A Russian soldier was sentenced to life in prison on Monday for killing an unarmed civilian, in the first war crimes trial since Moscow’s invasion began three months ago.
The verdict caps days of proceedings in a Kyiv courtroom and could set the stage for a string of other prosecutions for alleged atrocities committed by Russian forces during the conflict.
Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin, 21, pleaded guilty to violating the laws and customs of war under a section of the Ukrainian criminal code after he admitted to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old man in the head in a village in northeastern Ukraine in the early days of the war.
The verdict takes effect in 30 days and can be appealed during that period. The soldier, a member of a tank unit who was eventually captured, will remain in custody.
The case drew international attention amid mounting allegations of war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, some of which have been documented by international human rights organizations. Ukraine has launched a massive effort to prosecute the alleged war crimes on its territory, while both the International Criminal Court and the United Nations have also set out separate inquiries.
The attention on the case also highlights its unusual nature, involving a captured soldier being tried in the country that his armed forces invaded in the middle of the war.
Wearing a blue-and-gray prison tracksuit and with his head shaved, Shyshimarin looked subdued throughout the trial as he sat in a glass booth separating him from the rest of the courtroom. The youthful-looking soldier had a translator help him interpret the proceedings, conducted in Ukrainian, through a narrow opening in his booth.
During witness testimony, he stood with his head bowed down to hear the translator and his hands behind his back.
He spoke in court last Thursday to say that he took the deadly shot under pressure from officers. He initially disobeyed his commanding officer’s order to shoot the unarmed civilian, he said, but ultimately did so when another repeated the command. He said what he did was “unacceptable” and pleaded for forgiveness from the victim’s wife.
His defense argued that the officers he said pressured him to carry out the order and their higher-ups should be in the dock, not Shyshimarin.
In announcing the verdict on Monday, the presiding judge said Shyshimarin was well aware that the victim was a civilian and did not have to carry out what he called “a criminal order” to shoot him.
Although Shyshimarin pleaded guilty last Wednesday, he received a full trial, with the court examining evidence and hearing from the victim’s wife, Shyshimarin himself and several other witnesses.
Experts said it was pivotal for Ukraine to lay out the evidence for the Ukrainian public and the world to see.
“I think for them it’s important to try to establish not just guilt, but also to establish what has happened,” said Dapo Akande, an international law professor at the University of Oxford. “They’re trying to create a sort of historical narrative that ‘This is what happened, and we want to show the world that this is what happened.’”
Shyshimarin’s case will likely set the stage for Ukraine to prosecute more war crimes cases in the future, Akande said.
“I would imagine that Ukraine would consider this to be the first of a number of trials, which they would hope to hold over the next few years. And it will be years, I think,” he added.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said in mid-May there were more than 11,000 ongoing war crimes cases in Ukraine, with 40 suspects already identified.
With the Shyshimarin trial, she said Ukraine is sending “a clear signal that every perpetrator, every person who ordered or assisted in the commission of crimes in Ukraine shall not avoid responsibility.”
The Kremlin has tried to distance itself from Shyshimarin’s case, saying it did not have much information about the proceedings and had “very limited” ability to provide him with any assistance. It has called any suggestion that Russian troops have committed war crimes in Ukraine “unacceptable.”
On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was concerned about Shyshimarin’ fate, Interfax news agency reported, and will look for options “to protect his interests.”
While the circumstances of the trial are unusual, experts said there was nothing wrong with Ukraine’s process.
“A prisoner of war cannot be prosecuted for a lawful act of war,” William Schabas, an international law professor at Middlesex University in London, said. “But he is being prosecuted for a war crime.”
Though Shyshimarin is a low-level soldier, moving forward with his trial now may help establish a lot of the jurisprudence and principles around future war crimes cases from the conflict, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, according to Akande.
Artem Grudinin, Charlene Gubash and Mariia Ulianovska contributed.