War in Ukraine: Human rights group report says three men’s bodies dumped in forest by Russian occupiers

The bodies of Russian soldiers were lying in the streets of a key eastern Ukrainian city on Tuesday, evidence of a hasty retreat that marked a new military defeat for Moscow as it struggles to hang on to areas it illegally annexed last week.

Russian troops pulled back from Lyman, a strategic eastern city the Russians had used as a key logistics and transport hub, over the weekend to avoid being encircled by Ukrainian forces. The city's liberation gave Ukraine a key vantage point for pressing its offensive deeper into Russian-held territories.

This comes as a human rights organisation investigation found 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. Human Rights Watch said the incident was among many cases involving alleged war crimes in the region.

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Russia annexed four regions of Ukraine last week, saying in a speech at the Kremlin that Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson would come under Russian rule, following “referendums” that have been condemned widely as shams. Russia's upper house of parliament rubber-stamped the annexation on Tuesday.

Russian-affiliated forces detained and tortured men in a cellar behind these houses that they occupied during March and April in Kapytolivka village, Kharkiv region. September 28, 2022. Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch
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Responding to the annexation move, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has formally ruled out talks with Russia. Mr Zelensky's decree declares holding negotiations with Russian president Vladimir Putin has become impossible after his decision to take over the Ukrainian regions.

The Kremlin responded to the Ukrainian president's decree by saying it would wait for Ukraine to agree to sit down for talks on ending the conflict, noting that it may not happen until a new Ukrainian president takes office.

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"We will wait for the incumbent president to change his position or wait for a future Ukrainian president who would revise his stand in the interests of the Ukrainian people," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

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Human Rights Watch said the Ukrainian civilians – Ivan Shebelnik, 52; Oleksii Taran, 76; and Yurii Kavun, about 59 – were detained in late March and held in a cellar in Kapytolivka, a village near Izium. A fourth man who had also been detained, but survived described the situation to Human Rights Watch.

Their bodies were found in a forest in early August. Medical and police reports indicate one suffered from chest trauma with multiple broken ribs, the second died from blunt trauma to the head, and the third had received a head wound.

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“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.

“Ukrainian authorities, with support from partners, should work to preserve all evidence of these killings and others like them, including any indications of the specific forces and commanders who may have been responsible, to help ensure that those responsible are held to account and justice is ultimately delivered.”

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All parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, which prohibit wilful killing, torture, and inhumane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody.

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