A Russian sergeant pleads guilty to killing a Ukrainian civilian in the first war crimes case of the war. Such cases usually occur after a war ends. Ukraine wants to prosecute while the evidence is fresh.
EMILY FENG, HOST:
Today, in a packed Ukrainian court, a Russian soldier pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed civilian in the first days of the war. This is the first war crimes trial of the current conflict, and Ukraine says many more will follow.
NPR’s Greg Myre was in court today in Ukraine’s capital, kyiv, and now joins us. Hi Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Emily.
FENG: What did you see today in court?
MYRE: Yes, there is a lot of interest in this case, but it took place in this small courtroom in kyiv. Journalists packed the courthouse and had to squeeze into a second courtroom next door to view the video. And the case is also being broadcast live.
One of the three judges asked this 21-year-old Russian army sergeant, Vadim Shishimarin, if he was guilty of shooting dead a 62-year-old Ukrainian just days after the war began in February. This sergeant, dressed in a blue and gray hoodie and responding from inside this glass box, said, quote, “yeah, totally yes.” Now, he didn’t say much more, but a Ukrainian prosecutor exposed the case.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Language other than English is spoken).
MYRE: He said that several Russian troops saw this elderly Ukrainian on the side of the road in a town in the northeast of the country. Now this man was on his cell phone and the Russians suspected he might be giving away his position, so the sergeant shot him with an automatic rifle, according to prosecutors.
FENG: Have the Ukrainians said how they captured this Russian soldier and presented evidence of how they linked him to this specific shooting you just described?
MYRE: No, the Ukrainians haven’t said exactly how they stopped him. But they released a video earlier this month of him being questioned and saying he was responsible for the shooting. Now, we have to keep in mind that POWs are not supposed to be put on public display.
Also, any time a case is based on a suspect’s confession, especially one like this in the middle of a very hot war, it raises some questions about whether it was voluntary. But the case continues Thursday, with prosecutors saying they will present evidence linking the sergeant to the murder, and a sentence could range from 10 years to life.
FENG: This Russian soldier had a defense attorney? Did that person say something?
MYRE: Yes, the Russian sergeant has a defense attorney. He is Ukrainian and has said he is concerned about rights here. He says that he wants to show that Ukraine operates in a way that Russia does not.
FENG: This is unusual, isn’t it? – that a war crimes trial be held while the war continues.
MYRE: Highly unusual. You know, the basic model was established after World War II, when the Nazis were put on trial in Nuremberg, Germany, shortly after the war. The nations that won the war, including the Soviet Union, prosecuted high-level figures in the Nazi regime.
But Ukraine says that waiting to prosecute after a war poses a number of challenges. Years later, the evidence may have long since disappeared. Witnesses can be difficult to trace. So the Ukrainian government says it has identified more than 11,000 possible Russian war crimes, and wants to investigate now, when the evidence is fresh and witnesses can be located.
And Russia, for its part, says its troops have not harmed civilians, despite overwhelming evidence. And a Kremlin spokesman said of the court case today that it was, quote, “simply false and staged.”
FENG: Is there any risk of prosecuting these war crimes in the midst of conflict?
MYRE: Yes, there are some risks and some challenges. I think capturing the suspects will definitely be the biggest hurdle. But this war is being documented in unprecedented ways. We have never seen so many videos and so many social networks from a war zone. Ukraine also says it is using technology such as facial recognition software to help identify and track suspects.
And the International Criminal Court in The Hague says it has already sent more than 40 people to Ukraine, the largest group it has ever sent on a single mission. Now neither Ukraine nor Russia belong to the ICC, but Ukraine has welcomed the investigators.
FENG: Thank you. That’s Greg Myre from NPR in kyiv, Ukraine.
MYRE: A pleasure.
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