230 Ukrainians returned home from Russian captivity on 3 January in what was the largest single prisoner exchange since the start of the Russian invasion almost two years ago. The freed Ukrainians included members of the armed forces and border guard along with civilians. Some had been held by Russia since the early stages of the invasion.

The exchange was mediated by the United Arab Emirates. It was the first prisoner swap since August 2023, with Ukrainian officials blaming Russia for the extended pause in POW exchanges. Both sides are believed to currently hold thousands of prisoners.

News of the exchange was warmly welcomed by Ukrainians. “Our people are home,” wrote Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a social media post. “Today, we returned over 200 warriors and civilians from Russian captivity. Soldiers, sergeants, and officers. Armed Forces, National Guard, Navy, and Border Guards. Some of the defenders fought in Mariupol and Azovstal. I thank everyone who, despite all difficulties, bring our people home. I am grateful to our defenders. We are making every effort to return all of our people who are still in Russian captivity.”

There are grave concerns over the welfare of Ukrainians still being held in Russia amid widespread reports of torture and other human rights abuses. Most of the Ukrainians released on 3 January recounted being tortured by their Russian captors. In a September 2023 statement, UN Special Rapporteur Alice Jill Edwards said the torture of Ukrainian POWs in Russian prisons appeared to be “neither random nor incidental, but rather orchestrated as part of a State policy.”

The UN torture expert gathered harrowing testimonies involving electric charges being applied to ears and genitals, beatings of all kinds, mock executions at gunpoint, simulated drowning, being required to hold stress positions, threats of rape or death, and various ceremonies of ridicule and humiliation.

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