Accused of Fighting for their Country: How Russia Handles the Trial of Azov Soldiers

July 10, 2023
Ukrainian prisoners of war from “Azovstal” face criminal prosecution in Russian captivity solely for taking part in combat operations.
Photo credit: Reuters

On 15 June, 22 Azov soldiers were taken to trial in Rostov with accusations of "taking part in the terrorist organisation and activities aimed at overthrowing the Russian government in Donetsk region." Among them were nine female chefs who had nothing to do with the unit's military operations.

This is not an isolated case, as accusing soldiers of "Azov" regiment of "terrorism" has become a well-prepared Russian strategy targeting "Azovstal" defenders who are in Russian captivity.

On 2 August 2022 Russia`s Supreme Court designated "Azov" as a terrorist organisation and banned its operations in the territory of the Russian Federation.

"This is the case when Russia attempts to sentence a group based on their affiliation with a certain military unit - taking part in combat operations. It is not because of an act committed by one person against another, but because of their affiliation with military units defined as a "terrorist organisation" in Russia. According to international law, it is prohibited to take a prisoner of war to trial for their participation in military operations," Tetiana Katrychenko, the coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights, told us.

The supervisory authority stated in the above comment that the Court`s decision "leads to criminal prosecution of "Azov" members" and that investigation into crimes committed against "The people of Donbas" is ongoing.

Despite agreements that "Azovstal" defenders would be treated in accordance with  international humanitarian law, Russian law enforcement agencies have begun prosecuting "Azov" prisoners of war.

"This is a violation of all possible conventions. We know that Azovstal defenders were leaving under the terms of guarantees reached between both the Ukrainian and Russian sides. Unfortunately, we see that these agreements on not taking them to trial and not sentencing to imprisonment on false charges do not work," Marianna Khomeriki, the press secretary of the Association of "Azovstal" Defenders` Families, told us.

For instance, Russia has been holding "closed" trials against "Azov" soldiers with identical accusations of either taking part in a terrorist organisation or "committing war crimes against civilians in Mariupol".

"There used to be non-public trials. They used to pick people at random, take them under trial and sentence them to imprisonment. Of course, they [Russian law enforcement agencies] either do not inform relatives or do not provide any kind of court protection to the imprisoned," Khomeriki adds.

Since 2014, Russian law enforcement agencies have used accusations of terrorism, overthrowing the Russian government, or attacks on civilians to justify ill-treatment and imprisonment of Ukrainian soldiers or simply people with the pro-Ukrainian position.

For example, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who expressed opposition to Russia's occupation of Crimea, was charged and trialed for "preparing a terrorist attack and establishing a terrorist organisation".

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, similar accusations of "terrorism" were also targeting Crimean Tatars, journalists and civic activists from Crimea, with the goal of sentencing them to prison for up to 19 years.

Accusations of "terror against civilians" fit with l Russian's general narrative about Ukrainian soldiers as war criminals. In addition to demonising Ukrainians and giving pseudo evidence to the bigger narrative about "the rise of neo-Nazism in Ukraine," this approach also helps to conceal Russia`s own war crimes committed against civilians in Ukraine.

Therefore, Russian attacks on residential areas in Mariupol, Bakhmut, Kharkiv and even mass killings in Bucha are portrayed as "crimes committed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in order to accuse Russia".

It is also worth noting that discrediting "Azov" soldiers was an inevitable part of Russian propaganda even before designating the regiment as a "terrorist organisation" in August 2022.

"They [workers of security service, military police and Investigative Committee] are attempting to ascertain two things. Firstly, these are locations of "terrorist organisations", among which they define "Azov'. Even when someone was captured in the Kyiv oblast, they would ask what is their opinion of "Azov" and "The Right Sector", Tetiana Katrychenko notes.

For instance, Russian propagandists together with self-proclaimed authorities of so-called "Donetsk People`s Republic" (DPR) were sharing messages about an open trial against "Azovstal" defenders in Mariupol Philharmonic.

In this case even the place carried a symbolic significance, as it refers to the Mariupol Drama Theater, which was destroyed by Russian bombing on March 16 2022, during the Mariupol siege.

In addition to creating a humiliating entourage by installing cages inside the building, where prisoners of war would had been held, Russian propagandists and representatives of so-called "DPR" were also speaking about the possible execution of prisoners of war, as the "death penalty is not prohibited in "Donetsk People's Republic", which  is another serious violation of the Geneva Convention.

Source: Suspilne

This illustrative proceeding and trial in Rostov are just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Media Initiative for Human Rights and the Association of "Azovstal" Defenders Families, prisoners of war are detained in deplorable conditions and lack access to medical care, which can lead to serious health consequences and even deaths in captivity.

There are cases where families of prisoners of war have been kept in the dark about their relatives' health, detention conditions, and place of detention for more than a year.

"Only from those  who return from captivity can tell us about their health and detention conditions. They all are exhausted and have numerous health problems. People from Azovstal, who return from captivity, have to go through months of rehabilitation" Khomeriki tells.

According to Tetiana Katrychenko, prisoners of war who return from Russian captivity also report about torture and indiscriminate use of violence against prisoners of war.

"There is a practice known as "admission": when POWs arrive at their detention facility, they are often  severely beaten by employees of Russia's special forces. People can be beaten while taking a shower. Sometimes an electric shock is used... If someone seeks medical help because of a headache or toothache, there is a risk of being hit over the head or having teeth beaten out," - she explained.

However, human rights defenders also stated that even despite  sentences of Russian trials, there are cases when prisoners of war were returned from captivity during the exchange procedure.

"It is essential not to forget about them now. To continue speaking  about them, though, it has been a year since they were in captivity. To do small things - repost attend protests. All of this helps. We ask all those who care about the fate of prisoners of war to make small contributions, so we can return them home as soon as possible," Khomeriki resumed.

To conclude, taking to trial and accusing soldiers from "Azovstal" of "terrorism and overthrowing the Russian government" solely for their affiliation with the military unit is a stark violation of international law.

Even though it is  Russia who occupied Ukrainian territories and overthrew the legitimate Ukrainian government, now cynically accuses Ukrainian defenders of "overthrowing" the Russian government in Ukrainian territories while defending their country.

Analyst and Journalist at UkraineWorld