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Ukraine announces first war crimes trial of Russian soldier in custody

A woman mourns by her son's grave at a cemetery in Bucha, Ukraine, last month. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)
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Ukraine’s prosecutor general said Wednesday that the country would try a 21-year-old Russian soldier who is in custody, adding that he would be the first Russian service member to stand trial there on a war crimes charge in the 11-week conflict.

The prosecutor’s statement accused Vadim Shishimarin of firing several shots with a Kalashnikov rifle from a car, killing an unarmed 62-year-old resident in a village in the Sumy region of northeastern Ukraine on Feb. 28. It said the man was pushing a bike by the side of a road before he was shot in the head and “died on the spot a few dozen meters from his home.”

The prosecutor’s office said that Ukrainian investigators collected evidence of the soldier’s involvement, finding him “in violation of the laws and customs of war combined with premeditated murder,” and that the crime can carry a penalty of 10 to 15 years or life in prison. The statement did not provide details on the nature of the evidence or how the Russian soldier ended up in Ukrainian custody.

“Shishimarin is actually physically in Ukraine,” Iryna Venediktova, the prosecutor general, told Ukraine’s public broadcaster. “We are starting a trial not in absentia but rather directly with the person who killed a civilian, and this is a war crime.”

A video posted to YouTube by Ukrainian video blogger Volodymyr Zolkin on March 19 appears to show Zolkin interviewing Shishimarin. Zolkin has become famous for his on-camera interviews with Russian prisoners of war in recent months, in which he connects the captured Russians to their families back home.

In the clip, Shishimarin says that he consents to being filmed, before describing how his unit was told that it would be taking part in military exercises and sent to Voronezh, a city in southwestern Russia about 200 miles from the Ukrainian border, in January. He tells Zolkin he was later captured in Ukraine when his column was surrounded as they tried to take their wounded soldiers back to Russia.

The video shows Shishimarin calling his father, as Zolkin looks on, to tell him he had been taken prisoner. “They treat us well here,” Shishimarin says, adding that he expected that there would be eventual talks to organize a prisoner exchange.

“He is just a soldier. I don’t think he knew where he was going,” the father tells Zolkin about his son. “You say he invaded, and we are told that they were defending the country. He didn’t know. He was told to. You hear one thing and we another.”

Shishimarin later dials his mother, who describes tighter restrictions in Russia on access to information about the war and asks why Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent “our children” to fight.

The Washington Post was unable to independently verify the video.

What are war crimes, and is Russia committing them in Ukraine?

Ukrainian authorities have pushed ahead with efforts to investigate alleged war crimes by Russian forces across the country, even with significant hurdles in the way of holding senior officials of a world power to account, and Kyiv has acknowledged that it might be difficult to bring perpetrators to justice during a raging war.

There is little international precedent in recent decades for putting captured soldiers on trial for war crimes, and it is even rarer to do so in the middle of a conflict, according to Robert Goldman, a war crimes and human rights expert at American University’s Washington College of Law.

The advantage of holding a trial now rather than at the end of the war, he said, is that access to fresh evidence, including eyewitness testimonies, can bolster a case. “The evidence is very fresh in Ukraine, and it’s being gathered very professionally, from what I have seen,” Goldman said.

It is often more feasible to prosecute individual soldiers than commanders or top officials, who can much more easily evade capture.

“What’s going on in Ukraine is really horrific,” Goldman said. “There are a lot of atrocity crimes. So even though you have to start with the foot soldier who does it, it’s better than to have no accountability at all.” Trying a string of low-level combatants can also help establish a pattern of unlawful behavior that could implicate senior commanders, he said.

Venediktova said her office has opened more than 5,000 cases linked to war crimes and crimes of aggression since the invasion began. Last month, prosecutors filed their first charges, in absentia, in Ukrainian courts against 10 Russian service members they accused of war crimes in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, where investigators uncovered evidence of torture and mutilation after Russian forces retreated. Moscow has dismissed the accusations.

Two cases related to the bombardment of civilian infrastructure and houses are already in court, Venediktova told the broadcaster.

Ukraine names 10 Russians it accuses of war crimes in Bucha

The term “war crimes” refers to violations of international law governing conduct in combat and during occupation. Crimes include the deliberate targeting of civilians, as well as attacks on hospitals, schools and historic monuments.

Ukrainian authorities have the primary responsibility to investigate and prosecute alleged violations of international law committed on Ukrainian territory, experts say, although that requires a functional Ukrainian justice system. Other avenues for prosecution include the International Criminal Court and European courts.

The United States and the European Union are assisting Ukrainian prosecutors, including by providing advice on how to put together a war crimes case and interview prisoners of war.

Ukraine puts captured Russians on stage. It’s a powerful propaganda tool, but is it a violation of POW rights?

Prisoners of war cannot be prosecuted simply for taking part in armed conflict, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch. The detaining power may prosecute them for possible war crimes, however. Goldman said it is lawful for Ukrainian prosecutors to try Shishimarin on these charges.

Prisoners of war are entitled to legal protections, including the right to a trial by an independent and impartial court. Ukraine is also party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides stronger due-process guarantees that Ukraine should follow in this context, Goldman said. Ukraine will probably “play it by the book,” he added, since this trial and those that follow will come under intense international scrutiny.

But the video interview with Zolkin, as well other footage of captured Russian soldiers, has raised concerns that Ukraine might be violating international law. An article in the Geneva Conventions, which govern the rules of war, says prisoners of war must be protected from “acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” Ukraine has said it is following the rules.

“What is somewhat troubling is a prisoner of war should not be filmed, should not be exposed to any kind of pretrial publicity — marching them, filming them,” Goldman said. “There are long-standing prohibitions against this, and they would be well advised, the Ukrainians, not to expose the person to a lot of pretrial adverse publicity.”

The video clip from March concludes with Shishimarin urging Russians to protest rather than join the war.

“Those who are still in Russia, run, don’t come here,” he says. “They won’t put all of you in jail.”

Robyn Dixon and Amar Nadhir contributed to this report.