The United Nations has said its investigators have concluded that Russia committed war crimes in Ukraine, including bombings of civilian areas, numerous executions, torture and horrific sexual violence.
The UN has made the investigation of human rights violations in the war a priority and in May its top human rights body mandated a team of experts to begin work in the country.
Since then, UN investigators have risked their lives to collect evidence of crimes committed against civilians, including in areas still threatened by enemy forces or laid with mines.
The team of three independent experts on Friday presented their first oral update to the UN human rights council, after it launched initial investigations looking at the areas of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions, adding that it would broaden its inquiries.
Speaking a day before the seven-month anniversary of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, Erik Mose, the head of the investigation team, told the council that, based on the evidence gathered by the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, “it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine”.
The team of investigators visited 27 towns and settlements, as well as graves and detention and torture centers; interviewed more than 150 victims and witnesses; and met with advocacy groups and government officials.
Mose said the team had been especially “struck by the large number of executions in the areas that we visited”, and the frequent “visible signs of executions on bodies, such as hands tied behind backs, gunshot wounds to the head, and slit throats “.
He added it was investigating such deaths in 16 towns and settlements, and had received credible allegations regarding many more cases that it would seek to document. The investigators had also received “consistent accounts of ill-treatment and torture, which were carried out during unlawful confinement”, the council was told.
In the settlements of Bucha, Hostomel and Borodianka, occupied for about a month by Russian troops, Ukrainian investigators found dozens of mass graves where the bodies of civilians, tortured and murdered, had been buried.
Since the Russians withdrew from the area, a group of young volunteers worked tirelessly to exhume the bodies and send them to forensic doctors who have been collecting evidence of crimes perpetrated by Russian troops.
Some of the victims had told the investigators they were transferred to Russia and held for weeks in prisons. Others had “disappeared” after such transfers. “Interlocutors described beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity, as well as other types of violations in such detention facilities,” Mose said.
Mose said the team had also “processed two incidents of ill-treatment against Russian Federation soldiers by Ukrainian forces”, adding that “while few in numbers, such cases continue to be the subject of our attention”.
He said investigators had also documented cases of sexual and gender-based violence, in some cases establishing that Russian soldiers were the perpetrators.
“There are examples of cases where relatives were forced to witness the crimes,” he said. “In the cases we have investigated, the age of victims of sexual and gender-based violence ranged from four to 82 years.”
The commission had documented a wide range of crimes against children, Mose added, including children who were “raped, tortured, and unlawfully confined”.
In April, forensic doctors told the Guardian they had found evidence that some women were raped before being killed by Russian forces. “We already have a few cases which suggest that these women had been raped before being shot to death,” Vladyslav Perovskyi, a Ukrainian forensic doctor who has carried out dozens of autopsies on people from Bucha, Irpin and Borodianka, told the Guardian.
At least two men in a list of accused Russian war criminals released by Ukrainian prosecutors are accused of sexual assault and rape.
Mose, in his report to the council, also pointed to “the Russian Federation’s use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas”, which he said was “a source of immense harm and suffering for civilians”.
The UN highlighted that a number of attacks the team had investigated “had been carried out without distinguishing between civilians and combatants”, including attacks with cluster munitions, banned by most of the world under a 2008 treaty.
Since the beginning of Moscow’s invasion, Russian troops have been accused of having used a number of illegal weapons that have killed hundreds of civilians in the Ukrainian region of Kyiv, including extremely powerful unguided bombs in populated areas, which have destroyed at least eight civilian buildings .
According to evidence, cluster munitions were unleashed in areas where there were no military personnel and no military infrastructure.
The commission’s work could ultimately contribute to the work of international criminal court prosecutors who could bring charges over war crimes in Ukraine, although it remains uncertain whether Russia or other alleged perpetrators would ever face justice.
In a separate development, on Friday, Ukrainian officials said they had exhumed about 436 bodies from a burial site in the recently recaptured city of Izium and that at least 30 of them showed signs of torture.
Mose said: “This is of course a novel incident but we certainly intend to look into the Izium event as well.”