30 June 2022, 04:09 PM


Amnesty International releases new evidence on Russia's attack on Mariupol drama theater

In a new 72-page report published on June 30, Amnesty International has documented how the Russian military on March 16 likely deliberately bombed the Mariupol drama theater – despite knowing hundreds of civilians were sheltering there.

A Russian air strike destroyed the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theater in Mariupol, Ukraine, with a Russian tactical fighter aircraft most likely dropping two 500-kilogram bombs, Amnesty, the world's leading human rights organization, said in the report.

The report, titled "'Children': The Attack on the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theater in Mariupol," details the evidence Amnesty has collected to demonstrate that the attack was a clear war crime.

"The count is much smaller than previously reported"

Amnesty International collected and analyzed a range of evidence related to the attack on the theater, including 53 first-hand testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the attack and its aftermath, 28 of whom were inside or adjacent to the theater at the time of the attack; satellite imagery from immediately before and shortly after the attack; radar data from before and after the attack; authenticated photographic and video material provided by survivors and witnesses; two sets of architectural plans; and open-source information.

"After months of rigorous investigation, analysis of satellite imagery and interviews with dozens of witnesses, we concluded that the strike was a clear war crime committed by Russian forces," said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International's secretary general.

"Many people were injured and killed in this merciless attack. Their deaths were likely caused by Russian forces deliberately targeting Ukrainian civilians. The International Criminal Court, and all others with jurisdiction over crimes committed during this conflict, must investigate this attack as a war crime."

It is unclear precisely how many people were killed, but it is likely that the count is much smaller than previously reported. In the immediate wake of the attack, the Mariupol City Council claimed that about 300 people were killed. A subsequent investigation by the Associated Press concluded that as many as 600 may have died.

Evidence gathered by Amnesty International indicates that a large number of residents left the theater shortly before the attack, including on March 14 and 15, when the "green corridors" opened. And most of those who remained in the theater had the opportunity to stay in safer parts of the building, including in front of the theater and the basement, which were protected from direct explosion. On the other hand, a small number of people who were in the field kitchen outside and directly on the stage and in the front rows were likely to be seriously injured and killed.

To quantify the explosive power of the ordnance likely used in the attack, Amnesty International asked a physicist to design a mathematical model of the detonation. Using a Jarret Curve analysis, a method routinely used in post-blast analyses, the expert's model found that "the minimum yield of the explosion ranges from about 400-800 kg TNT equivalent."

To determine what aerial bombs in the Russian arsenal contained 400-800kg NEW, as determined in the mathematical model, Amnesty International conducted an open-source analysis of digital content and found that the vast majority of weapons employed by Russian tactical fighter aircraft during the war in Ukraine were 500kg bombs. Significantly, no evidence of the actual employment (that is, duds or identified fragments) of aerial bombs over 500kg was found, making it unlikely that a single larger weapon was used. In the current conflict, Russian has employed several varieties of 500kg aircraft bombs, including FAB-500 M54s (NEW of 220kg), FAB-500 M62s (NEW of 300kg), and OFAB-500s (NEW of 230kg). The weapons used in this case are most likely two 500kg bombs, a pair of the same model, which would yield a total NEW of 440–600kg, within the scope of the mathematical model.

The most likely Russian aircraft to have conducted the strike on the theater are multi-role fighters, such as the Su-25, Su-30, or Su-34, which are based at nearby Russian airfields and were frequently operating over southern Ukraine.

Amnesty International examined several alternative theories about who perpetrated the attack and which weapons were used. The investigation found no credible evidence to support other possible explanations, including an attack by Ukrainian forces using bombs or ballistic missiles, or by either party to the conflict using lighter weapons, such as rocket artillery. Moreover, the investigation found no convincing evidence to support the explanation put forward by the Russian Federation's Ministry of Defense that the attack was a "false flag" operation by the Ukrainian forces' Azov Regiment, which it claimed purposefully destroyed the building from within.

The evidence strongly suggests that the drama theater was the intended target of the attack by Russian forces.

I couldn't believe my eyes’

From the start of the war on Feb. 24 until it was destroyed, the theater served as a haven for civilians fleeing violence in other parts of the city; a hub for the distribution of food, water, and critical information about desperately awaited evacuation corridors; and a designated gathering point for the expected evacuations. The theater was a large distinctive building and a cultural landmark. It was also the lone large building in the center of a big park, surrounded by approximately 100m of green space that is encircled by a wide road.

