Researchers say Russian forces and their allies use these sites to process, register, interrogate and detain Ukrainians trying to leave Russian-occupied territory. The detainees may include civilians and prisoners of war.
The Yale School of Public Health’s Human Research Laboratory (Yale HRL) in collaboration with the State Department-supported Conflict Observatory used open-source information and high-resolution satellite imagery to map it.
According to the report, there is evidence to suggest that it was created even before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and is growing after the capture of Mariupol in April.
“The conditions reported by those released from the facilities examined here could constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” the study says, adding that “conditions include overcrowding in facilities and lack of access to drainage facilities.” Adequate sanitation, lack of food, clean water, exposure to weather, denial of medical care and isolation.”
“In some specific cases, treatment described as being subjected to them by the released, such as the use of electric shocks, harsh isolation conditions, and physical abuse, may constitute torture if proven,” the study says.
In a separate news release Thursday, the US State Department called the “unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons” described in the study a “serious violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilians and constitutes a war crime.”
One of the sites described in the study is the Volnovaka Correctional Colony. Detailed results claim that it is a long-term facility for those who did not pass the nomination process with prisoners of war who surrendered after the siege of the Azovstal steel plant.
The study cites accounts by ostensible survivors who described, among other things: overcrowded cells, forced labor, and even torture. Yale University HRL says it has identified two areas of disturbed land along the southern and southwestern parts of that facility that appear to be mass graves.
One of the accounts in the report from a person described as a “survivor” claimed that his cellmate was working a shift digging graves inside the colony. In July, there was a deadly explosion there in which Ukrainian separatists said 53 prisoners of war were killed, but satellite imagery used in the report precedes this.
The Yale University study notes that “without further investigation, including the ability to independently excavate these sites, it is not possible to determine what these sites may contain based solely on the evidence presented in this report.”
Threats and humiliation
In the Yale study, the Russian Embassy in Washington said the system “concerns checkpoints for civilians leaving an active combat zone. To avoid sabotage operations by battalions of Ukrainian nationalists, Russian soldiers carefully check vehicles going to safe areas.” She adds that she will “arrest bandits and fascists” and that the Russian army does not put up barriers to civilians but helps them provide food and medicine.
In a CNN report in July, Dmitry Fashenko, an official with Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations in Taganrog, said housing would be provided to Ukrainians, who also had the freedom to look for work and send their children to school.
“When hostilities end in the future, all of these arrivals can make a decision to return to their homeland. And whoever wishes to remain in Russia, the Russian government bears this obligation – they will receive a full range of social services and be protected,” he said.
When asked about the process of letting refugees into Russia, he said there were “filter points” at the border.
“They are examining people who seem to be leaning strongly towards the Russian Federation,” he said. “The filtering takes place precisely on arrival, there are no ‘mass camps.’ They are border crossing points, nothing more.”
The self-proclaimed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea denied accusations by the Ukrainian authorities of illegally detaining, nominating and ill-treating Ukrainian citizens, and said that those who arrive at what it calls “reception centers” receive food and medical care properly.
“The Donetsk Oblast nomination system operated by Russia and its proxies represents an urgent human rights emergency,” Yale HRL Executive Director Nathaniel Raymond said in a press release from the Yale School of Public Health. “International monitors need unrestricted access to these facilities today. Every day that passes without independent monitors at these locations increases the risk of massive human rights violations with impunity.”
According to the study’s methodology, “each source was evaluated using criteria established by the Berkeley Protocol on Open Source Digital Investigations.”
It added that the data points “were compared with recent high-resolution satellite imagery. Five independent sources had to verify the site’s location and the filtering activities allegedly occurring there to include the site in the report. Twenty-one sites met or exceeded this threshold.”