An article on the independent international media platform openDemocracy.net entitled “A Long Road to Freedom” says that of the 2,000 Ukrainian prisoners abducted from Kherson by the retreating Russian military last year, almost 1,500 remain in Russian custody outside of Ukraine.

The investigation found that many of those who were released by the Russians, after completing their Ukrainian-imposed jail sentences, are unable to get back to Ukraine as they have no passports or other necessary documentation.

The prisons under Russian occupation

The March 2023 Danish government funded report “Nine Circles of Hell,” produced by the Danish Institute against Torture (DIGNITY) and four other human rights organizations looked into what happened to over 3,000 prisoners who were held in prisons in the south and east of Ukraine and Kherson in particular at the time of the 2022 full-scale Russian invasion.

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Although Ukraine was able to evacuate 13 prisons close to the war zone, the speed of the initial invasion was such that 11 other prisons fell into Russian hands. It seems that there were no plans or guidance as to how prison staff or prisoners were to respond to the invasion and the occupation.

According to international humanitarian law, Russia became responsible for the treatment of prisoners and prisons that came under their control as well as ensuring the provision of basic necessities.

However, the Danish report indicates that the humanitarian situation in the jails rapidly deteriorated as supplies from Ukraine were exhausted and the Russians offered inadequate substitutes. As supplies dwindled and the occupiers chose to use some prisons as military bases, inmates were moved to other prisons in the Kherson region or moved without their consent to Russia. This in itself was a violation of international law.

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From the start of the occupation Russian servicemen and Ukrainian collaborating prison staff were involved in murders of “recalcitrant” prisoners, torture and other ill-treatment, forced labor in support of military purposes and even forced imposition of Russian citizenship, and participation in the illegal referenda in Russia’s annexed territories.

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Ukrainian prisoners were held in prisons used as Russian military bases, in some of which Russian artillery systems were located, effectively turning the inmates into human shields. Many prisons were targeted and damaged by artillery strikes resulting in injuries and death to staff and prisoners.

While many prison staff managed to escape the occupation, others including heads of the prisons and ordinary officers remained. While some of these definitely remained because they were pro-Russian, others stayed put out of a sense of duty towards their charges.

Forced relocation to Russia

By early October the Zmina Information Centre for Human Rights began to receive reports that hundreds of civilian prisoners and prisoners of war were being moved by Russian troops from their prisons to unknown destinations.

As Ukrainian forces advanced towards the Dnipro River, prisoners were first moved to prisons further away from the front line, then by ferry to cross the river before, on Nov. 3 2022, finally being forced into vehicles and moved to Crimea, repeatedly being told they’d be shot if they resisted or attempted to escape.

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They then arrived at Simferopol’s pre-trial detention center where Russian National Guard soldiers and troops from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic received them, handing out beatings as they arrived.

Throughout November, the prisoners from Kherson were moved to a number of Russian prison colonies in Russia’s Krasnodar, Rostov and Volgograd regions.

Oleh Tsvilyi of the NGO “Protection of Prisoners of Ukraine” told openDemocracy that Russian prison administrators “often did not understand why so many Ukrainians had been brought to them and what to do with them.”

This led to “hostility,” he said. “People could be beaten if they were found to have pro-Ukrainian tattoos, ‘thieves’ could be fined and put into punishment cells.”

The fate of prisoners and prison staff who remained

As Ukraine entered Kherson on Nov. 11, the prisoners that still remained, many whose sentences had long expired, either fled or surrendered to police and military forces. Investigators were much more interested in the crimes of the occupiers and their accomplices.

Over 100 former prison guards in the Kherson area have been accused of high treason and collaboration, which includes those who stayed and those who fled with Russian forces. 

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Suggestions initially made by some Ukrainian MPs that prison guards who were not guilty of other crimes against inmates should be excluded from the definition of collaboration is currently a topic too politically sensitive to move forward.

The future of those still held in Russia

As for those from Kherson still held in Russian prisons, they say they face consistent pressure to accept Russian citizenship and to join Russian private military companies and fight in Ukraine. Most, if not all, have refused.

Those who come to the end of their sentences, often find themselves being rearrested and issued with Russian deportation orders even though the Kremlin considers the entire Kherson region as Russian territory. As deportation from Russia to Ukraine is impossible, the men are placed in immigration detention centers, which are only slightly better than Russian prisons.

Some have managed to make their way to the border with Georgia who, after initial reluctance but following representation from Ukraine, began to let small numbers cross into Georgia.

After nearly two years under Russian confinement there are signs that some of the Ukrainian prisoners are ready to receive Russian passports and stay in the Russian Federation.

Although Tsvilyi does not have exact figures he says that “[Russian] propaganda convinces them that, back in Ukraine, they will be punished for having a Russian passport, sent back to prison to finish out the sentence they’ve already served in Russian camps, or, on the contrary, immediately sent to fight.”

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