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The Guardian

Former Russian soldier reveals he saw Ukrainian prisoners of war tortured

Konstantin Yefremov: ‘I apologise profusely to the entire Ukrainian people for coming to their home with a gun.’

A senior Russian lieutenant who fled after serving in Ukraine has described how his country’s troops tortured prisoners of war and threatened some with rape.

Konstantin Yefremov left Russia in December after spending three months in the parts of the southern Zaporizhzhia oblast that were occupied in Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I have personally seen our troops torture Ukrainian soldiers,” Yefremov, who is the most senior soldier to speak out against the war, told the Guardian in a phone call from Mexico, where he currently is. “I feel relieved that I can finally speak out about the things I have seen.”

Yefremov is one of a growing body of soldiers who have fled Russia and spoken out against the war. The Guardian earlier interviewed Pavel Filatyev and Nikita Chibrin, two Russian contract soldiers who have similarly denounced the war.

Yefremov was previously based in Chechnya in the Russian army’s 42nd Motorised Rifle Division, where he was involved in mine clearance. At the beginning of February last year, two weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, he said he was sent with his unit to Crimea to take part in what he was told were military exercises.

He said he tried to flee as soon as he realised he would be sent to fight in Ukraine. “I left my gun, found the first taxi and drove off. I wanted to return to my base in Chechnya and hand in my resignation papers because I was against this horrible war.”

But, according to Yefremov, he was threatened with 10 years in jail for desertion by his superiors and he decided to return to his unit. “It was a mistake, I should have tried harder to leave,” he said.

Soon, his unit was driven to occupied Melitopol, where he would be stationed for most of the next three months.

Yefremov’s account was first reported by the BBC on Thursday.

Yefremov told the Guardian he personally witnessed how his superiors tortured three Ukrainian soldiers captured in the town of Bilmak, to the north-east of Melitopol, in April. “During interrogations, they were beaten for a whole week, every day, sometimes even at night,” he said.

According to Yefremov, his commanders took particular interest in one of the three soldiers who identified himself as a sniper in the Ukrainian army. “When they found out he was a sniper, they flipped. They would beat him with a wooden bat, eventually shooting him in his arm and leg.”

He said that they also pulled the sniper’s trousers down and threatened to rape him with a mop as well as bring in another Russian soldier who would rape him. “They said that they would film everything and send the video to the sniper’s girlfriend,” Yefremov said.

The Guardian was unable to independently confirm Yefremov’s allegations of torture. However, they fit with reports from international human rights specialists on the treatment of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians in detention, including reports of severe beatings and sexual violence.

Yefremov said that during his time serving in occupied Zaporizhzhia, he also saw Russian soldiers looting “everything from cans of food to washing machines and bicycles”, corroborating other accounts of widespread looting by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

He said that on 23 May he managed to leave his unit, and resigned from the army.

The BBC verified photographic evidence provided by Yefremov that showed him in the Zaporizhzhia region, including the city of Melitopol, and reviewed documents that supported his account of leaving the Russian armed forces.

After leaving the Russian armed forces, Yefremov said he struggled to find a job and feared he would be sent to Ukraine after Putin announced a nationwide mobilisation drive in September.

“I was denounced as a traitor because I didn’t want to be part of this terrible war, [but] I knew that as someone with experience, they will try to make me go back to Ukraine.”

He said decided to escape and contacted the human rights group, which helped him leave Russia. He now hopes to be able to testify about the things he witnessed in Ukraine.

Most of all, he said, he was sorry for fighting in Ukraine. “I apologise profusely to the entire Ukrainian people for coming to their home with a gun,” he said. “I should have chosen prison over going to Ukraine, but at that moment I was a coward.

“Thank God I didn’t hurt anyone. I didn’t kill anyone.”

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