A Ukrainian court held a preliminary hearing on Friday in the first war crimes trial arising from Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, after charging a captured Russian soldier with the murder of a 62-year-old civilian.
The case is of huge symbolic importance for Ukraine. The Kyiv government has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians during the invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes.
Russia has denied targeting civilians or involvement in war crimes and accused Kyiv of staging them to smear its forces. The Kremlin told reporters on Friday that it had no information about a war crimes trial.
The defendant told the court he was Vadim Shishimarin, born in Russia’s Irkutsk region, and confirmed that he was a Russian serviceman in a short, preliminary hearing. The court will reconvene on May 18, the judge said.
He will tell the court at a later date whether or not he denies the charge, his lawyer Viktor Ovsyannikov said.
Shaven headed and looking scared, Mr. Shishimarin wore a casual blue and grey hoodie and was led into the courtroom by police to a glass booth for defendants.
If convicted he faces up to life imprisonment over the killing in the northeast Ukrainian village of Chupakhivka, east of the capital Kyiv, on Feb. 28.
The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said the defendant was a 21-year-old tank commander in the Kantemirovskaya tank division from the Moscow region. The prosecutor general had published a photograph of him ahead of the hearing.
“(The) wheels of justice (have) started turning and this process will yield results,” Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova wrote on Twitter on Friday.
In a statement ahead of the hearing, the prosecutor general’s office said the soldier and four other Russian servicemen fired at and stole a privately-owned car to escape after their column was targeted by Ukrainian forces.
The statement said the Russian soldiers drove into the village of Chupakhivka where they saw an unarmed resident riding a bicycle and talking on his phone.
It said the defendant was ordered by another serviceman to kill the civilian to prevent him reporting on the Russians’ presence and fired several shots through the open window of the car with an assault rifle at the civilian’s head, and he died on the spot.
It did not say what evidence led to the war crimes charges. The SBU Security Service of Ukraine conducted the investigation into the case, it said.
State prosecutor Andriy Synyuk told Reuters the soldier was captured when he “gave himself up”. He did not elaborate.
In the courthouse, Mr. Shishimarin was questioned by a judge who addressed him in Ukrainian and in Russian. He had an interpreter with him. Reuters could not reach him or his legal representative for comment ahead of the hearing.
“This is the first case today. But soon there will be a lot of these cases,” Synyuk told reporters after the hearing.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on Thursday there were many examples of possible war crimes since the Russian invasion and that 1,000 bodies had been recovered so far in the Kyiv region.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) said on April 25 it would take part in a joint team with Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian prosecutors investigating war crimes allegations against Russian forces.
Ukraine has little experience in prosecuting such cases. Parliament last year adopted legislation to provide a legal framework for war crimes prosecutions in line with international practice, Zera Kozlyieva, deputy head of the war crimes unit in the prosecutor general’s office, said last month.
The country had only convicted three individuals previously for crimes related to the conflict in Donbas and Crimea between 2014 and the February invasion, she said.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” to disarm the country and protect it from fascists, denying its forces committed abuses. Kyiv and its Western backers say the fascism claim is a false pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.