War crimes: Two Russian soldiers sentenced to prison in second trial in Ukraine

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A Ukrainian court on Tuesday found two Russian soldiers guilty of “violation of the laws and customs of war” and sentenced them to 11 and a half years in prison – the second verdict in a Ukrainian war crimes trial held during the conflict.

The sentencing came as Ukraine’s chief prosecutor announced that Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia would become the newest members of a multinational investigative team, gathering and exchanging evidence in a bid to hold Russia accountable.

The two soldiers convicted on Tuesday are being held in Ukraine and were tried in the Poltava region. Prosecutors accused them of bombing civilian sites in a town in the eastern region of Kharkiv. The bombing destroyed an educational facility but caused no casualties, prosecutors said. Alexander Bobikin and Alexander Ivanov pleaded guilty last week.

What are war crimes, and is Russia committing them in Ukraine?

The verdict followed another last week in Kyiv, where a court found a 21-year-old Russian soldier guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. The soldier, Vadim Shishimarin, had pleaded guilty to killing a 62-year-old civilian in the Sumy region of northeastern Ukraine at the start of the war. His lawyer said he intended to appeal.

Tens of thousands of investigators have deployed across Ukraine to collect evidence. Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said on Tuesday that her office receives 200 to 300 new war crimes cases every day, for a total of 15,000 to date. She identified nearly 80 suspects.

Prosecutors and investigators from around the world lent their expertise to Ukrainian authorities and began to prepare cases for prosecution in courts elsewhere in Europe. Countries like France, Lithuania and the Netherlands have sent investigators to Ukraine. The International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation into violations of international law on both sides of the conflict, sent a team of 42 people, its largest deployment ever.

Experts describe the multitude of investigations as unprecedented in scale and speed, taking place even as war rages on. The timing allows investigators access to new evidence, but fighting and the Russian occupation have hindered access.

The scale of the effort has raised concerns about duplication and overlap, which the joint investigative team – set up in March and initially comprising Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland – is meant to resolve. Last month, the ICC joined the effort, which Eurojust, the European Union’s criminal justice agency, is coordinating.

The EU recently approved rules allowing the agency to store evidence related to war crimes and share it with judicial authorities. Eurojust, which will receive additional EU funds, is also providing financial support for the joint investigation, the agency’s president, Ladislav Hamran, said.

The ICC is working on opening an office in Kyiv, prosecutor Karim AA Khan told reporters.

Venediktova expressed her gratitude for the help. She requested more equipment and laboratory capacity for DNA analysis.

At a press conference in The Hague, Venediktova said she hoped the joint investigation would become a model.

However, some legal experts have raised concerns about the progress of the first trials in Ukraine.

Under international law, prisoners of war cannot be tried for their participation in a conflict, although they can be prosecuted for war crimes. Prisoners of war must be treated humanely and have the right to competent counsel and a fair trial.

Russian soldier sentenced to life in Ukraine’s first war crimes trial

Robert Goldman, a war crimes and human rights expert at American University’s Washington College of Law, said the first two trials in Ukraine were remarkably quick and that Shishimarin’s life sentence, which was harsh in beyond the typical bounds of European case law, seemed to mean the court “held him accountable” for the wider conflict.

The shelling of a civilian target, for which the other two soldiers were prosecuted, can be difficult to prove, he said. To be considered a war crime, prosecutors must demonstrate that the defendants deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure or launched a disproportionate attack in disregard of the civilian impact.

“Again, you have people within days being tried and convicted for a very serious crime, which is a war crime,” Goldman said. “I have very real questions about the conduct of the trial and the adequacy of the defense.”

The defense said Bobikin and Ivanov followed orders and appealed for clemency, according to Ukrainian state broadcaster Suspilne. Prosecutors had asked for 12 years, Reuters reported.

Venediktova also announced on Tuesday that a Russian soldier accused of rape will be tried in absentia in Ukraine. Mikhail Romanov is accused of killing an unarmed civilian and, with an accomplice, of repeatedly raping the man’s wife and threatening to shoot the victim and her child.

Trials in absentia have taken place in the past, Goldman said, and usually defendants are retried if caught. But in this and other cases, they raised concerns about fairness.

“There’s a real problem with trying someone for a crime when they can’t really defend themselves,” he said.

Moscow and Russian-backed separatists, who are now detaining hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered in Mariupol, have indicated they also intend to bring Ukrainians to justice for war crimes. Russia’s justice system remains highly politicized and legal experts have said prisoners are unlikely to receive a fair trial.

Russian soldiers convicted in Ukraine could be included in a prisoner exchange. Venediktova said on Tuesday that Ukraine has “technical possibilities to exchange people”, although that is outside the remit of her office.

Andrew Jeong contributed to this report.

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