They relentlessly beat the prisoners and tortured them with electric shocks, waterboarding and mock executions. Three people died in their custody. But such is their sense of impunity, the Russians who took control of a detention center in southern Ukraine last year and filled it with 200 prisoners did not care to hide their identities.
Last week, Ukrainian prosecutors announced war crimes charges against four members of the Russian National Guard – the commander who ran the detention facility and three of his subordinates. They were accused in absentia of brutal treatment of civilians and violations of the laws of war.
The case is one of the first to emerge from a months-long investigation by Ukrainian prosecutors in the southern Kherson region, which was occupied by Russian forces for more than eight months until they were forced out of a Ukrainian counter-offensive in November. Investigators say they have uncovered hundreds of crimes committed under Russian occupation, including murders and deaths in custody, torture, sexual violence and beatings in captive areas.
Investigators in the Kherson region found 11 detention facilities with torture chambers where men and women were abused. The four men accused of war crimes are in charge of the pretrial detention center at No. 3, Thermal Energy Street, in the center of the major city of the region, Kherson. Some of the victims helped identify them from photos taken by the Russian National Guard unit that took over the detention center last summer. Prosecutors arranged for four of the victims to speak to journalists in Kyiv last week.
Two men and a woman died at the center, investigators said. The men were beaten and the three had no medical care, investigators said, adding that 17 inmates said they were subjected to sexual torture with electric shocks on the genitals.
The four Russian accused are Col. Aleksandr Naumenko from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Aleksandr Bocharov from the Krasnodar region, Anver Muksimov from Stavropol and Aleksandr Chilengirov from the Orenburg region.
The National Guard was established in 2016 by President Vladimir V. Putin to consolidate the various units of the Interior Ministry of Russia. The National Guard, which is separate from the Armed Forces, is responsible for internal security and answers directly to the president.
Investigators said they identified the National Guard unit using information from Ukraine’s intelligence service, phone intercepts and witnesses. Most of the violence is gratuitous and used in interrogations to force confessions, Andriy Kostin, the prosecutor general of Ukraine, wrote in a Facebook post about the Kherson case.
“Confessions are ‘beaten’ out of people about things they didn’t do,” he wrote, comparing the methods of the secret police during Joseph Stalin’s purges.
Oleksii Sivak, 38, a Ukrainian seaman who became an activist during the occupation, painting Ukrainian flags, national symbols and graffiti around the city of Kherson, was arrested in August; he was beaten and electrocuted, including his genitals, during interrogations. He was able to identify at least one of the male defendants.
“Every question is followed by an electric shock or a punch,” he said in an interview in Kyiv. “If you fall from the electric shock to the floor, they kick you and send you back to the chair.”
The shocks continued for about an hour, with 30-second breaks, he said. “Once you walk in, they start doing it and they take turns in this dynamo machine,” he said. “Someone asked for men who were in pain.”
At one point, he saw his interrogators when they removed a knitted cap covering his eyes and put a pistol to his head to force a confession.
“I saw, at that moment, two guards and two intelligence servicemen who took me from my house,” he recalled. The men were all wearing balaclavas, he said, as was the colonel in charge of the detention center.
But the guard who escorted him to the torture chamber did not bother to wear a mask, Mr. Sivak said, and he recognized the guard from photographs.
The neighbor of Mr. Sivak, Roman Shapovalenko, 38, who was arrested the same day, said in an interview that he was electrocuted and beaten with broken ribs. On one occasion, his torturers stabbed his leg and jumped on his chest, he said, and he lost consciousness several times while being waterboarded. On another occasion, his torturers removed the hood that hid his eyes and attached wires to his genitals. He saw at least three people in the room, but they were all wearing balaclavas.
Mr. Shapovalenko said the most painful torture involved electric shocks to the earlobes. “You have flashes like lightning in your eyes,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep for three days.” He joked to his cellmates that he got a Wi-Fi connection and he was watching YouTube videos and playing war movies before his eyes.
One of the cellmates of Mr. Shapovalenko, a man in his 50s named Ihor, died from the brutal beatings he received, he said. Ihor was interrogated for three or four days, and after they returned him to the cell, the Russian guards ordered him to write a statement and kept waking him up to prevent him from sleeping. On the fourth day they put him to sleep, but it was too late and he died that night.
“They never read his testimony,” said Mr. Shapovalenko. “We all thought we were going to end up like that.”
Another man, Serhii Ruban, 42, a marketing consultant, also died in the detention center, prosecutors established. His mother, Nina Ruban, 70, said she was last seen alive when she was arrested on June 12. Six days later, she told the army headquarters that her only child was dead.
Two witnesses saw him severely beaten in the corridor and inside their cell, prosecutors said, and a third witness moved his body to the morgue. Investigators found his body among the remains in a mass grave, and in February, his mother identified him by a tattoo on his knuckles. He had several broken ribs, leaving him in no doubt that he had been beaten to death.
“He was devastated by everything,” she said, crying.
Oleksandr Chubko and This is Shapoval contributed to the report.