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HRW: Russian military executes at least 15 Ukrainian soldiers while surrendering since December last year

The human rights organisation noted that these incidents should be investigated as war crimes.

HRW: Russian military executes at least 15 Ukrainian soldiers while surrendering since December last year
Shooting of Ukrainian prisoners by Russians near Avdiyivka, 2 Dec 2023
Photo: screenshot of the video

Since the beginning of December 2023, the Russian military has likely executed at least 15 Ukrainian servicemen while attempting to surrender, and possibly six more who were surrendering or had already surrendered, Human Rights Watch reported today. 

‘Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces have committed many heinous war crimes,’ said Belkis Wille, Deputy Director of the Crisis and Conflict Division. ‘Summary executions - i.e., killings - of Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered or were wounded but shot in cold blood, which is strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law, is one such heinous crime.

Human Rights Watch has investigated three cases of alleged summary executions of at least 12 Ukrainian servicemen by reviewing and analysing drone videos posted on social media on 2 and 27 December, and 25 February 2024. In all these cases, Ukrainian servicemen demonstrated a clear intention to surrender. As they were no longer involved in hostilities, i.e. considered hors de combat, they could not be targeted under international humanitarian law and the laws of war.

After analysing the video footage, Human Rights Watch researchers identified the locations of two of the three incidents, but were unable to pinpoint the exact location of the third due to the lack of accurate geo-data on the video footage. Human Rights Watch was also unable to determine which side owned the drone that captured the video.

Human Rights Watch verified the fourth case by analysing another video that appeared on social media on 19 February. It shows two Russian soldiers shooting three unarmed Ukrainian soldiers who had surrendered. Although the owner of the page where the video was posted indicated the location of the incident, Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify it.

The investigation into the fifth incident was based on an interview with a Ukrainian soldier, a video posted on a Telegram channel on 16 February, and media reports, including interviews with family members of one of the deceased. Six soldiers were reportedly executed in this case, although the circumstances of the incident were less clear.

In one of the five cases, on 25 February, verified drone video widely circulated on the Internet, including on X (formerly Twitter), shows at least seven Ukrainian soldiers emerging from a dugout located among trees between two fields, removing their bulletproof vests, and at least one removing his helmet. All of them lie face down, and five Russian soldiers aim their machine guns at them. The Russian soldiers can be identified by the clearly visible red bandages on their arms and legs. The three Russian soldiers then shoot from behind and on both sides in the direction of the Ukrainian soldiers, who have apparently surrendered.

Six Ukrainian soldiers remain face down, visibly reacting to the shots, while one tries to return to the dugout but is hit by a bullet before he can. The incident took place near the village of Ivanivske in Donetsk Region. The exact location was first confirmed by GeoConfirmed volunteer EjShahid, and later by Human Rights Watch researchers.

It appears that such executions are not isolated. Human Rights Watch researchers also identified a Russian drone video released on 5 February 2024, which shows a single moment of combat. In this case, Human Rights Watch researchers were unable to determine whether Ukrainian soldiers surrendered, but a male voice heard in the video, which is not in obvious doubt as to its authenticity, appears to be giving orders to Russian soldiers during a battle in the Donetsk region. The voice says in Russian: ‘Take no prisoners, shoot them all’. Audio-visual analysis of the video footage confirms the conclusion that it was a Russian drone.

A report by the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine released in March 2023 documented the executions of 15 Ukrainian prisoners of war by the Russian military and the Wagner Group during the first year of the full-scale invasion. In its periodic report for February-July 2023, the UN confirmed the summary execution of six Ukrainian prisoners of war. A supplementary report published in March 2024 for the previous three months recorded 12 executions of at least 32 captured prisoners of war or hors de combat. The UN conducted an independent review of the three most recent incidents involving seven Ukrainian servicemen.

As a reminder, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine has 27 criminal proceedings on the execution of Ukrainian prisoners of war. It is about the murder of 54 defenders

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