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Ukraine: First war crime conviction against Russian soldier

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistThursday 26 May 2022

A court in Ukraine has convicted a Russian soldier of killing an unarmed Ukrainian civilian in the country’s first war crimes trial since the invasion began. 

The 21-year-old Russian tank commander stood trial on 13 May, accused of shooting an unarmed civilian in the Sumy region in late February. He pled guilty, but his defence lawyer argued that the soldier was following an order and shouldn't be held accountable.

On 23 May, the court ruled the killing was premeditated and that the soldier had knowingly committed a war crime. He was sentenced to life in prison and has 30 days to appeal the sentence.

Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova says her team is preparing to file more cases, but nobody expected to see a Russian soldier in the dock at such an early stage, let alone a conviction. It comes less than 100 days into the conflict with still no prospect of a ceasefire in sight.

The availability of evidence will have been crucial to getting the case to trial so quickly, says Wendy Betts, director of eyeWitness to Atrocities. ‘It is rare to see a trial taking place in the territory where the conflict is occurring, which highlights the dramatic narrowing of the investigation gap in this conflict compared to previous ones,’ she says.

The trial – which consisted of Ukrainian prosecution and defence counsel and a panel of three Ukrainian judges – had to be relocated to a larger building to accommodate the huge amount of international media interest.

‘It’s important to show that there is a robust system of justice if Russian soldiers are arrested, that they will be treated well and if they have committed crimes, they will be held accountable

Toby Cadman
Co-Head, Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, London

It’s also cast a spotlight on the challenges of prosecuting war crimes in a country still actively engaged in armed conflict. Sara Elizabeth Dill, a partner at Anethum Global and Treasurer of the IBA War Crimes Committee, welcomes efforts to hold Russia to account. However, she says the speed with which prosecutors brought the case to trial raises significant questions. ‘Swift justice is not necessarily legitimate justice,’ she says. ‘We’re in a situation where things are still developing and information is still coming out. I do have concerns as to what is actually happening in those procedures, what level of due process is being afforded and has there been a legitimate right to the effective assistance of counsel.’

Following the sentencing, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office released a statement saying the pre-trial investigation was carried out by the Ukrainian security services and that prosecutors presented evidence at trial that included the accused’s machine gun and other forensic findings.

It’s unclear whether the defendant was offered the opportunity to instruct Russian counsel. Viktor Ovsyannikov – a Ukrainian lawyer appointed by the State – has been criticised domestically for representing the soldier. He’s no stranger to controversial trials, having defended former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was eventually convicted of high treason and sentenced in absentia to 13 years in prison.

Ovsyannikov’s appointment reflects favourably on Ukraine’s commitment to ensuring the soldier receives a fair trial, says Toby Cadman, Co-Head of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers and Communications Officer on the IBA War Crimes Committee. ‘He's obviously a very professional lawyer and it's important that the process has integrity and that you have both sides being represented,’ he says.

Dill says the politically charged environment makes it even more imperative that Ukraine provides robust trial proceedings for all defendants. ‘Every conflict has war crimes and atrocities committed by both sides and we, unfortunately, frequently have victor's justice, where there’s popular opinion as to who should be prosecuted,’ she says. ‘That’s even more reason why we need to ensure that the international community engages in trial monitoring and investigations and overseeing what is happening to make sure that all defendants are afforded all the rights due to them under the law, whether we like them or not.’

While it’s hoped the International Criminal Court could eventually hold senior Russian officials to account, Cadman says this first domestic prosecution of a junior soldier is a key test for Ukraine’s judicial system. ‘It may well have a deterrent effect on soldiers lower down the chain of command,’ he says. ‘That’s not insignificant, but more than anything it’s important to show that there is a robust system of justice if Russian soldiers are arrested, that they will be treated well and if they have committed crimes, they will be held accountable.’

Cadman has been part of an international advisory council guiding the Prosecutor General on structural legal issues since before the recent conflict. He says there’s growing recognition that Ukraine’s judicial system needs special investigation units with enhanced research and analysis capacity, specific knowledge of sensitive areas like sexual and gender-based violence and the necessary resources to handle multiple ‘paper-heavy cases’ at once.

Oleksandra Matviychuk, Chair of the Board of the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, says Ukraine still needs more assistance on the ground. ‘Ukraine needs help,’ she says. ‘We speak about a time of war. Even the best, well-functioning state bodies couldn't provide an effective response to the huge scope and number of atrocities.’

She points to Ukraine’s recent experience of working with international partners on the joint investigation into the downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine in July 2014. In December 2021, Dutch Prosecutors requested life sentences for three Russians and one Ukrainian on trial in absentia on charges of playing a role in the crash which killed 298 people.

There’s been an outpouring of global pledges to secure accountability for Ukraine. This is welcome, says Cadman, but he warns Venediktova will need to make tough decisions. ‘Unlike international tribunals, resources are finite,’ he says. ‘She is not going to be able to prosecute everything and setting realistic expectations is critical to her office.'

Beyond convictions, Dill says Ukrainian society will also need support to heal the mental scars left by the war: ‘I hope that as swiftly as we are pursuing prosecutions that we are also putting time, energy and resources into the very important mental health needs of the population.’

Image credit: Дэн Едрышов/AdobeStock.com

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