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Ukraine warns Moscow against ‘despicable show trial’ of POWs

Any effort to hold talks with Russia will be destroyed if Moscow organizes show trials of captured Ukrainian prisoners of war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned.

“Now there are enough reports in the media that in Mariupol the scenery is being prepared for an absolutely disgusting and absurd show trial of Ukrainian defenders, of our warriors who are captives of the occupiers,” Zelenskyy said in a national address late Sunday, adding if that happens, Kyiv’s reaction will be “absolutely clear.”

“If this despicable show trial takes place, if our people are brought into this scenery in violation of all agreements, all international rules, if there is abuse … This will be the line beyond which any negotiations are impossible,” he said.

Russia and the Moscow-backed authorities of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) are preparing a trial of the soldiers who surrendered from the Azovstal plant in the city of Mariupol in May. A few weeks ago, the Ukrainian government of Mariupol, now in exile, published photos of steel cages being constructed in a local philharmonic hall, thought to be for the tribunal.

But for people like Natalia Zarytska, even a show trial would allow her to know if her husband, Bohdan, captured after the siege of Mariupol, is alive.

His name was not on the list of POWs killed and wounded when the Olenivka prison in separatist-held territory in the Donetsk region was destroyed in late July. Although Russia has accused Kyiv of a missile strike on the prison, Ukraine’s security authorities believe pro-Russian forces intentionally blew up the captured fighters in their sleep.

“Russia will seek to make the trial as mocking and as humiliating as possible,” said Zarytska, who recently became the head of an association representing the families of surrendered Azovstal fighters. “But Ukrainians are people of steel. The more pressure is put on us, the more we are threatened, the more we unite and are ready to fight back.”

POWs from the Azov Regiment, a unit recently declared a terrorist group by a top Russian court, as well as armed forces personnel and local civilians accused of collaborating with Ukrainian troops, will face trial, according to Petro Andryushchenko, an aide with the exiled Mariupol government.

Those preparations are prompting Kyiv to appeal for help.

“All partners of Ukraine have been informed about what the terrorist state can prepare for this week,” Zelenskyy said, adding he had been in touch with French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Red Cross to the rescue?

There is also an effort to get the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations involved, as the two organizations helped guarantee the safety of surrendering Ukrainian forces in May.

Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, said the ICRC and the U.N. “must make a strong statement.” 

“It is still not late to restore respect for these abbreviations,” he tweeted.

He said any “tribunals” in quasi-jurisdictions such as the DNR can only serve as a propaganda show. “Attempting to hold a trial of prisoners is a war crime and a violation of the Geneva Convention,” he said.

ICRC spokesperson Oleksandr Vlasenko said international humanitarian law “permits trials of prisoners of war if they have committed criminal acts.” However, he added there can be no collective responsibility and no prosecution for fighting against a hostile party.

He also made clear there is little the ICRC can do to help with Olenivka.

“The Third Geneva Convention clearly assigns responsibility for prisoners of war to the party that holds them,” he said. “We cannot be held responsible for people who are in captivity. We can only visit these people [to make sure they are kept in suitable conditions].”

The ICRC has only been able to visit the surrendered Azovstal fighters once — immediately after their transfer to captivity. On that occasion, they delivered drinking water to the prisoners in Olenivka.

Vlasenko confirmed that the ICRC was involved in brokering the surrender of the Azovstal garrison. However, the organization’s role was limited to “providing guarantees” that the surrendering fighters “would not [be] shot, and that their surrender would be safe.”

The ICRC’s guarantees were valid until the moment the Ukrainian troops boarded buses that delivered them to prisons in separatist-controlled territories, he added.

“It is wrong to say that we could have guaranteed their safety by being present in the prison facilities, 24 hours a day. We can’t just open the prison doors and declare that we’re going to be there. This doesn’t happen in any country in the world,” Vlasenko said.

Immediately after the tragedy in the Olenivka prison, the ICRC requested access to the people who were detained there, as well as to the bodies of those who died. Something that hasn’t happened yet, he said. The U.N. also wants a fact-finding mission to the prison.

While both the U.N. and the ICRC have come under fire in Ukrainian social media for not doing enough to protect the POWs, Zarytska said the blame lies in the Kremlin.

“For me, the only guilty party is Russia. According to the Geneva Convention, the only side responsible for the prisoners of war is the side that imprisons them,” she said. “So all my anger is aimed at Russia.”

This article has been updated to correct the timing of Zelenskyy’s address. It was Sunday night.

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