Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Russia Wednesday to stop forcibly deporting Ukrainians captured in the Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine for a "filtration" process, and to return those already taken in what the U.S. considers a "war crime."
"On the eve of the Ukraine Accountability Conference, the United States calls on Russia to immediately halt its systematic 'filtration' operations and forced deportations in Russian-controlled and held areas of Ukraine," Blinken said in a statement Wednesday. "The unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians and is a war crime.
"Russian authorities must release those detained and allow Ukrainian citizens forcibly removed or coerced into leaving their country the ability to [return home promptly and safely]."
Witnesses in the city of Mariupol, in the disputed eastern region of Ukraine, told The Guardian in April that invading Russian forces captured Ukrainian citizens and took them to "filtration camps" before relocating them to Russia.
"On 15 March, Russian troops stormed into our bomb shelter and ordered all the women and children to get out. It was not a choice," one woman who had been hiding with her family in a suburb of Mariupol since early March told the news outlet. "People need to know the truth, that Ukrainians are being moved to Russia, the country that is occupying us."
According to the report at the time, "several thousand" Ukrainians were removed in this fashion.
In another April report from the BBC, Ukrainians accused Russian troops of mistreating and beating them as part of the deportation process.
"We were beaten with rifles, punched, and kicked," a Ukrainian bus driver identified only as "Volodymyr" told the BBC. "They blindfolded me and tied my hands with duct tape. They used Tasers and kept asking for information about the military."
He told the BBC that he was first held in the basement of a factory near the village of Kozarovychi, west of Kyiv, before being taken to Belarus, and eventually into a prison in Russia, where the mistreatment and "torture" continued.
"The torture continued. They humiliated us, made us kneel, and forced us into uncomfortable positions. If we looked into their eyes, we were beaten," he said in the article. "If we did something slowly, we were beaten. They treated us like animals."
Blinken said Wednesday that between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainians, including an estimated 260,000 children, have been forcibly deported to Russia as part of Russian military operations since the invasion began Feb. 24.
"Reports also indicate Russian authorities are deliberately separating Ukrainian children from their parents and abducting others from orphanages before putting them up for adoption inside Russia," Blinken said. "Eyewitnesses and survivors of 'filtration' operations, detentions, and forced deportations report frequent threats, harassment, and incidents of torture by Russian security forces."
Blinken said the United States, and its partners, "would not be silent" in these "systematic abuses" and demanded accountability for Russia and its President Vladimir Putin.
"Ukraine and its citizens deserve justice," Blinken said.
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