UN concerned Russia preparing 'unlawful' PoW trials

Images appeared to show prisoner cages being built Mariupol's philharmonic hall, which Russian forces captured in May. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (AFP) - The United Nations voiced alarm Tuesday (Aug 23) at reports that Russia is preparing to prosecute Ukrainian prisoners of war under conditions that could amount to war crimes.

The UN human rights office said it was concerned by images and footage appearing to show metal cages being built in the philharmonic hall in the shattered Ukrainian city of Mariupol, apparently to hold PoWs during proceedings.

"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 in the course of the armed conflict, even if such acts would otherwise constitute an offence under domestic law," spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva.

"If prisoners of war are charged with crimes, they are entitled to due process and fair trial guarantees. No sentence or punishment may be passed on them unless it is delivered by an impartial and regularly constituted court," she said.

International humanitarian law prohibits the establishment of courts solely to judge PoWs, and wilfully depriving a PoW of the right to a fair and regular trial "amounts to a war crime", she added.

"It would be the Russian Federation that would be responsible if this goes ahead," she said.

The UN rights office is concerned that PoWs have generally been held without access to independent monitors, exposing them to the risk of being tortured to extract a confession, Ms Shamdasani added.

"We have had reports that have led to our concern that torture may be used in these circumstances," she said.

"There have also been worrying public statements by Russian officials and members of affiliated armed groups labelling Ukrainian prisoners of war as 'war criminals', 'Nazis', and 'terrorists', thereby undermining the presumption of innocence," she added.

The UN rights office, OHCHR, has repeatedly called on Moscow to grant independent monitors full access to all individuals detained by Russia and its affiliates in relation to the war in Ukraine.

But it has not been granted access to any places of internment of PoWs by Russia or to areas controlled by its proxies, such as in the Donetsk region.

OHCHR does not know how many people may be tried or how any tribunal may be constituted, who will hear the cases, who the defendants are and what crimes will be considered.

Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24. Ukraine's southern port city of Mariupol suffered a devastating siege and heavy shelling before being captured by Russian troops.

Ms Shamdasani said the OHCHR had been given access to Ukrainian trials, and was aware of six men being sentenced for war crimes.

However they had some concerns "about the sentencing of PoWs from Russian-affiliated armed groups in what they call expedited proceedings by Ukrainian courts," she added.

"We do have grounds to believe that in some cases, PoWs were sentenced for mere participation in hostilities."

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