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Relatives of Ukrainian POWs highlight their cases, including allegations of torture

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right, a warning - this next story includes descriptions of what U.N. human rights experts say is credible evidence that Russia has been torturing Ukrainian prisoners of war. Russia is holding thousands of Ukrainians, both military captives and civilians. Some family members came to Washington to highlight these cases. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Tetiana Nazarenko (ph) says her father, now 72, was a retiree living a normal life in a town that is now known around the world for Russia's brutality.

TETIANA NAZARENKO: He live in Bochum, and Russian soldiers take him.

KELEMEN: Her father, Vasili Dmitrik (ph), was held for a while outside in freezing temperatures in March 2022 before he was taken to Belarus and on to Russia. She only knows this from other Ukrainians who have been released in prisoner swaps. One said he was in a maximum security prison colony in the Tula region, south of Moscow.

NAZARENKO: It was eight months ago - eight months.

KELEMEN: That's the last you heard?

NAZARENKO: Yes.

KELEMEN: According to families of captive Ukrainians, Russia moves them around often. And each time they arrive at a new jail, they're allegedly beaten and tortured. They call this an interview, says Ola Pelepei (ph).

OLA PELEPEI: Every new prison means this interview, and it's very, very horrible. My brother was moved four, five times.

KELEMEN: Her brother is a marine who was captured in Mariupol. She's heard that he's being held in the Russian city of Kursk, though she's had no contact with him.

PELEPEI: I didn't talk to my best friend, you know, for two years.

KELEMEN: Yeah.

PELEPEI: I don't know how he is.

KELEMEN: And how old is he?

PELEPEI: He's 29 years old. And two of them, he's spent in captivity - in Russian captivity.

KELEMEN: She's heard harrowing stories from those Russian jails. Andre Krifzov (ph) has, too. He runs a group that supports captured Ukrainian military medics, one of whom, his sister-in-law, came back from six months in Russian custody weighing only 77 pounds and telling what he calls nightmare stories.

ANDRE KRIFZOV: They beating women with electroshockers. They push them to do some physical exercises, and when they have no strength to do more, they kick them.

KELEMEN: Using them, he says, as punching bags.

KRIFZOV: This is not in front line. This is in a simple Russian city. This prison was in simple Russian city. And these guys - they are simply Russian citizens.

KELEMEN: Ukraine says it has gotten 3,135 POWs out of Russia in 51 prisoner swaps. But Victoria Petruk, who's with the Ukrainian government agency working on this, says Russia is holding thousands more. And a recent report by the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine says there are credible allegations that Ukrainians are being tortured.

VICTORIA PETRUK: Everyone in the world can read it and understand how Russia treats badly our POWs and civilians.

KELEMEN: The report says there are also credible allegations of mistreatment of Russian POWs in Ukraine, though Petruk says the Russians are treated according to international law. She came to Washington along with Grigory Frolov, who works with the Free Russia Foundation. He says these prisoner swaps are hard to negotiate because Russia's only willing to pay a price for some of its POWs, those with Kremlin connections.

GRIGORY FROLOV: For the regular soldiers, for people who was mobilized through the illegal actions of Vladimir Putin, no, Kremlin don't want them back.

KELEMEN: And Russia, he says, treats Ukrainian captives as criminals, holding fake trials and sentencing them to many years in prison.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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