EXPLAINER: What could happen to hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war?

GENEVA (AP) — Breaking its recent silence on prisoners of war, the Red Cross said Thursday it has registered “hundreds” of Ukrainian prisoners of war who left the giant Azovstal steel plant in the southern city of Mariupol after holding out for about weeks. long confrontation with the siege of the Russian forces.

The announcement by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which acts as the guardian of the Geneva Conventions that aim to limit “the barbarity of war,” came shortly after the Russian military said 1,730 Ukrainian soldiers at the steel mill were they had surrendered.

Attention now turns to how these prisoners of war can be treated and what rights they have. Here’s a look at some key questions about prisoners of war in Russia’s nearly three-month war with Ukraine:

WHO IS A PRISONER OF WAR?

Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention, which focuses on prisoners of war, defines them as any member of the armed forces or militia, including organized resistance movements, in a conflict who “has fallen into the power of the enemy.” .

It also includes non-combatant crewmen, war correspondents, and even “inhabitants of unoccupied territory who, as the enemy approaches, spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces.”

WHAT RIGHTS DO PRISONERS OF WAR HAVE?

The Geneva Conventions establish requirements to ensure that prisoners of war are treated humanely. They include questions such as where they can be done; the relief they should receive, including medical aid for wounded ex-combatants; and legal proceedings they might face.

“In this case, the Russian Federation has a whole list of obligations: treat them humanely, allow the ICRC (to have) access to them, inform the ICRC of their names, allow them to write to their families, care for them if they are injured. or sick, to feed them and so on,” said Marco Sassoli, a professor of international law at the University of Geneva.

“But obviously, the detaining power can deprive them of their freedom until the end of the international armed conflict and can keep them, unlike civilians, in their own territories. So they can be brought to Russia,” he said.

CAN THEY BE JUDGED?

Only under certain conditions, especially if an individual combatant is accused of committing one or more war crimes. Such an accusation must be based on published evidence, Sassoli said.

“Certainly they cannot be punished for having participated in hostilities, because that is the privilege of combatants and prisoners of war,” he said.

COULD PRISONERS OF WAR BE PART OF PRISONER EXCHANGES?

The Geneva Conventions do not establish rules for prisoner exchanges. In the past, Red Cross brokers have helped make agreed POW exchanges.

Still, much has been made of some Russian officials’ insistence that detained Ukrainian ex-combatants should be put on trial and not included in any prisoner swaps.

COULD RUSSIA CLAIM THAT FIGHTERS ARE NOT ENTITLED TO POW STATUS?

Some countries have tried to evade their obligations under the Geneva Conventions, or simply argue that they are not bound by them.

One notable case was when the United States arrested hundreds of fighters allegedly linked to terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. They were detained as “enemy combatants” at a US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent US-led military operation to topple the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan.

Sassoli said there are “all kinds of reasons” why a person could lose their prisoner-of-war status. For example, if the combatant “was indistinguishable from the civilian population” during combat.

“But here, as far as I know, no one claims that these people (detainees from the Azov Regiment in Mariupol) did not wear a uniform, or if they do not belong to the Ukrainian armed forces,” Sassoli said. “It is basically Ukraine that decides who belongs to its armed forces.”

Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly touted the regiment’s role in the armed forces and celebrated what they call the heroism of its members for holding out for so long against much larger Russian forces.

THE AZOV REGIMENT IS PART OF THE NATIONAL GUARD, DOES THAT MATTER?

Ukraine and Russia have agreed to an important annex to the Geneva Conventions that broadens the definition of which fighters, militia or not, could be considered part of the national military, in part based on whether they follow military orders.

As for the Azov Regiment fighters, “there is no doubt” that they are part of Ukraine’s military force, said Sassoli, who was in a three-person team commissioned by the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe that traveled to Ukraine in March.

However, Russia has not made it entirely clear who is detaining the ex-Azovstal fighters: Russia itself or pro-Russian separatist areas in Ukraine, such as the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” or the “Lugansk People’s Republic”, which could blur such distinctions.

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE RED CROSS DECLARATION?

Thursday’s statement was the first time since Russia invaded on February 24 that the ICRC, which plays an often confidential role in monitoring prisoners of war, has said anything officially about prisoners of war in the conflict.

“Normally the ICRC will not tell you how these people are treated, but the ICRC will tell you who they visited,” Sassoli said. “But the ICRC, to my knowledge, until this press release, did not clarify how many people it had access to, on both sides.”

Beyond its communication about the Azovstal fighters, the ICRC has not said whether it has registered other prisoners of war or carried out visits to prisoners of war on both sides of the war.

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Follow all AP stories about the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.

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