The United Nations has raised concerns over reports that Russia is making preparations to prosecute Ukrainian prisoners of war under conditions that could amount to war crimes. The UN human rights office pointed to images and footage appearing to show metal cages being installed in a hall in the 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,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the UN elevated Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), told a briefing 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.
OHCHR has repeatedly asked Moscow to grant independent monitors full access to all individuals those detained and its affiliates in relation to the war in Ukraine. But it has not been granted access to any places of internment of PoWs or to areas controlled by its proxies, such as in the Donetsk region.
Notably, under the international humanitarian law, the establishment of courts solely to judge PoWs is not allowed, 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 said that PoWs are at risk of being tortured for information as they have generally been held without access to independent monitors.
“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.
OHCHR is clueless about the number of people who may be tried or how Russia plans to set up the tribunal to hear the cases, who the defendants are and what crimes will be considered.
Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine began on February 24 and will reach the six-month milestone tomorrow. Ukraine’s southern port city of Mariupol suffered a devastating siege and heavy shelling before being captured by Russian troops.
Shamdasani said the OHCHR had been given access to Ukrainian trials, and was aware of six men being sentenced for war crimes.
(With inputs from agencies)