The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russian soldiers get prison terms in second Ukraine war crimes trial

Russian soldiers Alexander Bobikin and Alexander Ivanov leave the courtroom after a hearing in Kotelva, Ukraine, on May 26. (Bernat Armangue/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

A Ukrainian court found two Russian soldiers guilty of “violating the laws and customs of war” on Tuesday and sentenced them to 11½ years in prison — the second verdict handed down in a Ukrainian war crimes trial held during the conflict.

The sentencing came as Ukraine’s chief prosecutor announced that Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia would become the newest members of a multinational investigation team, gathering and exchanging evidence in an effort to hold Russia accountable.

The two soldiers convicted Tuesday are in Ukrainian custody, and they stood trial in the Poltava region. Prosecutors accused them of shelling civilian sites in a town in the eastern Kharkiv region. The shelling destroyed an educational facility but left no casualties, prosecutors said. Alexander Bobikin and Alexander Ivanov pleaded guilty last week.

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

The verdict followed another last week in Kyiv, where a court found a 21-year-old Russian soldier guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. The soldier, Vadim Shishimarin, had pleaded guilty to killing a 62-year-old civilian in Ukraine’s northeastern Sumy region early in the war. His lawyer said he intends to appeal.

Tens of thousands of investigators have fanned out across Ukraine to gather evidence. Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said Tuesday that her office receives 200 to 300 new war crimes cases each day, for a total of 15,000 so far. It has identified nearly 80 suspects.

Prosecutors and investigators around the world have lent their expertise to Ukrainian authorities and begun preparing cases for prosecution in courts elsewhere in Europe. Countries including France, Lithuania and the Netherlands dispatched investigators to Ukraine. The International Criminal Court, which opened a probe into violations of international law on both sides of the conflict, sent a team of 42, its largest-ever deployment.

Experts describe the slew of investigations as unprecedented in both scale and speed, unfolding even as the war rages. The timing allows investigators to access fresh evidence, but fighting and Russian occupation has impeded access.

The scale of the efforts has raised concerns about duplication and overlap, which the joint investigation team — created in March and initially including Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland, is meant to address. The ICC last month joined the effort, which Eurojust, the European Union’s criminal justice agency, is coordinating.

The E.U. recently approved rules allowing the agency to store evidence related to war crimes and share it with judicial authorities. Eurojust, which will receive additional funds from the E.U., is also providing financial support to the joint investigation, said the agency’s president, Ladislav Hamran.

The ICC is working toward opening an office in Kyiv, prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan told reporters.

Venediktova expressed gratitude for the assistance. She asked for more equipment and laboratory capacity for DNA analysis.

At a news conference in The Hague, Venediktova said that she hopes the joint investigation will become a model.

Some legal experts have raised concerns about the proceedings in Ukraine’s first trials, however.

Under international law, prisoners of war cannot be tried for their participation in a conflict, though they can be prosecuted for war crimes. POWs must be treated humanely and have the right to a competent lawyer and fair trial.

Russian soldier gets life in prison in Ukraine’s initial war crimes trial

Robert Goldman, a war crimes and human rights expert at American University’s Washington College of Law, said the first two trials in Ukraine have been noticeably fast, and that Shishimarin’s life sentence, harsh beyond the typical confines of European jurisprudence, appeared to mean the court was “holding him responsible” for the broader conflict.

Shelling a civilian target, for which the other two soldiers were prosecuted, can be complicated to prove, he said. To count as a war crime, prosecutors must show that the defendants deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure or launched a disproportionate attack with disregard for the civilian impact.

“Again you’ve got in a matter of days people who are tried and convicted for a very serious crime, which is a war crime,” Goldman said. “I have very real questions about the conduct of the trial and the adequacy of the defense.”

The defense said Bobikin and Ivanov had been following orders and appealed for leniency, according to Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne. Prosecutors had asked for 12 years, Reuters reported.

Venediktova also announced Tuesday that a Russian service member charged with rape will be tried in absentia in Ukraine. Mikhail Romanov is accused of killing an unarmed civilian and, with an accomplice, repeatedly raping the man’s wife and threatening to shoot the victim and her child.

Trials in absentia have occurred in the past, Goldman said, and typically defendants are retried if captured. But in this case and others, they raised concerns about fairness.

“There’s a real problem of trying someone for a crime where they can’t really mount a defense,” he said.

Moscow and Russian-backed separatists, now holding hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered in Mariupol, have indicated that they intend to put Ukrainians on trial for war crimes as well. The Russian justice system remains highly politicized and legal experts said it is unlikely the prisoners would get a fair trial.

Russian soldiers convicted in Ukraine could be included in a prisoner swap. Venediktova said Tuesday that Ukraine has “technical possibilities to exchange people,” though this does not fall under the purview of her office.

Andrew Jeong contributed to this report.