Ukrainian prisoners of war after a swap in Ukraine’s Donetsk region in May 2023.
Former Ukrainian prisoners of war said they were beaten, shocked, and not given enough food by Russia.
They told the BBC that many Ukrainians gave false confessions because of the beatings.
One said “Until you said what they were interested in … they wouldn’t stop beating you.”
Ukrainian prisoners of war say they were beaten, given electric shocks, and deprived of food in Russian captivity — and that many Ukrainians ended up giving false confessions.
The BBC spoke a dozen Ukrainians who were captured by Russians and later freed in prisoner exchanges. They described brutal treatment.
Artem Seredniak, a senior lieutenant, was the head of a sniper platoon in the Azov Regiment who surrendered at the siege of the Azovstal steel plant in the city of Mariupol last year. It was one of the deadliest and most famous showdowns of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He said his role made him a particular target, and that he was in Russian captivity for almost a year.
He was first taken to a facility in occupied Ukraine and then moved inside Russia’s borders, to the city of Taganrog.
He said when he arrived a Russian officer told him and other Ukrainians: “Hello boys. Do you know where you are? You’ll rot here until the end of your lives.”
He said Ukrainian captives were inspected twice a day, and Russian guards needed little excuse to abuse them: “They might not have liked how you left the cell, or you weren’t quick to get out, or your arms were too low or your head was too high.”
Guards during a check asked him if he had a girlfriend, saying “Give us her Instagram. We’ll take a picture of you and send it to her.”
He was beaten after saying she didn’t have social media, which he told the BBC was a lie. He said he was taken to a basement where he saw a Ukrainian with needles put under his fingernails.
Seredniak said he was beaten with a wooden chair “so much that it broke in parts,” and described other beatings.
He said his captors interrogated and accused him of actions like looting Mariupol and ordering his troops to kill civilians: “Until you said what they were interested in, and in the way they wanted to hear, they wouldn’t stop beating you.” He did not say if he ever gave a false confession.
A Ukrainian human-rights group told the BBC that Russia used apparent false confessions by Ukrainians against them in court.
Serhii Rotchuk, also from the Azov Regiment, said he was beaten for having tattoos, given electric shocks, and kicked in the chest. He said he met a Ukrainian doctor who falsely confessed to removing the testicles of a Russian prisoner because he was beaten so much: “He said: ‘OK, just leave me alone, I will sign the confession.'”
Other former prisoners of war who were at Taganrog told the BBC that prisoners of war there gave false confessions after they were threatened and intimidated.
They also told the BBC they were not given enough food, inspected daily, beaten, given electric shocks, and interrogated.
They said they didn’t get proper medical help, and the BBC also cited reports of some prisoners of war dying there.
Seredniak said they were given little food, and “if I ate 300-400 calories a day, I was lucky.”
Russia’s defence ministry previously denied improperly treating captured Ukrainians, and did not respond to the BBC about the allegations.
Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s human-rights ombudsman, told the BBC that nine out of 10 Ukrainians they get back from Russian captivity had been tortured.
The United Nations said this year that Russia appeared to violate international humanitarian law in its treatment of prisoners of war, and a UN spokesperson told the BBC that even holding them in prisons was a violation.
Other former detained Ukrainians also allege mistreatment: One captured by the Wagner Group told The Washington Post he was tortured for fun, like “the way a cat plays with a mouse.”