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The Azovstal steel mill is pictured during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 20, 2022.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/Reuters

Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday declared Ukraine’s Azov Regiment a terrorist organization, a designation that could lead to terror charges against some of the captured fighters who made their last stand inside Mariupol’s shattered steel plant.

Russia and its rebel allies are holding an estimated 1,000 Azov fighters prisoner, many since their surrender at the steelworks in mid-May. Russian authorities have opened criminal cases against them, accusing them of killing civilians. The addition of terrorism charges could mean fewer rights and longer prison sentences.

A terrorist organization’s leaders could receive 15 to 20 years, and group members could get five to 10, according to Russian state media.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court banned the Azov Regiment in Russia. That could also outlaw the regiment in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian or Russia-backed forces, if those territories go ahead with plans to become part of Russia.

In a statement, the Azov Regiment dismissed the ruling, accusing the Kremlin of “looking for new excuses and explanations for its war crimes.” It urged the U.S. and other countries to declare Russia a terrorist state, a request Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made repeatedly.

The Azov soldiers played a key part in the defence of Mariupol, holding out for weeks at the southern port city’s steel mill despite punishing attacks from Russian forces. Mr. Zelensky hailed them and the other defenders as heroes.

Moscow has repeatedly portrayed the Azov Regiment as a Nazi group and accused it of atrocities, though no evidence to back up that claim has been made public. In May, Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s office asked that the regiment be designated a terrorist organization.

The regiment, a unit within Ukraine’s National Guard, has a checkered past. It grew out of a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of many volunteer brigades assembled to fight Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Azov Battalion drew its initial fighters from far-right circles and elicited criticism for some of its tactics. Its current members have rejected accusations of extremism.

The Kremlin has seized on the regiment’s right-wing origins to cast Russia’s invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russian state media has repeatedly shown what it claimed to be Nazi insignias, literature and tattoos associated with the regiment.

Last week, dozens of Ukrainian POWs, including Azov fighters from the steel plant, were killed in an explosion at a prison barracks in Olenivka, an eastern town controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Moscow and Kyiv have blamed each other for the blast, with Kyiv saying Russia blew up the barracks to cover up torture against the POWs.




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