Debaltseve’s possible capture by pro-Russian separatists must not result in widespread detainee abuse, Amnesty International urged amid reports that the Ukrainian military had partly lost control of the key railway hub town in eastern Ukraine.
Video emerged Tuesday afternoon apparently showing dozens of Ukrainian soldiers surrendering to armed groups as they closed in on Debaltseve. According to media reports, between 4,000 and 8,000 Ukrainian troops may be encircled in the town.
“There is a history of separatist armed groups torturing or otherwise ill-treating captured pro-Kyiv soldiers. Some reports are as recent as 9 February near Debaltseve. Such acts would be war crimes,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.
We urge all sides in the conflict to treat any detainees humanely according to the Geneva ConventionsColm O'Gorman
Amnesty International has reviewed recent video evidence which shows separatist fighters engaging in acts of cruelty against detained Ukrainian soldiers. This includes footage of pro-Russian fighters kicking badly wounded soldiers in the village of Lohvynove on the outskirts of Debaltseve. Earlier footage from Donetsk and other areas included beatings and other physical abuse of captured members of pro-Kyiv forces, humiliating them in public parades and exposing them to violence by members of the public.
The organisation has also documented Kyiv-controlled forces abusing detainees during the armed conflict. In one case, Ukrainian soldiers detained two journalists, a man and a woman, in a village in Donetsk Region last August. Several military units badly beat the man and threatened to rape the woman before handing them both over to Ukraine’s security service (SBU).
Video evidence has also previously emerged of captured separatist fighters showing alleged signs of torture upon their release by the Ukrainian military.
The battle for control over the Debaltseve pocket has been especially heavy in recent weeks, even after the latest ceasefire agreement went into effect on 15 February. The town is an important railway hub linking the main Donbass cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, both of which are also now controlled by pro-Russian separatist armed groups.
An Amnesty International research mission to the area earlier this month found civilians – including the elderly, children and people with disabilities – besieged in Debaltseve in increasingly dire conditions amid indiscriminate bombardment.
“Independent investigators must be allowed in to assess the humanitarian situation of civilians remaining in Debaltseve in the aftermath of these heavy clashes,” said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Advisor who has recently visited the town.
“Acceding to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is a crucial step to ensure accountability for those on either side of the conflict who are responsible for crimes under international law, including war crimes.”
According to a UN report issued last week, more than 5,500 people have died and almost 10,000 have been wounded in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Image: Destroyed cultural centre in Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine © Amnesty International