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Ukrainian judge hands down a sentence in the first war crimes trial in that conflict

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Ukraine today, judges have handed down a sentence in their first war crimes trial. The court gave a life sentence to a 21-year-old Russian army sergeant for shooting and killing an unarmed Ukrainian man during the first days of the war. War, of course, is always violent. But atrocities against those who are considered innocent or defenseless are crimes. NPR's Greg Myre has been covering the case, joins us now. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was the ruling today?

MYRE: So the three judges sentenced this young Russian soldier, Vadim Shishimarin, to life in prison. They did this just moments ago. They read out a lengthy, hour-long statement. They said he admitted that he did it. He knew it was wrong even if fellow soldiers were encouraging him to carry out. He pled guilty last week to the shooting of a 62-year-old unarmed Ukrainian man. And this was just a few days into the war. Now, Russia has said that this case and other claims of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians are all fake or staged.

INSKEEP: Well, we can presume Russia would say that regardless. But it is hard to prove facts of what happened on a battlefield. So were prosecutors able to provide persuasive evidence?

MYRE: Yeah. That was certainly a question going into the trial. I mean, even when he pleaded guilty, there were some doubts whether this was voluntary. But the prosecution presented compelling evidence. The soldier, along with others who were captured just a day after the killing on February 28 - another of the captured Russian soldiers testified that Shishimarin pulled the trigger. A friend of the dead Ukrainian man witnessed the shooting and testified. And prosecutors said the ballistics matched the gun of this Russian soldier. So all the evidence did line up.

INSKEEP: OK. So they tried to build a case the way that you would in a non-war environment. What other testimony did you hear? And what other voices did you hear around the courtroom?

MYRE: Well, there was this dramatic moment in court last week when the widow was allowed to speak directly to the soldier. She asked him how it felt when he shot her husband. And the soldier said it was extremely stressful. His armored vehicle had broken down. He was trying to escape the village in a car that the soldiers had stolen. They saw a civilian talking on his cellphone. They thought he might be revealing their position. The soldiers told him, shoot him, shoot him. He initially refused but eventually did because they said he was endangering all of them. And he told the widow, I understand you probably won't be able to forgive me, but I ask for your forgiveness.

INSKEEP: Wow. Can I ask about the timing of this trial, Greg? We normally hear of war crimes trials after a conflict is over.

MYRE: Yeah, Steve, there seem to be several reasons. The Ukrainians say they've documented more than 11,000 possible Russian war crimes. There seems to be a real gut-level feeling among Ukrainians that they should respond to this as soon as they can. They want to investigate while the evidence is still fresh and witnesses can be located rather than trying to reconstruct cases years later. We should note the International Criminal Court has already sent a large team here, more than 40 people. So they'll also be investigating. But Russia isn't part of the International Criminal Court. There's no reason to believe they'll cooperate. So in a practical sense, Ukraine may be the only entity that will be able to prosecute.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another practicality of all this, Greg. Whatever is said against Russia, as you know very well, Russia turns it back and says that about the other side - that's what you are, but what am I? - the whataboutism. And now we have Ukrainians putting Russians on trial. Should we expect that Russians will also put Ukrainian prisoners of war on trial for war crimes?

MYRE: Certainly, this is possible. As this trial was taking place last week, we had these Ukrainian fighters at the steel plant in Mariupol surrendering. The Russians are saying these were Nazis. We're going to put them on trial in Russia. We've had some Russian members of parliament saying that, nothing official. But already, we see that language coming. It does seem quite possible that Russia may turn this around and also hold its own trials.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks so much for the update, really appreciate it.

MYRE: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.