A Ukrainian court has sentenced a Russian soldier to life in prison on Monday for the killing of a civilian at the first war crimes trial since the invasion by Russia of Ukraine.
Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old sergeant, was found guilty of killing 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov, in the north-eastern village of Chupakhivka on 28 February.
Sgt. Shishimarin admitted shooting Mr. Shelipov but said he had been acting on orders and asked forgiveness of the man’s widow.
Many other alleged war crimes are being investigated by Ukraine and in a conflict where the deliberate targeting of civilians has become one of the defining features, Monday’s outcome sets a significant legal precedent.
Moscow has always denied its troops have targeted civilians, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, while Ukraine says more than 11,000 crimes may have occurred.
Ukraine, however, is likely to bring more cases like this to unpick Moscow’s blanket denials.
This sentencing is unlikely to lead to an immediate change in tactics from the invading forces, but it does bring Oleksandr Shelipov’s widow Kateryna Shelipova justice.
Imposing the life sentence, Judge Serhiy Agafonov said Shishimarin, had carried out a “criminal order” by a soldier of higher rank.
“Given that the crime committed is a crime against peace, security, humanity and the international legal order… the court does not see the possibility of imposing a [shorter]sentence of imprisonment,” he said.
Shishimarin, wearing a blue and grey hooded sweatshirt, watched proceedings silently from a reinforced glass box in the courtroom and showed no emotion as the verdict was read out.
His lawyer said an appeal would be lodged against the verdict.
The Kremlin’s response is already in motion, with laws being drafted and courts being set up in Russia to try some Ukrainian prisoners as war criminals.
This suggests both countries could soon find themselves in a legal tit-for-tat while the conflict rages on.
Shishimarin served in Russia’s Kantemirovskaya tank division. At the time of the killing, he and other soldiers were travelling in a car they had seized after their convoy came under attack and they became separated from their unit.
When they spotted Mr. Shelipov he was speaking on his phone, Shishimarin told the court. He said he was told to shoot him with an assault rifle.
His defence lawyer told the court on Friday that Shishimarin had only fired after twice refusing to carry out the order to shoot and that only one out of three to four rounds had hit the man.
He said Shishimarin fired the rounds out of fear for his own safety and he questioned whether the defendant had intended to kill.
In one dramatic moment, the victim’s widow Kateryna Shelipova confronted Shishimarin. “Tell me please, why did you [Russians] come here? To protect us?” she asked, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.
“Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?”
The soldier had no answer to that. Asking forgiveness of the widow earlier, he said: “But I understand you won’t be able to forgive me.”
Ms. Shelipova told the BBC: “I feel very sorry for him but for a crime like that – I can’t forgive him.”
Since President Putin sent Russian troops into Ukraine on 24 February, at least 3,838 civilians have been killed and 4,351 injured, according to the UN.
Among the dead are numerous suspected victims of war crimes in occupied towns such as Bucha.
Earlier this month, the BBC obtained CCTV footage of the killing of two civilians in cold blood allegedly by Russian soldiers, a case now being investigated by prosecutors as a suspected war crime. (Source: BBC)