Ukraine: the bodies of three men found in the forest
(Kyiv, October 4, 2022) – Russian-affiliated forces unlawfully detained and apparently killed at least three civilian men, then dumped their bodies in a forest, during Russia’s partial occupation of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, a said Human Rights Watch today. This is one of many cases involving allegations war crimes that Human Rights Watch is investigating in the area.
Men, Ivan Shebelnik, 52; Oleksii Taran, 76 years old; and Yurii Kavun, about 59, were arrested in late March 2022 and held in a cellar in Kapytolivka, a village near Izium, which a fourth man who had also been detained but survived described to Human Rights Watch. The bodies were found in a forest in early August. Medical and police reports say one suffered chest trauma with several broken ribs, the second died from blunt force trauma to the head and the third suffered a head injury.
“These brutal killings provide a window into the abuses that residents who lived under Russian occupation for six months witnessed and experienced,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Ukrainian authorities, with the support of partners, should strive to preserve all evidence of these killings and others like them – including all indications of the specific forces and commanders who may have been responsible – to help ensuring that those responsible are held accountable and justice is ultimately delivered.
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine residents of Kapytolivka, about five kilometers southeast of Izium. Residents said Russian and Russian-affiliated forces began occupying the village in late February or early March and left around September 9, in response to the Ukrainian counteroffensive. For at least the first month of occupation, residents said, most of the occupying forces came from the “People‘s Republic of Luhansk”, an area of Ukraine’s Luhanska region controlled by Russian-affiliated armed groups and currently occupied by Russia (also known as the NRL, which is used as a reference to this area, not as recognition of sovereignty claims). The residents determined this based on the accents of the forces.
Seven respondents said they knew the victims or the circumstances of their detention. Two close relatives of Shebelnik, a metalworker, said his in-laws came to visit him in late March. They said Shebelnik and her stepfather, Taran, left the house on the morning of March 23 to collect pine cones to use as kindling, but never returned.
Several relatives tried to find them, contacting the soldiers based in the area, filing missing persons complaints with the local police established by the occupying forces and visiting School No. 2 in nearby Izium, of which they had heard say that it was used as a place of detention. center. Two residents of Kapytolivka said there was a Russian intelligence base in the area where relatives of Taran and Shebelnik said they went to get the pine cones.
In early August, members of the occupation police force contacted the Chebelniks, claiming that after a farmer discovered the smell of decomposing bodies in the forest, authorities recovered three bodies and brought them to the central hospital in Izium for forensic examinations. At the hospital, Shebelnik’s cousin identified the bodies of Shebelnik and Taran based on their clothing. She and another relative saw the death certificates of the two men, issued on August 11 by a pathologist at the hospital.
Shebelnik’s certificate, which Human Rights Watch researchers reviewed, says he died of chest trauma with several broken ribs. Taran states he died of blunt force trauma to the head, relatives have said. Local police told the family that the third man they found was identified as fellow villager Yurii Kavun, who died of a head injury.
On September 28, researchers interviewed another resident of the village, who was detained with the three victims and requested anonymity. He said four men he believed to be NRL soldiers arrested him on March 24 as they searched houses on his street and suspected he was hiding a generator on his property, which they wanted confiscate. He said they took him to a cellar in one of the four adjacent houses the forces occupied. He estimated it to be 2.5 meters by 2.5 meters, with a low ceiling. It contained two mattresses which he suspected the owners had used for shelter before fleeing.
He said two other men were already being held there. It was dark, but he soon recognized Shebelnik’s voice. They had worked together in a nearby factory. He said the other man was very old and spoke very little, but he eventually found out he was Taran.
Shebelnik told him that NRL forces stopped them on their way home, strip searched them and brought them there. The detainee said he did not see the NRL forces abusing Taran, but they took Shebelnik upstairs several times: “When he was brought back, he never wanted to talk about this they had done to her, but I heard screams every time.
Two days into his detention, he said, the forces brought in Yurii Kavun, who lived near him. He and Kavun’s neighbors said the forces arrested Kavun because he was in the military, despite retiring several years earlier with a herniated disc. One of Kavun’s neighbors said they arrested him, released him, and then arrested him again in late March. The neighbor was home both times.
The former detainee said Kavun’s face was covered in blood: “He told us that a soldier fired his gun and the bullet hit something near Yurii’s face, and many fragments of metal entered his face. We had a blanket and we tried to bandage it. The former detainee said soldiers eventually cleaned and bandaged his face, but then beat him at least three or four times over the next few days. The former detainee was later released.
The former inmate said that two or three other inmates were brought to the cellar while he was there, but only for a day or two, and that he did not know them since they were from Izium.
On September 28, researchers visited a cellar in the garden behind a house that neighbors said NRL forces had occupied from March to April, which matched the description of the former detainee perfectly and still contained the mattresses. . Neighbors said NRL forces were occupying three other houses next to this one.
A man living directly opposite said that on at least one occasion he had heard screams coming from one of the houses. Researchers observed what could have been a splatter of blood on the cellar floor. The remains of a burned military vehicle were still in the front yard. Neighbors said the houses were damaged in attacks in late April, forcing pro-Russian forces to retreat to another base in the area.
These were probably not the only killings of civilians during the occupation, with some bodies buried in a burial site on the outskirts of Izium during the 6 months of occupation showing possible signs of torture and executions.
Human Rights Watch has documented that Russian forces arbitrarily detained, tortured, and extrajudicially executed people in other areas they occupied.
All parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine are bound to respect international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions and customary international law. Belligerent armed forces that effectively control an area are subject to international law of occupation, including as set out in the Fourth Geneva Convention. International human rights law, including the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment and torture, the right to life and the prohibition of arbitrary detention, is also applicable at all times.
The laws of war prohibit willful killing, torture and inhuman treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Anyone who orders or deliberately commits such acts, or aids and abets them, is responsible for war crimes. Force commanders who knew or had reason to know of these crimes but did not attempt to arrest them or punish those responsible are criminally responsible for war crimes as command responsibility.
Russia and Ukraine have obligations under the Geneva Conventions to investigate alleged war crimes committed by their forces or on their territory and to appropriately prosecute those responsible. Victims of abuse and their families must receive prompt and adequate redress.
“These killings in the Izium region add to a long litany of alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine,” Wille said. “As more and more information about the crimes continues to emerge, it is more important than ever to preserve this evidence for successful prosecutions.”