Thank you, Mr Chair. As my Ukrainian colleague has just highlighted, this weekend marks nine years since the illegal annexation of Crimea. Let us not forget – 2014 was the year when Russia’s aggression against Ukraine started. Russia deployed military troops to the Crimean Peninsula with the intention of taking it by force, and nine years ago today, tried to give these actions a veneer of legitimacy with a sham referendum. We have seen systematic restrictions of fundamental freedoms and violations of human rights for the people of Crimea, especially ethnic and religious minorities, ever since.
As we know, since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, many of the practices first utilised on the Peninsula are being applied across the temporarily Russian controlled territories. We have heard countless reports of human rights violations in these areas. I would like to share testimonies from three of the brave Ukrainians who spoke at a recent event held by the British Embassy in Kyiv. I have changed the names of these individuals.
Oleh and Dmytro lived in Mariupol, 7 kilometres from Azovstal. They heard the first explosions on 26 February 2022 and were soon without power. Before long, corpses were everywhere. They tried to leave with their families on 5 March. At checkpoints they were stripped and checked for any allegiance to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. They were prevented from leaving and joined a queue of thousands being subjected to ‘filtration’. Once they had their fingerprints taken and received documents permitting them to move between territories, they returned home to find their houses had been hit with explosives. The Russian forces were treating Ukrainians “like cattle”. Children were eating grass and drinking water from puddles due to shortages of food and water. They left in a convoy of 19 cars, escorted by a UN vehicle. They were allowed to leave, but to do so they had to cross a minefield.
Petro worked for the hospital in Nova Kakhovka, Kherson, for six months under temporary Russian control. He was detained and offered the chance to collaborate. When he declined, he was taken to the basement of the national police headquarters. His photograph, fingerprints, identification, and phone were taken. He was held for 12 days in a six by four metre cell with 13 other people. There was no bed, no sink. He was allowed just two 15-minute walks per day. Sometimes, he was given leftover food from soldiers, but that was all he received. People were interrogated at night, sometimes violently in the corridors. One night, they were beaten with clubs. In his last interrogation, he was released on the condition that he left Kherson. He has been forced to leave behind everything he has worked for. He is waiting for Nova Kakhovhka to be liberated.
Anna’s home is Oleshky, in Kherson oblast, where on 24 February fighting started around a nearby bridge. Her husband together with neighbours patrolled the town, removing unexploded bombs. On 17 March, the Russian forces took him. She has heard from a released prisoner that he is alive and in a different territory, but that he has a broken arm and has suffered a heart attack. He was reportedly charged of spying and told by the court that he would be sentenced to 10-20 years. She is waiting for his release.
These are just three stories, but they illustrate the horrors that the Ukrainian people have been forced to endure in their fight for freedom. We thank these individuals for their courage in sharing their stories. We also join Ukraine in calling for the release of human rights activist Maksym Butkevych who was ‘sentenced’ last week in a sham trial to 13 years in prison.
Mr Chair, the UK is proud to welcome Justice Ministers from around the world to London next week, together with the Netherlands, to provide practical support to the International Criminal Court’s investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine. This includes support to gather testimonies, without causing victims further distress, and to share evidence of atrocities committed on the ground. War criminals will be held to account. Justice will be served.