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Russia’s Sham Trial of Ukrainian Prisoners of War

Prosecuting “Azov” Soldiers for Participation in Conflict is a War Crime

Soldiers of Ukraine's “Azov” Brigade attend a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 14, 2023.  © 2023 Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters

In June, Russia’s Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don began criminal proceedings against 13 men and 9 women from the Ukrainian “Azov” Brigade.

The defendants are being prosecuted on several charges under Russia’s criminal code, including alleged actions directed at overthrowing Russia-backed authorities in Ukraine’s Donetska region in the spring of 2022 and involvement in the activities of a “terrorist organization.” Several defendants are also charged with undergoing training for carrying out terrorist activities.

The Azov Brigade is a formation of Ukraine’s National Guard that engages in military functions as a part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Headquartered in Mariupol, the Azov Brigade led the city’s defense at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. Besieged for 80 days at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, around 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered in May 2022. Three months after the soldiers’ capture, in August, the Russian government designated the Azov Brigade a “terrorist organization.”

Most of the defendants standing trial in Rostov are members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which gives them prisoner-of-war (POW) status. They are entitled to all the protections afforded POWs as set out in the Third Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

The Geneva Conventions ensure POWs cannot be prosecuted for offenses committed before their capture if they were not crimes at the time and place they were allegedly committed. That means Russia cannot prosecute the captured Ukrainian soldiers deployed in Ukraine for being Azov Brigade members.

During a June 28 court hearing, at least three defendants asserted that while in detention in the Russia-controlled area of Donetska region they suffered ill-treatment and signed confessions under duress. At least two alleged their health had notably deteriorated. In courtroom photos from the hearing, the defendants appear exhausted and thin.

It seems clear that the charges being brought are just a pretext to prosecute Ukrainian soldiers for defending Mariupol from the Russian assault. Prosecuting prisoners of war for participation in the conflict, depriving them of their fair trial rights, and subjecting them to torture or inhuman treatment are all breaches of the Geneva Conventions and war crimes. The Russian authorities should immediately drop all charges against the Azov defendants.

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