UN alarmed by Russian plan for trials of Ukrainian POWs

Depriving POWs of 'rights of fair and regular trial amounts to a war crime,' warns UN rights office

Peter Kenny  | 23.08.2022 - Update : 23.08.2022
UN alarmed by Russian plan for trials of Ukrainian POWs


The UN Human Rights Office on Tuesday voiced concern over reports that Russia and its affiliated armed groups are planning to hold what is being labelled an “international tribunal” to try Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) in the self-proclaimed independent enclave of Donetsk. 

The trials could be held “possibly in the coming days” in Mariupol, Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at a news conference.

While few details are currently available, she said, photos and video footage published in the media and social media seem to show metal cages built in Mariupol’s philharmonic hall, apparently to restrain prisoners.

“Under international law, individuals entitled to prisoner of war status have combatant immunity and cannot be prosecuted for having participated in hostilities or for lawful acts of war committed during the armed conflict,” said Shamdasani.

She said if POWs are charged with crimes, they are entitled to due process and fair trial guarantees.

She pointed out that international humanitarian law prohibits the establishment of courts to judge POWs, adding that “willfully depriving a prisoner of war of the rights of fair and regular trial amounts to a war crime.”

“There have also been worrying public statements by Russian officials and members of affiliated armed groups labeling Ukrainian prisoners of war as ‘war criminals,’ ‘Nazis,’ and ‘terrorists,’ thereby undermining the presumption of innocence," said Shamdasani.

The UN official reiterated calls for Moscow to allow independent monitors full access to all those detained, including people held by separatist groups affiliated with Russia.

Donetsk and Luhansk – both part of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, bordering Russia – have been the scene of a Russian-backed insurgency since 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the “independence” of Donetsk and Luhansk just before the start of the Ukrainian war on Feb. 24.

Like Crimea, all of Donbas remains internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory, and the country’s armed forces continue to fight for it.  

Calls to Red Cross

While the number of Ukrainian and Russian POWs is unknown, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday that the emotional anguish inflicted on communities “is evident in the voices of families desperate for news of their loved ones.”

The ICRC said it has received more than 27,000 calls and emails since the end of February from people looking for news of their loved ones affected by the war in Ukraine.

The group said it has provided nearly 3,000 families with news on the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones.

“Over the last six months, the international armed conflict raging in Ukraine has caused a huge number of civilian deaths and injuries, massive population displacement, immense physical and mental suffering, and horrific damage to civilian infrastructure,” said Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s director-general.

“It’s also taken an extreme emotional toll on victims of conflict and families of soldiers.”

Under the Third Geneva Convention, states mandate the ICRC to visit POWs in international armed conflicts, no matter where they are held.​​​​​​​

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