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Opinion There should be no impunity for Russia’s slaughter of POWs

Relatives and friends of defenders of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol hold a rally on Aug. 7 demanding to recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism after killing Ukrainian prisoners of war. (Mykola Synelnykov/Reuters)

It has been more than a week since an explosion and fire tore through a prison barracks in Russian-held Ukraine, killing at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war and injuring dozens more.

This horrific event on July 29 led immediately to dueling accusations as Ukraine and Russia blamed each other. With each passing day, however, evidence — direct and circumstantial — mounts that this was, indeed, a premeditated massacre by Russia. As such, it would rank as one of the worst war crimes yet, in a war marked by the atrocity with which Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops have waged it. There must be an investigation, followed by full accountability for the perpetrators, lest international law on treatment of prisoners of war become another casualty of Mr. Putin’s aggression.

Most of the soldiers held at the Olenivka prison site are members of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment who surrendered after fighting for weeks from a last redoubt in the city of Mariupol. Their status as ex-combatants entitles them to all the protections of the 1949 Geneva Convention. Arguably, the mere fact that Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists were holding them at Olenivka, just about 12 miles from the front line, violates the provision which reads: “Prisoners of war shall be evacuated, as soon as possible after their capture, to camps situated in an area far enough from the combat zone for them to be out of danger.” Thus, Russia and its allies would be at fault even if one believes their version of events: Ukraine targeted the prison with rocket fire from a U.S.-provided HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) system, supposedly to keep the POWs from disclosing secret information or Ukrainian war crimes.

And the Russian story is highly dubious: It does not explain how Ukraine’s army could know the Azov soldiers would have been in the particular building when they purportedly fired at it. Nor does it square with the analysis of experts, consulted by The Post, who noted that damage depicted in photos of the site is inconsistent with a rocket attack.

Far more plausible is Ukraine’s allegation that Russia targeted the POWs for annihilation, for two reasons: to take revenge on the Azov unit for waging ferocious resistance at Mariupol and to prevent POWs from reporting the torture to which they have been subjected at Olenivka, also in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Prisoners had been newly moved to the targeted barracks; satellite photos show fresh excavations on nearby grounds shortly before the explosion, as though those in charge were preparing mass graves. Within hours of the incident, the Russian Embassy in London tweeted a supposed quotation from purported Mariupol residents: “Azov militants deserve execution, but death not by firing squad but by hanging, because they’re not real soldiers. They deserve a humiliating death.”

Small wonder that the International Committee of the Red Cross, the neutral body that monitors compliance with the Geneva Conventions, has not had access to Olenivka since May 20, despite requesting a visit and offering aid immediately after news of the July 29 explosion broke. The secretary-general of the United Nations has announced a fact-finding mission. The truth must come out. Russia has already shredded key post-World War II rules against instigating aggressive war. It cannot be allowed to destroy restraints on the conduct of war, too.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

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