Local people had written the giant Cyrillic letters "Deti" (Russian for "children") on forecourts on either side of the building, which would have been clearly visible to Russian pilots and was also visible on satellite imagery.

Nevertheless, Russian bombs struck the theater shortly after 10 a.m. on March 16, producing a large explosion which caused the roof and huge portions of two main walls to collapse. At the time of the attack, hundreds of civilians were in and around the theater.

The bombs destroyed the adjacent interior walls along the sides of the performance space, and then breached the exterior load-bearing walls, creating two main debris fields on the building’s north-eastern and south-western sides. Both debris fields are visible on satellite imagery taken minutes after the strike.

"It all happened in front of our eyes. We were 200 or 300 meters away (when) the explosion happened … I could hear a plane and the sound of bombs dropping. Then we saw the roof (of the theater) rise up," Igor Moroz, a 50-year-old architect who was nearby when the theater was hit, told Amnesty.

"I was walking down the street leading to the drama theater … I could hear the noise of a plane … but at that time I didn't really pay attention because (planes) were constantly flying around… I saw the roof of the building explode … It jumped 20 meters and then collapsed … then I saw a lot of smoke and rubble… I couldn't believe my eyes because the theater was a sanctuary. There were two big 'children' signs," said Gregory Golovniov, a 51-year-old businessman.

Vitaliy Kontarov, a 48-year-old lorry driver who was also close to the theater at the time of the attack, told Amnesty: "We heard planes … I saw two missiles fire from one plane towards the theater."

Everything changed in a second’

Interviewees provided Amnesty with the full names of four people who were killed: Mykhailo Hrebenstskii, Luba Sviridova, Yelena Kuznetsova and Igor Chystiakov. They also gave the first names of three other people they believe were killed. Several survivors and other witnesses reported seeing dead bodies they could not identify, and it is likely that many fatalities remain unreported.

In addition, Amnesty conducted a comprehensive analysis of open source data, traditional media reported three victims, and three more were reported in posts on social networks. Thus, Amnesty gathered evidence of at least 12 deaths, although many bodies remain unidentified.

A teenager who was sheltering in the basement with her boyfriend and her mother when the bombs struck, told Amnesty: "In a second, everything changed. Everything jumped up … People started screaming. It was full of dust … I saw people bleeding. We grabbed our documents and left … Some people were not as lucky."

Yehven Hrebenstskii, who found the body of his father Mykhailo inside the concert hall, told Amnesty: "There were many injured people … There were police trying to pull people out of the rubble … At first, I saw his (Mykhailo's) arm. First, I saw a familiar hand. You know the hand of your loved ones. His face was covered with blood. His body was covered with bricks … I didn't want my mum to see."

Dmytro Symonenko, who was with Luba Sviridova moments before she died from her injuries, told Amnesty: "She was severely injured. She managed to crawl from the rubble … she asked us to remember her name, because she felt she was dying."

Many other interviewees told Amnesty they had seen bloodied bodies and dismembered body parts in the rubble of the devastated building.

Targeted attack on civilians

A cardinal principle of International humanitarian law is that parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and civilian objects on the one hand and members of the military and military objectives on the other hand. Military objectives can be targeted; it is illegal to target civilians or civilian objects.

Prior to any attack, members of the military are required to take precautionary steps to ensure that they are reasonably certain they are not targeting civilians or civilian objects.

"None of the 28 survivors of the attack interviewed by Amnesty International, or any of the other witnesses present at or around the theater on the day of the attack, provided any information indicating that the Ukrainian military was using the theater as a base of operations, a place to store weapons, or a place from which to launch attacks," the report says.

"The evidently civilian character of the theater and the absence of any legitimate military objective in or near the theater (particularly one requiring such a large payload) indicate that Russian forces most likely intentionally targeted the theater knowing it was a civilian object."

So, Russian forces most likely intentionally targeted the theater knowing it was a civilian object, which is a war crime, Amnesty said.

"Many people were injured and killed in this merciless attack. Their deaths were likely caused by Russian forces deliberately targeting Ukrainian civilians," Callamard said.

"Through the air and on the ground, Russian forces have been on a well-documented and deliberate killing spree of civilians in Ukraine. Thorough investigations are urgently needed in order to hold perpetrators accountable for the serious injury and loss of civilian life they caused, as well as for the extensive damage to civilian infrastructure."

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