Russia said on Friday that more than 1,900 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in recent days at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, at least some of the fighters were taken to a facility in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.
In Ukraine, authorities have already detained three Russian soldiers on war crimes charges. A soldier, 21-year-old Vadim Shishimarin, has pleaded guilty to shooting dead an unarmed civilian in the Sumi region of northeastern Ukraine in the first week of the war. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison. Two more Russian soldiers are on trial for firing on civilian targets in the Kharkiv region.
Here’s what you need to know about prisoners of war and the rules for their treatment under international law.
What is a prisoner of war?
POWs are members of the armed forces, fighters of certain militias or volunteer forces who “fall into the power of the enemy” during a conflict, an international treaty adopted in 1949 as part of a set of rules governing war, according to the Third Geneva Convention.
Other groups that fall into the category include military aid workers, supply contractors and residents of unoccupied territories who voluntarily take up arms to join the fight.
“Prisoner of war is a very important status because it brings with it special privileges and protections,” said Laurie Blank, an expert in armed conflict law at Emory University.
But there is controversy over who is considered a real prisoner of war – and often the kidnappers decide for themselves.
The United States has sometimes used the label unequally – it was widely used during the Vietnam War but was criticized by rights advocates for not designating Taliban fighters as prisoners of war at the beginning of the US military operation in Afghanistan.
In Ukraine, the total number of prisoners of war held by both sides remains unclear. The ICRC said on Thursday that it had registered hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war this week at the Azovstal plant “at the request of the parties”.
The registration process includes collecting personal details so that the ICRC can track detainees and help them communicate with their families, the agency said.
But with the Kremlin repeatedly referring to Mariopol’s Ukrainian fighters as “Nazis”, some rights groups and legal experts are concerned that Russia may deny POW protection to Ukrainian prisoners.
Russia’s prosecutor-general this week asked the country’s top court to nominate the Azov Regiment, a far-right group fighting in Mariupol as a terrorist organization, local media reported.
Moscow has expressed doubts about the prisoner exchange; The soldier pleaded guilty to murder
What rights does international law give them?
Russia and Ukraine are among the 200 countries that have ratified the Third Geneva Convention, which speaks of the rights of prisoners of war.
The Convention states that detainees must “always be treated humanely,” and that deliberate killing, torture, or medical or scientific testing of detainees is prohibited. Prisoners must be protected against “violence or intimidation and insults and public curiosity.”
Countries need to provide medical care to prisoners of war and, among other things, keep them in a decent condition. They should be held in designated POW camps instead of prisons. Once the conflict has ended, detainees should be sent home quickly.
Under the Convention, the ICRC, a non-partisan body, has the right to access prisoners of war to ensure their humane treatment. The agency said Friday it had visited detainees on all sides of the conflict and informed “hundreds of families about their loved ones.”
The details of the ICRC’s work and its results are generally kept confidential.
The Russian and Ukrainian governments have promised to treat prisoners of war in accordance with international law, but rights groups have accused both sides of abusing them.
In March, videos aired online showed Ukrainian forces firing on captured Russian fighters. Ukrainian authorities have said they will investigate.
Amnesty International also documented the killing of prisoners by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the organization said on Tuesday, warning that Mariupol fighters “should not meet the same fate.”
Can prisoners of war be tried?
It depends. Prisoners of war cannot be tried for war. But they could be prosecuted for war crimes, including intentionally targeting civilians or attacking civilian sites, such as hospitals or schools.
What are war crimes, and is Russia doing them in Ukraine?
Prisoners of war have a competent lawyer and a fair trial and they can appeal against their conviction and sentence.
A Russian soldier is facing trial for the first time since the Moscow invasion # Ukraine Has pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed civilian.
Some are asking about international law: can a Ukrainian court try him?
Short answer: Yes.
But it is worth a thread… https://t.co/n7RPeOY962 pic.twitter.com/rfqh5kyVWp
– Andrew Strohelin (astroehlein) May 19, 2022
Nevertheless, it is unusual for prisoners to face trial when a conflict is still going on. It may be convenient to do so while the evidence is fresh, experts say, but politics also plays a role.
Ukraine has already begun prosecuting Russian soldiers for war crimes, including Shishimarin, who is accused of killing an elderly unarmed man. The man’s widow initially asked if Shishimarin would be sentenced to life in prison, but she said she would support him in exchange for Ukrainian troops from Mariupol who are now in Russian custody. The court will sentence Shishimarin on May 23.
Russian troops have apologized to the victim’s family in a Ukrainian court
Isling Reddy, a senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch, says Ukraine’s judiciary has improved in recent years. The ongoing war crimes trial in Ukraine is also being closely scrutinized.
Russia has a highly political justice system and a conviction rate of more than 99 percent, according to Russian officials. Authorities there have indicated they would like to try some of the fighters who surrendered at the Azvestal plant in Mariupol.
William Shabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, said:
Is it legal to film prisoners of war?
The policy of protecting prisoners of war was adopted in response to World War II, when the Germans paraded Allied pilots in a town where prisoners were harassed and sometimes beaten to death, according to Shabas.
This protection has been extended to install POWs in the camera, experts say. Violations are not considered war crimes, Blank said, but the rule is meant to protect the dignity of captured soldiers, who are particularly at risk in enemy custody.
Rights groups have expressed concern over the posting of Ukrainian videos of captured Russian soldiers on social media at the start of the war, some of which appear to intimidate them.
Bloody online campaign Ukraine hopes to sow anti-Putin dissent may have violated Geneva Conventions
Russia’s Defense Ministry posted a video on its telegram this week showing wounded Ukrainian soldiers in a hospital. In the videos, the men say in Russian that they are being treated well and are being examined by doctors.
Although the footage appears to be intended to show that Moscow is playing by rules, sharing clips of detainees is still prohibited, Blank said.
But when prisoners of war are tried, the law must change. In that context, it is essential to monitor and publicize activities to ensure that defendants receive a fair trial, Reddy said.
In Russia, the absence of independent media and monitoring groups would raise concerns about the fairness of the trials held there, he said.