Russian authorities have expelled and arrested thousands of Ukrainian civilians, detaining them without charges, trials, or access to legal representation, as reported by the BBC’s Russia Service on January 8.
In contrast to prisoners of war (POWs), there exists no established mechanism for the release of these detained civilians. The absence of formal investigations, court proceedings, or release schedules renders it impossible to monitor individuals within the Russian penal system.
The BBC collected testimonies from individuals residing under Russian occupation who were apprehended for refusing to support what Russia terms its “special military operation”—the official euphemism for the war against Ukraine.
In response to inquiries, the Russian Defense Ministry asserted that civilian detainees are “held in accordance with the requirements of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War.”
However, the protections outlined in the Geneva Convention primarily pertain to military, not civilian, captives. While the Convention prohibits taking hostages, it does not address the treatment of civilian prisoners.
Current international norms stipulate that detainees must be charged with violating a law and afforded a fair trial.
Polina Murygina, a lawyer and founder of the Every Human Being project—an organization seeking civilians in Russian prisons—highlighted that Ukrainian detainees in Russia or occupied territories are rarely charged with a specific administrative or criminal offense.
“The lack of official designations for these detainees results in their disappearance into the system, making it impossible for relatives to locate them, let alone provide legal representation,” she added.
Lawyer Maria Eismont noted that individuals held without charges have minimal access to defense counsel, and efforts by lawyers to meet with detainees have been consistently unsuccessful.
The BBC’s Russia Service reported that none of the interviewed lawyers during the investigation could provide an example of a defense lawyer successfully meeting with a captured Ukrainian.
“In assisting such captives, we encountered a legal paradox: it’s better if they think of you as a criminal,” Murygina emphasized.
Some former detainees shared accounts of harsh treatment by Russian authorities, including instances of torture.
In December, Politico reported that Russia deliberately utilizes Ukrainian POWs to instigate unrest in Ukraine and encourage protests against Kyiv. In early January, 230 Ukrainian POWs were repatriated in the largest prisoner exchange since the commencement of Russia’s full-scale war.