The Ukrainian civilians woke up early in freezing temperatures, lined up for the only toilet, and were forcefully loaded onto a livestock trailer at gunpoint. They spent over 12 hours digging trenches for Russian soldiers on the front lines. Many were forced to wear oversized Russian military uniforms, putting them at risk, while others wore boots five sizes too big. By the end of the day, their hands were frozen and curled up like claws.

In the occupied region of Zaporizhzhia, nearby, other Ukrainian civilians were forced to dig mass graves in the frozen ground for those who didn’t survive. Refusing to dig resulted in immediate execution, adding another body to the graves.

Russia’s ongoing conflict with Ukraine shows no signs of ending, and thousands of Ukrainian civilians are being detained across Russia and the occupied territories. These detention centers range from newly built wings in Russian prisons to damp basements. Unfortunately, most of these detainees have no legal status under Russian law.

The Russian government has plans to create 25 new prison colonies and six other detention centers in occupied Ukraine by 2026, according to a document dating back to January obtained by The Associated Press. Additionally, in May, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree allowing for the deportation of Ukrainians who resist Russian occupation to territories without martial law, such as Russia. This makes it easier for Russia to move Ukrainians deep into Russia indefinitely, which has already happened in several documented cases.

Civilians are often picked up for minor infractions like speaking Ukrainian or being a young man in an occupied region. They are frequently held without charge or accused of being terrorists or combatants. Many are subjected to forced labor, including digging trenches, building fortifications, and even helping with mass graves. Torture is routine, involving electric shocks, severe beatings, and simulated suffocation. Many former detainees reported witnessing deaths, including documented cases of summary executions and deaths due to torture according to a United Nations report from June.

Russia denies holding civilians and refuses to disclose their reasons for doing so. However, it is evident that these detainees are used as bargaining chips in exchange for Russian soldiers. The prisoners are also used as human shields near the front lines, as confirmed by the United Nations.

The AP conducted interviews with multiple sources, including former detainees, ex-prisoners of war, families of detainees, Ukrainian intelligence officials, and a government negotiator. Their accounts, along with satellite imagery, social media, government documents, and letters delivered by the Red Cross, provide evidence of a widespread Russian detention and abuse system that violates the Geneva Conventions.

The exact number of detained civilians is difficult to determine due to the secretive nature of the system. So far, the Ukrainian government has confirmed legal details of just over 1,000 detainees facing charges. According to exiled Russian human rights activist Vladimir Osechkin, who communicates with informants within Russian prisons, at least 4,000 civilians are held in Russia, and a similar number are scattered throughout the occupied territories. Osechkin also showed AP a Russian prison document from 2022, which stated that 119 people opposed to the military operation in Ukraine were moved by plane to a Russian prison colony. Ukrainian negotiator Oleksandr Kononeko estimates that around 10,000 civilians could be detained based on reports from loved ones and post-release interviews, though the Russians deny holding any others.

Tracking down loved ones in Russian custody is incredibly challenging for families. The case of Artem Baranov and Yevhen Pryshliak, who were detained in Nova Kakhovka, offers insight into this difficulty. The men were seized by armed Russian soldiers and initially held in a local jail, where conditions allowed limited contact with loved ones. However, they were later transferred to a prison in Sevastopol, Crimea, making it impossible for their families to establish communication. Eventually, the families received news of their whereabouts through Pavlo Zaporozhets, who shared a cell with Baranov in Rostov and had a lawyer due to facing charges. This revelation confirmed that a message stuffed within a gift of eclairs had reached Baranov, giving hope to his loved ones.

Baranov’s letter described an accusation of espionage, which Slyva, Baranov’s common-law wife, found to be baseless even within Russia’s internal logic. With his detention occurring in August, the communication between Baranov and Slyva was reestablished in April, highlighting the challenges faced by families trying to locate their detained loved ones.

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