International leaders have expressed horror at Ukrainian reports of a mass grave in the town of Izium after it was retaken from Russian forces, and renewed calls for future trials to hold perpetrators of any potential war crimes to account.
Britain’s ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons said the town was “unfolding as a site of horrific war crimes” and that there were “bodies that show signs of having tortured”. As Ukrainian “land is liberated, death is uncovered,” she wrote in a social media message.
A spokeswoman for the United Nations human rights office said it plans to send monitors to the town to establish what happened, while the Austrian foreign ministry said it was “deeply shocked” at the reports and that “perpetrators must be held accountable”.
Izium was Russia’s main bastion in northeastern Ukraine and served as a logistics hub for its operations in the Donbas region before it was recaptured by Kyiv forces last weekend, part of a rapid Ukrainian advance that saw some Russian soldiers abandon their equipment and flee.
[ Mass grave in Ukraine: Some 440 bodies found are mostly civilians, police say ]
Kyiv on Friday welcomed a resolution passed in the European Parliament that condemned the mass forced deportation of Ukrainian citizens and forced adoption of children to Russia.
“The Russian authorities are deliberately separating Ukrainian children from their parents and abducting others from orphanages, other children’s institutions and hospitals before putting them up for adoption inside Russia,” the resolution read, describing the practice as “systematic and large-scale in nature”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two decrees in May this year making it easier for Ukrainian children to be adopted by Russian families and for them to be granted Russian citizenship, it noted.
The report described a system of “filtration camps” in which Ukrainian citizens were “subjected to detailed interrogation, body searches, sometimes involving forced nudity, and torture”.
Based on this screening, Ukrainians were selected to be sent to “Russian detention centres and penal colonies” or forcible deportation to Russia, according to the resolution, with Ukrainians being forced to surrender their passports and sign agreements to stay in the country “in an apparent effort to change the demographic make-up of Ukraine”.
The European Commission warned that the forcible deportation of civilians is a breach of the Geneva Convention and called for “all cases of enforced disappearances” to be “duly investigated”.
Ukraine’s Ombudsman has estimated that one million citizens had been forcibly deported to Russia while 200,000 Ukrainian children were brought to Russia for adoption.
A Ukrainian volunteer medic who was kept captive by Russian forces for three months in the occupied city of Mariupol has described undergoing prolonged torture before she was released in a prisoner exchange, in testimony to US agency the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Yuliia Paievska described “prisoners in cells screaming for weeks, and then dying from the torture without any medical help”, and said a seven-year-old boy died in her lap due to lack of medical treatment, calling it the “torment of hell”.
Ms Paievska had been treating the wounded in the besieged city, and passed bodycam footage of her medical team at work to Associated Press journalists, before she was stopped at a checkpoint and taken captive by pro-Russian forces.
Russia, which seized control of Izium in late March, has repeatedly denied committing war crimes or targeting civilians.