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Ukraine begins prosecuting Russians for war crimes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ukraine has launched its first prosecution for war crimes against a 21-year-old sergeant of the Russian army. Prosecutors say this is just one of many such cases they expect to file against Russian troops in the days ahead. NPR's Greg Myre is in Lviv and joins us. Greg, thanks for being with us.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And please fill us in on the details of what we know about this first case.

MYRE: This Russian soldier is Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin. Now, Ukrainian prosecutors say that just four days into the war, on February 28, he was with a group of fellow soldiers in a village in the northwest corner of Ukraine. Now, several of them allegedly stole a Ukrainian car at gunpoint. And as they were leaving, they saw an unarmed Ukrainian man on the side of the road. He was 62 years old, walking with his bike and talking on a phone. They apparently thought he might be telling someone - perhaps Ukrainian troops - that there were Russian troops in the area, so one of the Russians told Sergeant Shishimarin to shoot the man, which he allegedly did, killing him instantly.

SIMON: How did Ukrainian forces identify this Russian sergeant and link him to the shooting and capture him so quickly?

MYRE: Yeah, these are all good questions. And we don't know the answers, but we'll be watching very closely at the trial. Now, the sergeant was clearly captured at some point since then. He appeared in court in the capital Kyiv on Friday. He was seated in a glass box. He was handcuffed. He had a blue and gray hoodie. His head was shaved. He kept his head down, and he didn't say anything when journalists tried to ask him questions.

Now, he has a court-appointed lawyer, who's Ukrainian, and the lawyer says he wants to protect the rights of his clients and show, quote, "that we are a country different to the one he's from." And, broadly speaking, there's overwhelming evidence that Russian troops have committed atrocities. But still, the Ukrainian prosecutors will be expected to show that this Russian sergeant committed this particular shooting, and his case resumes on Wednesday.

SIMON: Greg, when Ukrainian prosecutors say this case is just the beginning, what does that indicate?

MYRE: Well, they have a lot more planned. Ukraine says it's identified more than 10,000 suspected war crimes. They're working with international investigators to gather evidence as quickly as possible. Ukraine has named some suspects in the Russian military for atrocities in Bucha. This is that suburb of Kyiv where many civilians were killed. But as far as we know, none of those suspects have been captured. And that, of course, is really going to be the major challenge in most of these cases. Overall, Ukraine's prosecutor general says the country is now preparing 41 cases and expects many more to come.

SIMON: It's unusual to have war crimes trials while a war is still going on, isn't it?

MYRE: Yeah, absolutely, Scott. The basic model was set after World War II, when Nazis were put on trial in Nuremberg, Germany, shortly after the war. These proceedings were run by the victorious nations, including the Soviet Union, we should note. And it focused on top-level figures in the Nazi regime. But Ukraine says that waiting to prosecute cases after a war does pose a number of challenges. It's hard to gather evidence, to track down witnesses. So Ukraine says one reason it wants to start prosecutions now is to show Russian soldiers currently fighting in Ukraine that being put on trial is a real possibility if they commit war crimes.

SIMON: Greg, how difficult is it to find and prosecute Russian soldiers when Ukraine is trying to defeat them in the field?

MYRE: To do this in the middle of a war is a huge challenge. Now, there's a lot of technology and assets that they have at their disposal that might make it easier than in previous wars. So they hope combining that technology with the fact they're doing it in almost real time will make it easier to identify and present evidence in a war crimes case.

SIMON: NPR's Greg Myre in Lviv, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.