Revenge v. Rule Of Law: How You Treat Your Prisoners Of War Says It All
A Ukrainian court has convicted the first Russia soldier of war crimes. Meanwhile, Moscow offers no news on the Ukrainian soldiers surrendered in Mariupol. The very meaning of this war may be contained in the different treatment of POWs.
He doesn’t look like a typical war criminal. With his slight build barely filling out a blue-gray sweatshirt, a baby face and close-shaved head, Vadim Shishimarin seems even younger than his 21 years. But on Monday, the Russian Army contract soldier was sentenced to life in prison in Kyiv for the cold-blooded killing of an unarmed 62-year-old Ukrainian man.
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The conviction on war crimes charges is the first of its kind since the war began three months ago. But Shishimarin’s conviction isn’t really the news: he had already confessed to the killing, and his “I was just following orders” defense has been dismissed in other ugly episodes of history before.
No, the news is the trial itself, which granted this young prisoner of war a fair trial in a public courtroom, with due process, a lawyer and the right to appeal within 30 days.
Justice for the victims
The trial was broadcast online and was widely covered by Ukrainian and foreign media — the latest “Exhibit A” of the country as a late-arriving model of democracy and due process. It’s all central to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership and global strategy.
Zelensky personally addressed the Ukrainian military last week about the issue, saying that the country is obliged to observe the guidelines of international law, and never turn to mob violence or lynching, despite the hatred generated by the brutal and unprovoked invasion.
Ukraine is well aware of how important the reputation it has built these past months in the eyes of the international community, as the defender of democratic values — with humane treatment of prisoners of war central to that standing.
What are the chances that the Ukrainians troops from Mariupol will be treated properly?
Thus the purpose of the Shishimarin trial (and others like it to come) was not vengeance, but to seek justice while demonstrating to the whole world, including Vladimir Putin, how the Ukrainian authorities will treat prisoners of war while seeking justice for the victims. And how, accordingly, they hope that the Russian authorities will behave toward captured Ukrainian soldiers.
And right now, the fate of Ukrainian POWs is more pressing than ever, a week after the special unit that was holding out to defend Mariupol, several hundred fighters of the Azov battalion, were finally forced to surrender, and are now in a camp in the occupied Donbas.
What are the chances that the Ukrainians troops from Mariupol will be treated properly, and afforded a fair trial? Slim chances indeed. The Russian penitentiary system has been built up over the decades around a model based on labor camps, torture, and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Reports on the deteriorating situation in Russian prisons are published annually by Amnesty International.
Vadim Shishimarin in court on Monday
Physical and psychological abuse
The situation with the courts in Russia is no better. The trials of political opposition leader Alexei Navalny over the last few years are a case in point. Proceedings are often held in the remote prison colonies, closed off to the public and journalists, witnesses for the prosecution are often bogus front men, evidence (and witnesses) for the defense miraculously disappear.
Meanwhile, treatment inside prisons and high-security colonies includes physical and psychological abuse, denial of access to medical care and no chance of appeal.
And this is how the Russian justice and penal system behaves toward its own citizens. How will they treat the Ukrainian prisoners of war, who for weeks held back the advance of the Russian army?
We have no news on the Mariupol soldiers who surrendered. Interfax reported that Denis Pushilin, head of the unrecognized pro-Russian republic of the DNR in Donbas, said the prisoners who surrendered at Azovstal steel plant will face a trial in the occupied part of Ukraine. "An international tribunal is also planned to be organized on the territory of the republic," Pushilin said. "The charter for the tribunal is currently being worked out."
Unhappy child, unhappy country
What “international tribunal” can we talk about in an unrecognized republic of occupied territory? Who will be part of such a tribunal? How can it guarantee the protection of the rights of prisoners and a fair trial for them?
He is just one of many.
After Monday’s verdict in Kyiv, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin is "concerned" about Shishimarin. "We do not have many opportunities to protect his interests on the ground, as foreign institutions actually have no activity [in Kyiv]," said Peskov, who had previously said Russia considers the charges "unacceptable," "outrageous" and "staged."
Vadim Shishimarin is an unhappy child of his unhappy country, which threw him into the pit of a senseless war. He is just one of many, and sadly the war crimes committed by the Russian military on the territory of Ukraine will continue. And so too will fair and public trials.
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