A Russian tank commander has pleaded guilty to shooting a civilian on a bicycle, in Ukraine’s first trial for war crimes committed during the Russian invasion.
Vadim Shysimarin, 21, sat emotionless as prosecutors detailed accusations that he fired his AK-47 at a 62-year-old man from a car window in the northeast region of Sumy in late February .
His commander reportedly told him to kill the man, an unarmed civilian, because he feared the victim would reveal the position of Russian forces.
The court, chaired by three judges, will hear further testimony including the victim’s wife and another Russian soldier who was in the car with Shysimarin, before confirming the verdict and handing down a sentence.
Prosecutors acted quickly. It is extremely unusual to hold a trial while a conflict is still ongoing, and unprecedented to do so in a matter of weeks. The victim was shot less than three months ago, in the first days after the invasion.
Ukrainian authorities say justice for atrocities committed by Russian forces is a priority, with investigators sometimes even risking their lives in areas still mined or threatened by Russian forces to gather evidence that could help secure convictions.
They have the support of several teams of international investigators and forensic experts, but face a daunting task. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the parts of Ukraine alone that have been liberated from Russian forces, and dozens of rapes have been reported.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general has already recorded more than 11,000 war crimes, including attacks on hospitals. Large swaths of Ukrainian territory are still under Russian control, so the toll is expected to rise significantly if these areas can be reached.
Shysimarin, who is from Ust Illyinsk in Russia’s southeastern Irkutsk region, was a commander of the Kantemirovskaya tank division at the time of the killing, which happened on February 28 in the village of Chupakhivka.
Prosecutors say he shot at a car after his convoy was attacked by Ukrainian forces, then stole the car and drove it away with four other soldiers. He then used an AK-47 to shoot the unarmed man, just a few dozen meters from his home.
The man was talking on the phone, and Shysimarin was ordered “to kill a civilian so he wouldn’t report them to Ukrainian defenders,” prosecutors said.
One of the few precedents for holding a trial while a war is still raging comes from the Balkans. A Bosnian Serb soldier, Borislav Herak, was captured by Bosnian army soldiers, tried for 35 murders and 14 rapes, and convicted of genocide and crimes against civilians.
Senad Kreho, who was president of a district military court in Sarajevo in 1993, said the justice system worked fairly even though the war was still going on. “Many later reviews of [Herak’s] by international and domestic legal experts concluded that he received a fair trial,” Kreho told The Associated Press.
Two other unnamed soldiers are due to have a first hearing within days on allegations that they used a Soviet truck-mounted 122mm multiple rocket launcher to bomb civilian homes and buildings in the Kharkiv district.
Another case will be heard in absentia shortly. A soldier named Mikhail Romanov is accused of rape and murder.
Artem Mazhulin contributed reporting