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Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin found guilty in first Ukraine war crimes trial

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A 21-year-old Russian soldier was found guilty Monday of killing an unarmed civilian in Ukraine’s first war crimes trial since Russia’s invasion. He was sentenced to life in prison.

A court in Kyiv handed down the verdict after Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin pleaded guilty last week to killing a 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the northeastern Sumy region but said he was following orders. He was found guilty of premeditated murder and violating “the rules and customs of war” under Ukraine’s criminal code.

Shishimarin admitted to fatally shooting 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov, who was pushing his bicycle near the village of Chupakhivka, near the Russian border, during the early days of the invasion in late February.

Shelipov “died on the spot just a few meters from his home,” according to Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova.

Shishimarin’s charge, “violation of the rules and customs of war,” was punishable by 10 years to life imprisonment. His lawyer told local journalists he plans to appeal the ruling.

As the Solomyansky district court in Kyiv prepared to hand down its verdict, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia was “concerned” about Shishimarin and would consider its options to protect the soldier’s interests.

“Of course, we are concerned about the fate of our citizen,” Peskov said. “Unfortunately, we are unable to defend his interests on the ground. This is due to the de facto lack of operations of our institutions [in Ukraine]. But this does not mean we will stop considering ways to continue our efforts through other channels.”

Shelipov’s widow said last week she would like Shishimarin to be sentenced to life imprisonment but that she would be open to exchanging him for Ukrainian fighters who were taken to Russian-held territory from the Azovstal plant in Mariupol.

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Shishimarin’s face appeared blank and his eyes downcast during the hearing as he listened to his translator from behind the glass windows of a courtroom detention box.

Clad in a blue and gray sweatshirt, the 21-year-old only briefly looked up as Judge Sergey Agafonov pronounced his sentence. His lawyer then approached Shishimarin and spoke to him through the glass, as a law enforcement officer stood guard.

Prosecutors argued that Shishimarin, a member of Russia’s 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya tank division, committed a war crime when he fired multiple rounds from his rifle at Shelipov. Shishimarin said he was ordered by his fellow soldiers to shoot Shelipov because he was talking on a cellphone and they feared he would report their location after they had fled a nearby battle in a stolen car.

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Shishimarin was represented by a Ukrainian court-appointed lawyer, who said that the case against his client was strong. Still, it was important to preserve Shishimarin’s human rights to show him that Ukraine is “a country different to the one he is from,” his attorney, Victor Ovsyanikov, told the New York Times.

Shishimarin said he did not want to kill Shelipov and that he opened fire only because he was ordered to do so. Ovsyanikov said that Shishimarin had feared for his own safety if he had not complied and that the shots he fired were aimless, Reuters reported.

“I personally think that it should not be this young man in the dock, but the senior leadership of the other country that I think is guilty of unleashing this war,” Ovsyanikov said, according to Reuters.

Ovsyanikov told journalists on Monday that he plans to appeal the judges’ ruling, according to Ukraine’s public broadcaster Suspilne News. “In order to apply to the European Court of Human Rights, we must first exhaust all means of appeal in national courts. In addition to the appellate court, we also have a court of cassation,” he reportedly said.

Throughout the invasion, Moscow has struggled to manage young, inexperienced troops who have suffered low morale and at times seemed uncommitted to the cause.

A separate trial involving two Russian soldiers charged with war crimes in the alleged shelling of civilian targets in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine is ongoing. Legal experts have told The Washington Post that Ukraine, which is party to the European Convention on Human Rights, appears to be adhering to international guidelines on prosecuting war crimes, including the right of the defendant to a fair trial by an independent court.

What rights do prisoners of war have under international law?

Shelipov’s family confronted Shishimarin last week while he sat in a glass defendant’s cell. Shelipov’s widow asked the soldier, “Please tell me, what did you feel toward my husband?” Shishimarin replied: “Yes, I admit guilt. I understand that you will not be able to forgive me. I ask for forgiveness for what was done.”

The widow, Kateryna Shelipova, invoked Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unfounded justifications for the war — that Moscow was simply rescuing Ukrainians from “Nazis” — asking the soldier: “What did you come to us for? You came to protect us? From whom? You ‘protected’ me from my husband, whom you killed.”

Steve Hendrix, David L. Stern, Mary Ilyushina and Claire Parker contributed to this report.

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