Ukraine: People accused of looting tied to poles, stripped and beaten
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Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, videos shared on social networks and in local media outlets have shown disturbing scenes: people tied to poles in the street, sometimes stripped of their clothing and beaten. These incidents have occurred all around the country, often as punishment for people accused of theft. While a part of the population accepts this practice – and some authorities even encourage it – local human rights associations condemn it as "illegal and unacceptable".
Warning: The images in this article may be disturbing for some readers
The videos show people tied, with cling film or tape, to poles and trees in the streets. They are often alone, but sometimes two or three people are tied up together. Some have messages written on pieces of paper attached to them. Some have their trousers removed. Some are beaten.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to pinpoint 17 videos showing scenes like these. They took place in medium and large-sized cities throughout Ukraine: Kyiv, Irpin (Kyiv oblast), Dnipro, Kryvyi Rih, Kamianske (Dnipropetrovsk oblast), Poltava, Melitopol (Zaporijia oblast), Kharkiv, Kherson, Kakhovka (Kherson oblast), and Dubno (Rivne oblast).
Each of these videos was published in March. While we were unable to confirm the exact dates that these incidents took place, they appear to be recent, as there is no trace of them prior to the Russian invasion which began on February 24.
Why were these people humiliated in the middle of the street?
Many of these people were put in this situation after they were accused of looting homes or abandoned stores. Often, they are identified with a paper taped to them which reads "мародер", or "marauder".
Video shot in Poltava (geolocation here) and published in mid-March: a man is taped to a pole, with a piece of paper that reads "marauder".
Photos taken in Kakhovka (geolocation here), and published in mid-March: two men are tied to poles with the message, "I am a marauder".
In some of the videos, we can hear passers-by reproaching the bound person for looting.
Video shot in Kyiv (geolocation here) and published in mid-March: a man ties a person to a tree, before pulling down his trousers and beating him. People can be heard commenting, "Is he a saboteur? No, he's a looter".
Video shot in Kamianske (geolocation here) and published in mid-March, showing a man taped to a tree. You can hear someone say, "This loser wanted to steal a portable Bluetooth speaker".
Plus, they are often accused of theft in the captions accompanying the videos when they're posted on Twitter and Telegram, or in local media.
But not all of them show people accused of looting. For example, the video below, shot in Doubno, shows a man being punished because he was allegedly selling alcohol, even though it's illegal under martial law. The sign hanging on him says, "I sell alcohol during martial law".
Video shot in Doubno (geolocation here) and published in mid-March: a man is tied to a pole, with a sign saying "I sell alcohol during martial law".
Who is behind these public punishments?
Out of the 17 videos our team analysed, we only found nine instances where we can see someone tying up an accused thief. Sometimes, they appear to be ordinary citizens while others – carrying weapons or wearing military fatigues, blue or yellow armbands or badges – may be members of Ukraine's security forces.
For example, the video below, shot in Irpin, shows two men in military uniforms and yellow armbands. They attach a person to a street sign, place a potato in his mouth and then pull down his trousers. A third person in military fatigues and a helmet is present, as well as two other people tied to poles.
Still, it's difficult to confirm exactly who these men are. A photographer who witnessed the scene said they were Ukrainian soldiers, however, and a journalist said they were members of the Azov Regiment.
Video shot in Irpin (geolocation here) on March 12: Men in military fatigues humiliate three people accused of looting.
Video shot in Poltava (geolocation here), and published on March 2: again, two men, wearing yellow armbands and badges, stand next to a man tied to a pole and accused of being a "marauder".
Taras, a resident of Kyiv, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that he believes the punishments are carried out by "all kinds of people: security guards, territorial defence forces, bystanders, concerned citizens."
Citizen policing in wartime
It's likely that this type of public humiliation is being inflicted by ordinary civilians or by security forces, spontaneously – without any kind of official order. Several sources shared this presumption with the FRANCE 24 Observers team.
Taras told us:
We can't tolerate looting at a time when thousands of people are losing their homes and many more are hiding in bomb shelters, many without much water and food. What’s more, in wartime, traditional law enforcement has more important things to do, and you can’t have trials in a country that is fighting for its survival. That’s why people take matters into their own hands. It's a socially acceptable form of self-organization in times of emergency, as long as no bodily harm is done.
But, on several occasions, Ukrainian authorities have expressed their explicit support for this type of punishment. As early as March 1, Oleksiy Biloshitsky, deputy chief of the patrol police department, posted photos of people tied to poles on his Facebook page, adding that it was "unacceptable" to steal during wartime.
"All thieves will be arrested, but also defamed and punished," he said in his post, shared on the national police's Facebook page.
Plus, on March 21, Vadym Denysenko, advisor to the interior minister, said: "I don't think that tying up and stripped a robber is considered wild in times of war." He also pointed out that the police couldn't respond to each and every call at the moment, and that this type of punishment was a better deterrent for thieves than "the threat of criminal punishment".
Several mayors in Ukraine have threatened looters, although without specifically referring to the public humiliation seen in these videos.
On March 11, Oleksandr Markushyn, the mayor of Irpin, said: "Anyone who tries to steal from a shop or a house in Irpin will be severely punished!"
March 2, Oleksandr Mamai, the mayor of Poltava, said that "severe punishments" were "allowed" for looters. In late February, he even warned that weapons could be used against looters under martial law.
Harsher sentences for looting
The Ukrainian parliament amended the criminal code to increase prison sentences for theft under martial law in early March. The measure was justified by the fact that looting had become "widespread" and civilians were pushed to "administer justice" themselves in the face of weak criminal consequences. But the amendment says nothing about public humiliation or shooting looters.
Tetiana Pechonchyk, head of the Ukrainian human rights NGO ZMINA, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team: "It is legal for citizens to detain and immobilise potential looters before the police arrive. But ill-treatment and torture are illegal, even under martial law." ZMINA and other NGOs said in a joint statement: "Attempts by local communities to stop criminals on their own are an understandable and justified decision, but the perpetrators must be immediately handed over to the appropriate law enforcement agencies."
Tying a person to a pole as punishment is not new in Ukraine in times of crisis. Since at least 2014, photos and videos showing similar acts have been shared online. For example, this customs officer was bound to a pole after being accused of corruption in February 2014 in Zakarpattia oblast. A woman named Iryna Dovhan was similarly punished by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk in August 2014 for supporting the Ukrainian army.