kept hitting me, I fell on the chair and they pulled me to get up. Blood was coming out of my feet.
Hussein was threatened with death, beatings and electric shocks every day, until a few days before his release on 12 April.
Russian and Russian-controlled forces must immediately stop their torture of prisoners
“The Russian and Russian forces must stop their abuse of prisoners,” said Agnès Callamard.
“The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and other authorities should investigate these heinous crimes, including those against people from vulnerable groups. All those responsible for deportation and forced deportation, as well as torture and other crimes under international law committed during the course of the search, must face justice. “
Amnesty International interviewed 88 women, men and children from Ukraine for this report. At the time of the interview, all but one were in Ukrainian government-controlled territory or in a safe third country in Europe. One person remained in the territory controlled by Russia.
Accountability for war crimes
Amnesty International has been documenting war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law committed during Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine since the war began. All Amnesty International publications are available here.
Amnesty International has continued to call for accountability for Russian military personnel and officials responsible for the attack on Ukraine and for crimes committed, and has welcomed an International Criminal Court investigation into Ukraine. Full accountability in Ukraine requires the efforts of the UN and its members, as well as measures at the national level in accordance with the principle of international governance.