KYIV, Ukraine – A 21-year-old Russian soldier was tried 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 in 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 northeastern village of Chupakhivka during the early days of the war.
Dozens of journalists and cameras packed a small room at the Solomyanskyy district court in the Ukrainian capital, where the suspect, Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin sat in a glassed-in area wearing a blue and gray hoodie, sweatpants and a shaved head.
He faces life in prison under a section of the Ukrainian penal code that deals with the laws and customs of war. Ukraine’s top prosecutor, with the help of foreign experts, is investigating allegations that Russian troops violated Ukrainian and international law by killing, torturing and possibly abusing thousands of Ukrainian civilians.
Friday’s hearing in Shyshimarin’s case was brief. A judge asked him to provide her name, address, marital status and other identifying details. She was also asked if she understood her rights, quietly answering “yes”, and if she wanted a jury trial, to which she refused.
The judges and lawyers discussed procedural matters before the judges left the courtroom and then returned to say the case would continue on May 18.
Defense attorney Victor Ovsyanikov acknowledged the case against the soldier is strong, but said the court would make the final decision on what evidence to allow. Ovsyanikov said Thursday that he and his client had not yet decided how he would 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 she is accused of, Ovsyannikov said. The lawyer did not want to detail his defense strategy.
As the inaugural war crimes case in Ukraine, the Shyshimarin prosecution is being closely watched. Investigators have been gathering evidence of possible war crimes to present before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova’s office has said it is investigating more than 10,700 possible war crimes involving more than 600 suspects, including Russian soldiers and government officials.
Many of the alleged atrocities came to light last month after Moscow forces ended their attempt to capture kyiv and withdrew from the outskirts of the capital, exposing mass graves and corpse-strewn streets and courtyards in towns 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 court proceedings during war.
“It is amazing that a war crimes suspect has been found and that his trial is taking place. Charges of this type are usually made in absentia,” he said. “This is a rare case when 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 don’t have any information about this trial and this incident.”
Last week, Prosecutor General Venediktova, her office and the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s law enforcement agency, posted some details on social media about the investigation into Shyshimarin’s alleged actions.
On February 28, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Shyshimarin was among a group of Russian troops fleeing Ukrainian forces, according to Venediktova’s Facebook account. The Russians allegedly fired on a private car and commandeered the vehicle, then drove to Chupakhivka, a town about 200 miles east of kyiv.
Along the way, the attorney general alleged, the Russian soldiers saw a man walking down the sidewalk and talking on the phone. Shyshimarin was ordered to kill the man so that he could not report him to the Ukrainian military authorities. Venediktova did not identify who gave the order.
Shyshimarin fired his Kalashnikov rifle through the open window, hitting the victim in the head.
“The man died on the spot just a few dozen meters from his house,” Venediktova wrote.
The Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, released a short video on 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 of the enemy invaders”.
“I was ordered to shoot,” Shyshimarin said. “I shot one (round) at him. He falls. And we keep going.”
Vadim Karasev, a kyiv-based independent political analyst, said it is important for Ukrainian authorities to “show 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 justice 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 inadvertently leaving 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 initial 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 on Friday that prosecuting war crimes suspects while fighting continues does not mean the justice system is not working properly.
“Numerous subsequent reviews of (Herak’s) case by international and domestic legal experts found that he was given a fair trial,” Kreho said.
“The only change was that they reduced his sentence, but he served it in full,” he added.
The 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, which pitted its main ethnic communities (Bosnians, Croats and Serbs) against each other, killed 100,000 people, most of them civilians, and more than 2 million, or more than half of the population of the country, was 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