UN ‘concerned’ about Russian plans to try Ukrainian prisoners of war

Mariupol's Philharmonic Hall, where a trial over the members of the Azov prisoners of war is planned to be held in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. (Credit: Keystone/Ilya Pitalev/Sputnik)

Russia is reportedly planning to try Ukrainian prisoners of war in the fallen city of Mariupol in the coming days without any international monitoring, sparking concerns of potential rights violations, the UN rights office said on Tuesday.

“We have concerns that if the prisoners of war are charged with war crimes, they will not receive the due process and fair trial guarantees to which they're entitled,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR), at a press briefing in Geneva.

The head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic told Russian state media on Monday that authorities were almost ready to try fighters captured during the siege of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant.

Photos and video footage of metal cages being built in the port city’s philharmonic hall have emerged recently in the media, three months after it was captured by Russian forces. The installations appear to be meant to restrain the detainees during their trials, Shamdasani told reporters.

“This is not acceptable. This is humiliating (…) to prisoners of war and it adds to our concerns about how they're being treated and whether the presumption of innocence is being upheld,” she said.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned that if the trials go ahead, it would kill negotiations between Kiev and Moscow.

Why it matters. Prisoners of war have combatant immunity under international law, meaning that they can’t be prosecuted for taking part in hostilities or for committing lawful acts of war during the conflict, according to the OHCHR. If tried, it should be by an​​ “impartial and regularly constituted court”.

According to Shamdasani, the UN has not been granted access to these proceedings in Mariupol, leaving them in the dark about how and who will be tried. Russia’s track record of dealing with POW also sparks fears of the worst, she said.

“In the past, [Russia] they have charged prisoners of war as mercenaries and we are concerned that this may happen. We are also concerned that, in the past, death sentences have been handed down, following trials that do not follow internationally prescribed standards,” she added, noting that “willfully depriving a prisoner of war with the right to a fair and regular trial amounts to a war crime”.

The lack of monitoring also means that prisoners are at a higher risk of being tortured to extract a confession, and there have been several reports of Ukrainian POWs being mutilated and detained in poor conditions, according to the UN human rights body.

What about Russian POWs? So far, six Russian soldiers and combattants from affiliated armed groups have been sentenced for war crimes in Ukraine. Shamdasani said the UN was also concerned about these expedited proceedings.

“We do have grounds to believe that in some cases, prisoners of war were sentenced for mere participation in hostilities, which they should not be tried for under international humanitarian law,” she said.

However, she stressed that unlike in the case of Mariupol, the UN has been able to monitor Ukrainian court proceedings.