KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A 21-year-old Russian soldier stood trial in Kyiv on Friday for the murder of an unarmed Ukrainian civilian, marking the first war crime prosecution of a member of the Russian military after 11 weeks of bloodshed in Ukraine.
The soldier, a captured member of a tank unit, is accused of shooting a 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through an open car window in the northeast village of Chupakhivka during the first war days.
Dozens of reporters and cameras crammed into a small courtroom at Solomyanskyy District Court in the Ukrainian capital, where the suspect, Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin, seated in a glassed-in area wearing a blue and gray hoodie, sweatpants and a shaved head.
He faces life in prison under an article of Ukraine’s criminal code that deals with the laws and customs of war. Ukraine’s Supreme Prosecutor, with the help of foreign experts, is investigating allegations that Russian troops violated Ukrainian and international law by killing, torturing and ill-treating possibly thousands of Ukrainian civilians.
Friday’s hearing in the Shyshimarin case was brief. A judge asked him to provide his name, address, marital status and other identifying details. He was also asked if he understood his rights, quietly replying “yes”, and if he wanted a jury trial, which he declined.
Judges and lawyers discussed procedural matters before the judges left the courtroom, then returned to say the case would continue on May 18.
Defense attorney Victor Ovsyanikov acknowledged the case against the soldier was strong, but said the court would make the final decision on what evidence to allow. Ovsyanikov said Thursday that he and his client have not yet decided how he will plead.
After Friday’s hearing, Ovsyannikov said he was assigned to defend Shishimarin as a lawyer for the Free Legal Aid Center. His client “certainly knows all the details” of what he is accused of, Ovsyannikov said. The lawyer did not want to detail his defense strategy.
As Ukraine’s first war crimes case, the prosecution of Shyshimarin is being closely watched. Investigators have gathered evidence of possible war crimes to bring before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Attorney General Iryna Venediktova’s office said it was investigating more than 10,700 potential war crimes involving more than 600 suspects, including Russian soldiers and government officials.
Numerous alleged atrocities came to light last month after Moscow forces ended their attempt to capture kyiv and withdrew from the capital, exposing mass graves and streets and yards littered with bodies in cities like Bucha.
Volodymyr Yavorskyy, coordinator of the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, said activists will monitor the Russian soldier’s trial to ensure his legal rights are protected. It can be difficult, he said, to maintain the neutrality of judicial proceedings in times of war.
“It is surprising that a war crimes suspect has been found and that his trial is taking place. Charges like this are usually made in absentia,” he said. “This is a rare case where, in a short time, we managed to find a soldier who violated the international rules of war.”
Russia is believed to be preparing similar trials for Ukrainian soldiers, Yavorskyy said. Asked about the Shyshimarin case on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “I have no information about this trial and this incident.”
Last week, Attorney General Venediktova, her office and the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s law enforcement agency, posted on social media some details of the investigation into Shyshimarin’s alleged actions.
On February 28, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Shyshimarin was among a group of Russian soldiers who fled Ukrainian forces, according to Venediktova’s Facebook account. The Russians reportedly fired on a private car and seized the vehicle, then drove to Chupakhivka, a village about 200 miles east of kyiv.
Along the way, according to the prosecutor general, the Russian soldiers saw a man walking on the sidewalk and talking on the phone. Shyshimarin was ordered to kill the man so he could not report them to Ukrainian military authorities. Venediktova did not identify who gave the order.
Shyshimarin fired his Kalashnikov through the open window and hit the victim in the head.
“The man died on the spot a few dozen meters from his house,” Venediktova wrote.
Ukraine’s Security Service, known as the SBU, released a short video May 4 of Shyshimarin speaking on camera and briefly describing how he shot the man. The SBU described the video as “one of the first confessions by enemy invaders”.
“I was ordered to shoot,” Shyshimarin said. “I fired a (shot) at him. He falls. And we kept going.”
Vadim Karasev, an independent political analyst based in Kyiv, said it was important for the Ukrainian authorities “to demonstrate that war crimes will be solved and those responsible will be brought to justice in accordance with international standards”.
While the speed with which Shyshimarin was brought to trial is unusual for a nation at war, the case is not without precedent.
A Bosnian Serb soldier, Borislav Herak, was imprisoned by Bosnian army soldiers in November 1992 after he inadvertently wandered away from Serb-held territory. During his three-week interrogation and trial in March 1993, he confessed to 35 murders and 14 rapes, and was eventually found guilty of genocide and crimes against civilians.
Herak was sentenced to death. His original death sentence was reduced to 20 years in prison after Bosnia abolished the death penalty.
Senad Kreho, who served as president of a district military court in Sarajevo in 1993, said Friday that trying war crimes suspects while fighting continues does not mean the justice system will not function properly.
“Numerous subsequent reviews of (Herak’s) case by international and domestic legal experts have concluded that he received a fair trial,” Kreho said.
“The only change is that his sentence was reduced, but he served it in full,” he added.
The 1992-95 war in Bosnia, which pitted its main ethnic communities – Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs – against each other killed 100,000 people, mostly civilians, and more than 2 million, more than half of the country’s population. country, were driven from their homes.
Lardner reported from Washington. Sabina Niksic in Sarayevo, Bosnia contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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