Russian forces have detained Ukrainian prisoners of war in horrible conditions, subjecting them to beatings and denying them food to the point where many became severely undernourished, a senior Ukrainian government official said on Thursday.
The captors held so-called meetings in which prisoners were forced to run a gauntlet through a barrage of blows from rubber batons, said Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliamentary commissioner for human rights.
“These batons even broke, and after that they used wooden sticks,” he told journalists.
Around 800 prisoners of war have been returned to Ukraine in roughly 20 exchanges since Russia’s invasion began in February, according to Andriy Yusov, who represents the intelligence department in Ukraine’s ministry of defense. His statement to journalists gave no details of the mechanism for the swaps and did not say how many Russians were exchanged.
The treatment of prisoners of war is an emotional issue for Ukraine, which holds its fighters in high esteem for their defense of the country. Evidence of Russian abuses of captives, aside from being an apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions, has fueled outrage and added to a litany of reports of Russian war crimes.
The reports include the massacre of civilians in communities outside the capital Kyiv early in the conflict, the bombing of a maternity ward and a theater where civilians were sheltering in the southern city of Mariupol and rocket attacks on civilian targets including apartment buildings, shopping malls, train stations and busy public squares.
In addition, Ukraine is compiling evidence about an explosion in July that killed at least 50 prisoners of war at a Russian prison camp in Donetsk Province, in eastern Ukraine. Russia said Ukrainian forces shelled the camp, but Ukraine said it was a war crime committed by Russian forces. Some of those killed had fought to defend a steelworks during a siege in the port city of Mariupol that became a symbol of the country’s suffering.
President Volodymyr Zelensky signaled the national importance of prisoners in a speech delivered late on Wednesday. “We remember all our people and try to free each and every one of them from captivity, not a single Ukrainian has been forgotten,” he said.
Mr. Lubinets said that the prisoners he had spoken with were held in “terrible conditions,” given little food or water, no toilet paper, soap, or toothbrushes and were also forced to sleep on concrete floors without blankets or mattresses. All the prisoners lost weight, he said.
Ukrainian officials have avoided giving details of prisoner trades or saying how many prisoners it holds, citing security reasons. But on Thursday a senior official in the president’s office, Andriy Yermak, said that six people, including four marines who had fought at Mariupol and two civilians, were returned in a swap.
Military experts say that Ukraine had netted many new Russian prisoners during a recent counteroffensive in the northeast.