Russia begins illegal show ‘trial’ of Ukrainian POWs for defending Ukraine in besieged Mariupol
The supposed ‘trial’ has begun in Rostov (Russia) of 22 Ukrainian prisoners of war, many of whom, though not all, are members of the Azov Battalion who were seized while defending Mariupol against the Russian invaders in 2022. Moscow is using a baseless, and post-dated, ruling claiming the Azov Battalion to be a ‘terrorist organization’ as its excuse for violating international law and trying men and women for defending their own country against an invading enemy. The photos from the first hearing on 14 June suggest that at least the Ukrainian men are being held without enough to eat and probably in conditions which are, in themselves, a breach of the Geneva Conventions.
This legal travesty is to take place at the same Southern District Military Court which has been passing politically motivated sentences against Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners since 2014. That, however, is not the only similarity, since Russia is effectively using identical charges as those used to pass sentences of up to 19 years’ imprisonment against political prisoners from occupied Crimea, most of them Crimean Tatar civic journalists and activists.
The charges against the Ukrainian POWs are, firstly, of involvement in an organization recognized in Russia (and nowhere else) as ‘terrorist, under Article 205.5 of Russia’s criminal code. All of the men and women, however, were taken prisoner before Russia’s Supreme Court declared Azov to be ‘terrorist’ on 2 August 2022, making the charges illegal even according to Russian law. The second charge is more incredible. All are accused of ‘actions aimed at violent seizure of power or violent retention of power and violation of Russia’s constitution’. Even if, as is possible, the Russian Investigative Committee is claiming that the Ukrainians were seeking ‘to overthrow’ Russia’s proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’, this could still not begin to justify such a charge since Mariupol was not within this pseudo formation until Russia bombed and destroyed around 90% of Mariupol’s infrastructure in order to gain control of it. Those convicted, and the ‘court’ in question invariably passes only those sentences demanded of it, face sentences of from 15 years to life imprisonment.
It was originally reported that 24 men and women were to go on trial, however on 14 June, it was learned that two POWs - David Kasatkin and Dmytro Lablinsky – had been released in an exchange of prisoners.
Most reports call all of the 22 remaining members of the Azov Battalion, however the Russian newspaper has indicated that several were either members of Ukraine’s National Guard or were seized in Mariupol, but had served in the Azov Battalion long before Russia’s full-scale invasion. The eight (perhaps nine) women were, Kommersant asserts, cooks for the Azov Battalion and, purportedly, all signed ‘confessions’. It is possible that those ‘confessions’, making it possible for claims that some ‘admit guilt’, are the reason why Russia has included them in the ‘trial’, as well as their assertion that they were only there because they needed a job, etc.
From the reports available, it would seem that many of those whom Russia has put on ‘trial’ should, in fact, be treated as civilians. Those who were defending Mariupol and the Azovstal Steelworks are prisoners of war who are protected, under the relevant Geneva Convention, from prosecution merely for taking part in hostilities. The only exception is if they are found guilty of war crimes. It is telling that Russia has thus far used its proxy ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ to stage any supposed ‘trials’ on war crimes charges. These illegal entities are not recognized by the international community and one of the many reasons why Freedom House earlier rated the two entities together as almost on a par with North Korea was the total lack of rule of law and mechanisms for a fair trial. There are absolutely no grounds for believing that the men sentenced to terms from 12 to 25 years by these quasi ‘republics’ were guilty of the crimes alleged, or indeed, that the supposed war crimes even took place. Among these ‘sentences’ was the 13-year term of imprisonment against well-known human rights activist and journalist Maksym Butkevych. He is known to have been denied access to a lawyer, and there is evidence that he was not even in Donbas when the ‘war crime’ was alleged to have taken place.
The farcical nature of such ‘court’ stunts was, in fact, seen and condemned by the international community when the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ ‘sentenced’ two Britons (Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun to death, claiming them to have been ‘mercenaries’ although all were contract soldiers in Ukraine’s Armed Forces and, unequivocally, prisoners of war.
Russia first showed its contempt for the lives of Ukrainian and other prisoners of war, and for international law, when, on 29 July 2022, as many as 50 Azovstal defenders and other Ukrainian POWs were killed in an unexplained explosion at the Russian-controlled Olenivka Prison. While Russia followed its usual policy and blamed Ukraine, it also actively blocked investigations by the UN and International Red Cross which made sense only if they were behind this effective mass murder of men protected under international law.
The ’trial’ now underway is presumably for internal consumption as the images of emaciated Ukrainian prisoners of war are shocking, as is the cynical lawlessness of the charges against the Ukrainian men and women.