Russian troops ‘tortured almost half of prisoners detained in Kherson’, say war crime investigators

Nearly 50 per cent of people held by Russian troops in the notorious Kherson detention centres were subject to torture including genital electrocution, according to a team of war crime investigators.

At least 35 “torture chambers” have been identified across the southern city and region of Ukraine, which was occupied by Russian troops from March to November 2022, and are now being investigated by Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General (OPG).

Early findings indicate that victims, half of whom are believed to be civilians, were suffocated, waterboarded, severely beaten or threatened with rape by Russian soldiers and collaborators. Some 36 people witnessed or were subjected to genital electrocution.

Others mentioned threats of genital mutilation, and at least one victim was forced to witness the rape of another detainee by a foreign object covered in a condom.

The actions of the Russian military in the Kherson detention centres “amount to genocide,” said human rights barrister Wayne Jordash KC, who is helping co-ordinate the investigations alongside the OPG.

A view shows a basement of an office building in Kherson, where prosecutors say 30 people were held for two months during a Russian occupation

Credit: Anna Voitenko/REUTERS

“I would be surprised if after examining the war crimes and crimes against humanity, that the genocidal intent of many soldiers in occupied territories is not established,” he told The Telegraph.

“At the very least, 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 will of the Kremlin.”

So far, Global Rights Compliance’s Mobile Justice Team, which is supporting the OPG with its war crimes investigations, has analysed 320 cases of detention in Kherson across more than 35 identified detention centres, as part of its wider investigation into conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine.

These cases, confirmed by victim testimonies and medical examinations, have been shared with Mr Jordash KC and his team at Global Rights Compliance, a British law firm, to help press charges against alleged Russian war criminals.

‘Conflict-related sexual violence’

Preliminary analysis shows 43 per cent of Kherson detainees witnessed or were subjected to practices of torture. However, this figure is “almost certainly an underestimation,” said Mr Jordash KC.

“We’re at the beginning of the investigations, I have no doubt it will be significantly higher,” he told the Telegraph. “I would not be surprised if we don’t find that, in fact, the vast majority of those in detention centres have been subjected to conflict-related sexual violence.”

The southern city of Kherson was under Russian control for eight months, from March 2 last year until Ukrainian troops marched upon it on November 11. 

When Kherson was liberated, evidence was uncovered confirming the systematic use of detention centres for officials or civilians who dared to question Vladimir Putin’s occupiers.

These centres were allegedly run by Russia’s FSB, alongside Russian prison services and local collaborators.

At risk of being detained were those with any connection to the Ukrainian state or Ukrainian civil society, including journalists, activists, teachers or civil servants, both male and female.

But reports have emerged of locals being imprisoned for as little as having “pro-Ukrainian” content on their phones and, in some cases, for no charge at all. 

Plastic ties for torture and a broken chair are seen inside a basement of an office building in Kherson

Credit: Anna Voitenko/REUTERS

The OPG has found that over half of those detained in the facilities identified were civilians, according to Ukrainian lawyer Anna Mykytenko, a member of the team at Global Rights Compliance.

The investigative team were also able to link 17 cases of genital electrocution to one senior Russian commander. But Ms Mykytenko warned the true toll could be much higher. 

“We know that it’s just a fraction of what’s really taking place,” said Ms Mykytenmko. “So on by the same logic, I assume that there will be more victims of this type of torture identified in the future.”

Mr Jordash KC, who has practised for 20 years in the international human rights and humanitarian law fields, said that the “level of calculation and cynicism” by Russia was something he had “never seen before”. 

“It’s a plan, which was designed to effectively, if necessary, subjugate and enslave millions of people… The pure ambition of it is, it is in my experience, unprecedented.”

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