Moscow questions prisoner swap; soldier pleads guilty to murder

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kyiv is hoping for a prisoner swap to bring home fighters who have long held their ground at Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, a final stand before Russia finalized its capture of the city this week in a negotiated surrender. . But Russian officials cast doubt on Wednesday about the possibility of a swap.

The push for a swap came when a 21-year-old Russian soldier in Ukrainian custody pleaded guilty to killing a civilian before a kyiv court on Wednesday during the first trial on war crimes charges in the conflict, according to the broadcaster. ​Ukrainian public company Suspilne.

Russia said nearly 1,000 Ukrainian fighters had so far left the plant in Mariupol. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the claim. At least 260 fighters, many seriously wounded and stretched out on stretchers, ended their weeks-long defense of the besieged facility on Monday when kyiv announced the end of the battle there.

While Ukraine said sensitive evacuation talks were taking place, uncertainty hung over the fate of the fighters. Details about the terms of their surrender remained secret, but Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said they would be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war once “their condition stabilizes.”

The bloody battle for Mariupol ends; Azovstal fighters evacuated

It is not clear how many yet remain at the plant, which provided sanctuary for Ukrainian forces, including the Azov Regiment, a militia with far-right ties. Ukrainian authorities earlier said there were about 1,000 fighters inside. The civilians were rescued under an earlier agreement.

A video shared by the Russian Defense Ministry on Wednesday appeared to show a column of Ukrainian fighters marching in Mariupol on a rubble-strewn road. Russian troops frisked them before they boarded the buses. Some of the Ukrainian soldiers appeared to be injured. The Post could not confirm the date the video was recorded.

Russia advanced on most of Mariupol for weeks after a prolonged siege and shelling. Port city ​​on the Sea of ​​Azov helps secure a strategic land bridge from the Russian border to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.

The Kremlin has called the departure of the fighters from Mariupol a victory. civilians who made it out of the plant this month recounted surviving the siege in a bunker with no sunlight, as food and water supplies dwindled.

Images uploaded by the Russian Defense Ministry on May 18 show Ukrainian fighters, some wounded, being searched and loaded onto buses by Russian troops. (Video: Russian Defense Ministry/Zvezda News via Storyful)

Prior to the evacuation, Moscow may have created expectations that Russian forces would destroy the outgunned Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, according to analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

On Wednesday, a separatist leader in eastern Ukraine, whose forces are fighting alongside Moscow, said a court should decide the fate of the fighters, including “those who appear to be nationalists,” according to a local news agency in the breakaway region. . He told reporters that there were plans to demolish the steel plant.

Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, also said that the highest-level Ukrainian commanders had not yet left the plant.

His comments came after pushback from some Russian officials about the possibility of a swap. In Moscow, the chairman of the Russian state Duma, or lower house, Vyacheslav Volodin said Tuesday that Ukrainian “Nazi criminals” should not be part of an exchange. Russian investigators said they would question the Ukrainian troops for alleged crimes. And Russian news agencies said the prosecutor general asked the country’s highest court to designate the Azov Regiment as a terrorist group. When the Kremlin presented the war in Ukraine as a quest to “de-Nazify” the country, it was referring in part to the Nationalist Azov Regiment.

Amnesty International warned on Tuesday that Russian characterizations of Ukrainian soldiers in the Mariupol area as “neo-Nazis” raise “serious concerns about their fate as prisoners of war.”

“Amnesty International has documented summary executions of captives by Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine,” the organization said in a statement. statement. “The soldiers who surrendered today should not suffer the same fate.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed that the treatment of the Mariupol fighters would be “consistent with the respective international laws.”

What happened in Mariupol, the city that Russia besieged and captured?

International law requires that prisoners of war be treated humanely and protected from violence, intimidation, insults and “public curiosity”. Once a conflict ends, prisoners must be quickly repatriated.

Russia is party to the Geneva Conventions, which establish those rules. Moscow does not accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, but the court has the authority to investigate and prosecute events taking place in Ukraine. Countries that have signed the Geneva Conventions have an obligation to try Russian officials in domestic courts if they violate the law on prisoners of war, according to Todd Buchwald, a law professor at George Washington University and a former bureau chief for the Department of Defense. Condition. of Global Criminal Justice.

Videos posted by the Russian Defense Ministry on its Telegram channel appear to show wounded soldiers at the hospital in Novoazovsk, a nearby city controlled by Russian-backed separatists where Russian authorities said dozens of wounded soldiers who evacuated the steel plant were taken. . In the videos, the men say in Russian that the doctors treat them well and examine them.

Putting prisoners of war on camera could violate international law. Human rights groups and legal experts criticized Ukraine earlier this spring for filming dead and captured Russian soldiers.

Prisoner exchanges provide a way to get detained soldiers home before the fighting ends. Russia and Ukraine have carried out several since the invasion began, including one this month that exchanged an unspecified number of Russian soldiers for 28 Ukrainian military personnel and 13 civilians in Russian custody, according to Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister.

Evacuees from the Mariupol steel plant describe the brutality of the long siege

As kyiv negotiated the fate of prisoners of war held by Russia, the first war crimes trial of the war began. Ukrainian prosecutors charged 21-year-old Vadim Shishimarin, a Russian soldier, with shooting and killing 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov in Ukraine’s northeastern Sumy region in the first week of the war. He is accused of violating “the laws and customs of war combined with premeditated murder,” for which he could face life in prison, Ukraine’s prosecutor general said.

The victim’s widow wiped away tears as Shishimarin was led into the courtroom in handcuffs on Wednesday, the BBC reported.

Shishimarin said he was following orders, but the prosecutor replied that the soldier who told him to kill Shelipov was not Shishimarin’s commander and that Shishimarin should have ignored him, according to the BBC. According to legal experts, acting under orders does not exempt lower-ranking soldiers from responsibility. However, a constellation of testimonies from lower-level fighters citing orders from higher levels in the chain of command could eventually buttress a case that top leaders are responsible for their actions.

While prisoners of war cannot be prosecuted for taking part in hostilities, it is legal to prosecute them for war crimes. But the political calculation for holding such trials can be tricky, said William Schabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, especially with Russia taking custody of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters from Mariupol.

The trial is expected to resume in kyiv on Thursday and Shishimarin could testify, Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said. A hearing in a second court case involving two Russian service members accused of shelling civilian objects in the Kharkiv region will also take place in the Poltava region on Thursday.

The International Criminal Court and the United Nations have launched their own investigations into possible war crimes and human rights abuses in Ukraine. The ICC said on Tuesday that it was sending its largest ever deployment of investigators, forensic experts and support staff to Ukraine. Other countries have offered to help efforts to prosecute Russian abuses.

Ukraine has opened more than 11,000 war crimes cases with 40 suspects, Iryna Venediktova, chief prosecutor, wrote on Twitter. Schabas said that the trials that are already underway indicate that the Ukrainian authorities are well positioned to handle these cases on a national level.

“There has been a lot of interest in international war crimes prosecutions, and what this seems to show is that Ukraine is capable of pursuing prosecutions itself, through its own justice system,” Schabas said.

Annabelle Chapman, Robyn Dixon, and Amar Nadhir contributed to this report.

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