The Current

Russia denies war crimes, but human rights advocate says evidence is 'difficult to refute'

Amid growing reports of war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, Human Rights Watch has released a report documenting allegations of rape, murder and other violent acts against civilians.

Report from Human Rights Watch alleges rape and murder of Ukrainian civilians

Soldiers walk amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Sunday. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

Warning: This story contains video images of dead bodies and distressing details of violence.

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Amid growing reports of war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, Human Rights Watch has released a report documenting allegations of rape, murder and other violent acts against civilians.

The report was compiled by experts both inside and outside of Ukraine, based on photographs, videos and eyewitness testimonies from Lviv, Kyiv and the area around Mariupol. It contains allegations of war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in the first half of March.

WATCH | Bodies are seen in streets in Kyiv suburb:

Gruesome scenes emerge near Kyiv as Russian troops retreat

1 year ago
Duration 5:06
WARNING: This video contains graphic footage. The devastation of war is nowhere more apparent than in Bucha, one of Kyiv's northern suburbs where streets are lined with the bodies of civilians and burnt combat vehicles.

Separate allegations came to light in recent days, accusing Russia of summarily executing civilians, before throwing their bodies in mass graves. Images of the victims provoked global outcry, but Russia's foreign ministry dismissed the pictures as "stage-managed anti-Russian provocation."

Matt Galloway discussed the report with Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Here is part of their conversation.

Understanding that these are horrific scenes, what are some of the stories that your teams have been able to uncover?

We've identified in our latest report two cases of summary executions, these are basically murders by Russian soldiers. In one case, six men were were collected in a village and taken outside and shot. Two brothers were among that group, men ranging from their late teens, to their early 40s. The mothers and other family members couldn't access their bodies and go and bury them properly for nine days. Another case, near Kyiv, in Bucha in fact, which has been in the headlines so much recently, a man was among five men who had to kneel in a public street, take some of their clothes off, put their T-shirts over their head. And this man was shot in the back of the head, at close range.

And then we've documented a very traumatic case of a woman who was raped multiple times by a Russian soldier in eastern Ukraine, in a school building where the women and children were hiding. She was with her five-year-old daughter. The soldier took her to a classroom in the school and raped her several times during the night. And of course, these do amount to war crimes, and then need to obviously be fully investigated.

And is the evidence that civilians are being deliberately targeted? 

I think it's clear from these particular cases that these soldiers are directly targeting civilians. Yes, I mean, there's no other explanation for individual Russian soldiers identifying and then raping Ukrainian women. 

We're being very cautious. This evidence comes from the first half of March. It's taken us some time to piece it together, to make sure we are absolutely sure it is true and verifiable. We're not saying this is very widespread, but we worry that it could be. Bucha, for instance, is a small town — tens of thousands of people. Mariupol is a half a million people and it's been under Russian occupation for many weeks now. We do worry what has been happening there, and what will happen if the Russian troops did pull out, as they pulled out from Bucha, and it became easier to find out what's been going on. 

WATCH | Ukraine accuses Russian troops of killing civilians in Bucha

Ukraine accuses Russian troops of killing civilians in Bucha

1 year ago
Duration 1:26
Ukrainian forces recently liberated the town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, from Russian forces. What they found was destruction and allegations of civilians being killed by Russian troops.

There is global horror and outrage at the images that are coming out of Bucha, mass graves and much, much worse. Based on what you're seeing in those reports, do you see a pattern that's emerging? 

As I said, we're cautious about defining patterns. I mean, we are worried that the evidence we have in the first half of March is being reinforced today, you know, through these videos and other evidence from Bucha. We're very keen to establish what happened in the more recent days in Bucha, before Russia pulled out in the last couple of days of March. If we find that evidence that we can verify that it was indeed Russian troops that, for instance, executed people and left their bodies on the streets, then we would indeed have a pattern. And the key thing is to say we need to build up this evidence because it needs to be passed to Ukrainian authorities, to the International Criminal Court, to UN bodies, to mount a proper investigation. Evidence needs to be preserved, specialists need to be able to come in.

Even if it takes months and longer, there needs to be accountability for these crimes, and that's why such careful information and testimony gathering is so important. 

Russian officials have said that these reports are fabricated. They've said that their troops are targeting military installations, not civilians. When it comes to the images coming out of Bucha, the Foreign Ministry said that the footage was ordered by the United States to blame Russia. What do you make of a response like that? 

I think that's how we see our role in a sense … being able to cut through that sort of, frankly, disinformation.

Because the evidence we've gathered — as I said, carefully done from a few weeks ago — [means] it's more difficult to refute [these allegations], if we've really verified the videos, we've talked to several witnesses and so on and so forth. So we need to present this clear evidence.

And of course, it's actually Russia's responsibility to look into and investigate the abuses carried out by their own troops. We call on them to do so. You know, Russia is a party to this conflict. It has committed to the Geneva Conventions and so on. So on the one hand, we need to provide clear evidence that refutes this disinformation. But we need to hold Russia to its responsibilities, too. 

Russia has withdrawn from the International Criminal Court [in 2016]. So where does the global community find accountability in the face of evidence that you have documented in these reports? 

I think we have to rely on things like the International Criminal Court. The UN Human Rights Council set up a commission investigation as well … that's very important. And of course, other countries such as Germany, under universal jurisdiction, can mount investigations and trials as well. 

So there are a variety of levers which the international community can use. And we should not despair just because of Russia's stance on these issues. There will be justice one day, I'm sure.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Cameron Perrier. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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