Russian occupation forces apparently executed an elderly Ukrainian man who relatives say was just out collecting pinecones, watchdog reports

Russian occupation forces apparently executed an elderly Ukrainian man who relatives say was just out collecting pinecones, watchdog reports
cross on church steeple at top of hill
A cross is seen at the Monument of the Mother of God outside the city center on October 3, 2022 in Izium, Ukraine.Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
  • Russian occupation forces apparently executed three men in Kharkiv, Ukraine, per Human Rights Watch.

  • One of the dead was a 76-year-old man who disappeared while out collecting pinecones for a fire.

  • HRW's Belkis Willie said such "brutal killings" were a window into life "under Russian occupation."

Russian occupation forces appear to have executed an elderly man and his son-in-law while they were out collecting pinecones near their village, leaving their rotting bodies in a forest where they were later found by a local farmer.

In a report released Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said 76-year-old Oleksii Taran and 52-year-old Ivan Shebelnik were detained by Russian occupation forces back in March after they left their homes to collect kindling for a fire. They were held in a cellar in the village of Kaptyolivka, in the Kharviv region of Ukraine, along with another man, Yurii Kavun, who was also killed.

The three men's bodies were found in August, a month before a Ukrainian counteroffensive drove Russian forces out of the area, which is located near the city of Izium. Residents of the village said the men had been looking for pinecones in an area near a Russian intelligence base, a possible reason they aroused suspicion.

The report comes after an Associated Press investigation found that Russian occupation forces tortured soldiers and civilians alike in at least 10 spots across Izium, which Ukrainian forces liberated last month.

According to death certificates reviewed by HRW, the elderly Taran died from blunt trauma to the head, while his son-in-law suffered chest trauma, including multiple broken ribs. Kavun was also found with a fatal head wound.

"These brutal killings provide a window into the abuses that residents who lived under Russian occupation for six months witnessed and experienced," Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW, said in a statement.

At the time of the men's initial detention, their village was occupied by forces from the self-styled "Luhansk People's Republic," a region in eastern Ukraine that has been controlled by pro-Russia separatist forces since 2014 and was formally annexed into Russia earlier this month. The separatist forces in the area were later joined by Russian soldiers in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

A man who was detained alongside those who were apparently executed described being held in a cellar no bigger than 8.2 feet by 8.2 feet, telling HRW he could hear one of the men, the son-in-law Shebelnik, being tortured when he was pulled out for interrogation.

"When he was brought back, he never wanted to talk about what they did to him, but I heard screams each time," the man, who requested anonymity, told researchers.

After Russian forces were pushed out by the Ukrainian military, researchers visited a cellar that had "fully matched" the man's description, HRW said. A neighbor said he too heard screaming.

HRW said there were likely more victims of Russian occupation, with researchers also uncovering a burial site with corpses that showed signs of torture.

Willie, the HRW researcher, said the killings "add to a long litany of alleged war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine."

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