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Russian soldier charged with war crimes pleads guilty

May 18, 2022

A 21-year-old Russian solider has been charged with murdering an elderly civilian in the early days of the war. Ukraine has said the war crimes trial is the first of many as an international team continues investigating.

A crowded courtroom in Kyiv
The case of the Russian solider is a rare instance of a war crimes trial taking place amid an ongoing conflict Image: Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo/picture alliance

Vadim S., a 21-year-old Russian tank commander held in Ukraine, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to killing an unarmed civilian in Ukraine's first war crimes trial since Russia's invasion began.

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said the trial was "sending a clear signal that every perpetrator, every person who ordered or assisted in the commission of crimes in Ukraine shall not avoid responsibility."

How did the killing take place?

After their convoy was attacked in Ukraine's northeastern Sumy region on February 28, the accused and four other fleeing soldiers are alleged to have stolen a car from outside the village of Chupakhivka.

He is accused of shooting a 62-year-old man in the head, who was riding past them on a bicycle and talking on a phone, to prevent him from reporting the soldiers' presence.

"One of the military servicemen ordered the accused to kill a civilian so that he would not report them. The man died on the spot just a few dozen meters from his home," Ukrainian prosecutors said. The person who allegedly gave the order was not identified.

What is the solider charged with?

S., who comes from the region of Irkutsk in Siberia, faces possible life imprisonment if convicted.  

When proceedings began on May 13, Prosecutor General Venediktova said S. was being charged with violating "the laws and customs of war combined with premeditated murder."

The solider is being prosecuted under a section of Ukrainian criminal code that addresses the laws and customs of war.

At the hearing, he was asked whether he understood his rights, and whether he wanted a jury trial, which he declined.

The defendant's Ukraine-assigned attorney, Victor Ovsyanikov, said his client "certainly knows all the details" of what he's accused of. Ovsyanikov did not specify a defense strategy.

In a video posted on May 4 by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), S. briefly described on camera how he shot the man. The SBU called the video "one of the first confessions of the enemy."


Ukraine's first war crimes trial

As the first war crimes trial of a Russian solider in Ukraine, the proceedings are being closely observed.  

Volodymyr Yavorskyy, coordinator at the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, told the Associated Press that activists are monitoring the defendant's trial to ensure his legal rights are protected.

Yavorskyy said it can be difficult to maintain the neutrality of court proceedings during wartime.

"It is surprising that a suspect in war crimes has been found and the trial for him will take place. Charges of this kind are usually made in absentia," he said. "This is a rare case when in a short time we managed to find a soldier who violated international rules of warfare."

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Venediktova has said her office is preparing war crimes cases against 41 Russian soldiers for offenses including bombing civilian infrastructure, killing civilians, rape and looting.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday that it had not been informed about his case. 

"We still have no information. And the ability to provide assistance due to the lack of our diplomatic mission there is also very limited," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

On Tuesday, the International Criminal Court said it was sending a team of 42 investigators, forensic experts and staff to Ukraine to assist in investigations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan had said it is the largest-ever deployment of investigators by the court since its establishment.

Editor's note: DW follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting defendants' identities and advises not to publish their full names in many cases. 

Mass graves exhumed in Urkaine

wmr/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)