These trials are particularly dangerous as Russia is openly using torture and unrecognized courts to deny Ukrainian defenders their rights as prisoners of war
Russia is using an unrecognized ‘court’ in its proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [‘DPR’] to churn out a huge number of illegal ‘sentences’ against Ukrainian prisoners of war. Since the beginning of December, at least 15 defenders of Mariupol have been sentenced to 25 years or life imprisonment, with the Ukrainians essentially accused of the attacks on civilians and other war crimes that the world witnessed Russia committing in the first months of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Petro Andriushchenko, Adviser to the Mayor of Mariupol, has been sounding the alarm, warning that silence about such new crimes can only help Russia and enable it to refuse to release the men, claiming that they are not prisoners of war, but ‘criminals’.
Andriushchenko is, certainly, correct, however Russia is doing all that it can to conceal the fabricated nature of these ‘trials’ and sentences. By holding them on occupied territory, it ensures that there are no witnesses to these travesties, nor does Russia allow the International Committee of the Red Cross or other international monitors to visit the POWs, as envisaged by international law. More often than not, the only information about these supposed ‘trials’ comes from the reports of the men’s sentences issued by Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office or Investigative Committee. Such reports are normally accompanied by videoed ‘confessions’ extracted, almost certainly through torture, from men who have no access to independent lawyers and human rights monitors.
The ‘trials’ against defenders of Mariupol are especially cynical and not only because of Russia’s relentless bombing and shelling of civilians. The surrender of the last defenders of the city and their purportedly safe exit from the Azovstal Steelworks in May 2022 was under the auspices of the UN. None of the Russian commitments made then have been kept, and both the attack on the Olenivka camp which killed over 50 Ukrainian POWs and these ‘trials’ are, with good cause, widely viewed as reprisals against Ukrainian defenders. Russia is, in particular, targeting soldiers from the Azov Regiment, citing a politically motivated ruling by the Russian supreme court that declared, without any justification, that a regiment which is part of Ukraine’s Armed Forces is a ‘terrorist organization’.
On 21 November, the so-called ‘DPR supreme court’ ‘sentenced’ Oleksandr Svinarchurk to life imprisonment. It was claimed that the 28-year-old commander of the 36th Marine Brigade had issued an order to shoot 37 civilians in Mariupol. These ‘trials’ follow a fairly standard template, with the charges generally under ‘criminal’ articles for Russia’s criminal code (Article 105 – the killing of two or more people, carried out by an organized group for motives of political or ideological hatred) and (as a separate charge) the attempting killing; Article 356 (ill-treatment of civilians).
Attacks on the civilian population do indeed fall under war crimes for which prisoners of war would be held accountable. If, that is, there was genuine evidence that the alleged crimes had taken place. There is none, with this only confirmed by the fact that such ‘trials’ are held, effectively behind closed doors; reported post-fact, with the only ‘evidence’ being ‘confessions’ that are clearly given under duress. In this case, even the charges, as reported by Russia’s prosecutor general’s office are absurd. Svinarchuk is claimed, extremely vaguely, to have “issued unlawful orders to kill civilians” between 28 February and 9 April 2022.
The same prosecutor general’s office reported another such sentence on 22 November. This time, Artur Niverchuk, described as being from an Azov Regiment special unit, was claimed to have killed five Mariupol residents. He too was sentenced to life imprisonment. The charges here and below were essentially the same.
On 28 November, four Ukrainian soldiers were claimed to have shot and killed eight civilians in Mariupol. 35-year-old Volodymyr Yemelyanov was sentenced to life imprisonment; Dmytro Terkhanov (31) – to 27 years; and Anton Babych (27) and Rostyslav Isaikin (22) to 25 years.
On 30 November, Ivan Taran was also sentenced to life imprisonment, with the POW claimed to have shot several civilians.
On 5 December, Oleksiy Volosheniuk was sentenced to 23 years, with the claim being that he had killed a passerby on orders from his commander.
On 6 December, the Investigative Committee announced huge sentences against three soldiers from what it called “the nationalist Azov regiment”, which it states the second time is ‘prohibited’ in Russia. The charges here too are the same, with Vladyslav Chuz; Bohdan Beznosko and Sviatoslav Zdorovenko all sentenced to 25 years.
On 7 December, Mykola Olekseyenko from the 36th Marine Brigade was sentenced to 24 years on similar charges.
In all of the cases, and others reported earlier, there is no reliable evidence that the crimes ever took place. Instead, we see men obviously reciting off by heart what they have been told to say, and clearly nervous if they forget their lines. The torture methods used are known to include electric currents attached to sensitive parts of the body (fingertips, earlobes or genitals) and causing agonizing pain. It is near impossible to withstand such torture for long, especially since their torturers know how to apply just enough to cause maximum suffering, yet not kill them. It should be stressed that UN human rights bodies have established that Russia’s use of torture against both Ukrainian POWs and civilian hostages is widespread and systematic.
All of the fake trials reported here and earlier seem aimed also at rewriting the facts, with Ukrainians claimed to have committed the systematic crimes against civilians which all independent witnesses and objective evidence indicate were committed by Russians.
In early November 2023, Verstka Media reported that they had found 163 sentences passed against Ukrainian prisoners of war, with the average sentence – 21 years. That figure may well be closer to 200 by now.