The organization said that if confirmed, the beating and shooting of captured combatants in their legs would constitute a war crime, and Ukraine needs to demonstrate that it is able and willing to prevent and punish serious violations of international humanitarian law.
Videos posted online early on 27 March appear to show Ukrainian forces abusing captured Russian fighters or combatants, who have prisoner of war status, including shooting three of them in the leg. The incident appears to have taken place in a village near the city of Kharkiv, which Ukrainian officials had announced retaking two days earlier. A video posted on 28 March by a Ukrainian journalist shows three charred bodies at the same location but who they are and how they died remains unclear.
“All the information in the videos that suggests abuse, and maybe worse, of prisoners of war (POWs) needs to be subject to an effective investigation,” said Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. “It should be possible to verify if abuse took place, and from there to hold those responsible to account.”
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Under international laws, reprisals against prisoners of war are strictly prohibited. POWs cannot be punished for acts they have not committed or be subjected to collective punishment. Wounded or ill POWs should be provided with the same medical care that is given to the members of the armed forces of the party in whose custody they are.
An adviser to the Ukrainian president, Olexiy Arestovych, acknowledged that abuse of war prisoners constitutes a war crime and said it will be punished. “I would like to once again remind all our military, civilian, and defense forces that the abuse of war prisoners is a war crime that has no amnesty under military law and has no statute of limitations,” he posted on Telegram on the evening of 27 March.
“I remind everyone that we are a European army of a European country. We will treat the prisoners in accordance with the Geneva Convention, no matter what personal emotional motives you have.”
In a video posted to YouTube that day at 10pm, Mr Arestovych said that Ukraine would punish those responsible if an investigation determined that there had been abuse.
Two videos showing the alleged abuse were posted to Reddit and Twitter, respectively, on the morning of 27 March. A longer video posted subsequently on YouTube contains the same footage from these two videos, plus additional footage from the incident.
Human Rights Watch has also reported on laws-of-war violations and apparent war crimes by Russian forces, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects with cluster munitions and other weapons, excessive destruction not militarily justified, and failing to allow civilians to flee safely from areas of fighting.
Ms Reidy said: “The potential abuse of POWs would be a war crime that requires effective investigation and, if proven true, prosecution and punishment by Ukraine. Protection of POWs from all parties to the conflict and by all parties to the conflict is fundamental to the laws of war.”
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