Nearly half of a group of Ukrainians detained by Russian occupiers in Kherson and interviewed by a team of international experts have reported widespread torture, including sexual violence.
The Mobile Justice Team, which was established by the human rights law firm Global Rights Compliance, said on Wednesday that of 320 cases examined in the southern Ukrainian province, many detainees recounted suffocation, waterboarding, severe beatings and threats of rape.
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Evidence pointed to one Russian soldier subjecting at least 17 people to genital mutilation, the report said.
At least one person was allegedly forced to witness the rape of another detainee by a foreign object covered in a condom.
Those held included current and former Ukrainian military personnel, activists, teachers, medical workers, law enforcement officers and community leaders.
“More than 35 torture chambers” have been identified in parts of Kherson once occupied by Russia, the report said, adding that the process of identifying those behind the crimes was “well under way”.
The abuse suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to extinguish Ukrainian identity, said Wayne Jordash, managing partner and co-founder of Global Rights Compliance.
The range of crimes committed are “evocative of genocide”, he added.
“The pattern that we are observing is consistent with a cynical and calculated plan to humiliate and terrorise millions of Ukrainian citizens in order to subjugate them to the diktat of the Kremlin.”
Some of those held said they were also forced to learn the Russian national anthem and pro-Moscow slogans.
The Mobile Justice Team was set up in October to support Ukraine in identifying and prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence. It includes leading foreign and Ukrainian prosecutors, investigators, lawyers and analysts.
Anna Mykytenko, a senior legal adviser focused on Ukraine at Global Rights Compliance, said: “What we are witnessing in Kherson is just the tip of the iceberg in Putin’s barbaric plan to obliterate an entire population.”
“Justice will be served for Ukrainian survivors as we continue our mission to identify and hold perpetrators accountable. Impunity is not an option.”
Kherson was one of the first regions to be captured by Russian soldiers when it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
Ukrainian troops liberated large parts of it in November, after which investigations began.
Rape and sexual violence as a tactic during conflict has been recognised as “a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”, by the United Nations.
In an opening statement at an International Criminal Court training event in March, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andrii Kostyn said that “for victims and witnesses, the psychological assistance is no less important than the legal aid.”
“Empathy is something that can and should be developed by all participants in criminal proceedings,” he said.