A 21-year-old Russian soldier facing the first war crimes trial since Moscow invaded Ukraine has pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed civilian.
Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin could face life imprisonment for shooting a 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through an open car window in the northeastern Sumy region in the early days of the invasion.
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Shishimarin, a captured member of a Russian tank unit, was prosecuted under a section of the Ukrainian criminal code that addresses the laws and customs of war.
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova previously said her office was readying war crimes cases against 41 Russian soldiers for offences that included bombing civilian infrastructure, killing civilians, rape and looting.
It was not immediately clear how many of the suspects are in Ukrainian hands and how many would be tried in absentia.
As the inaugural war-crimes case in Ukraine, Shishimarin’s prosecution was being watched closely. Investigators have been collecting evidence of possible war crimes to bring before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Venediktova’s office has said it was looking into more than 10,700 potential war crimes involving more than 600 suspects, including Russian soldiers and government officials.
With help from foreign experts, prosecutors are investigating allegations that Russian troops violated Ukrainian and international law by killing, torturing and abusing possibly thousands of Ukrainian civilians.
Shishimarin’s trial opened Friday, when he made a brief court appearance while lawyers and judges discussed procedural matters. Ukrainian authorities posted a few details on social media last week from their investigation into his case.
Shishimarin was among a group of Russian troops who fled Ukrainian forces on February 28, according to Venediktova’s Facebook account. The Russians allegedly fired at a private car and seized the vehicle, then drove to Chupakhivka, a village about 322km (200 miles) east of Kyiv.
On the way, the prosecutor-general alleged, the Russian soldiers saw a man cycling and talking on his phone. Shishimarin was ordered to kill the man so he wouldn’t be able to report them to Ukrainian military authorities. Venediktova did not identify who gave the order.
Shishimarin fired his Kalashnikov rifle through the open window and hit the victim in the head, Venediktova wrote.
“The man died on the spot just a few dozen metres from his house,” she wrote.
The Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, posted a short video on May 4 of Shishimarin speaking in front of a camera and briefly describing how he shot the man. The SBU described the video as “one of the first confessions of the enemy invaders”.
“I was ordered to shoot,” Shishimarin said. “I shot one [round] at him. He falls. And we kept on going.”
The next hearing in the case will take place Thursday at 09:00GMT.
Prosecutor Andriy Sinyuk told reporters after Wednesday’s hearing that two witnesses – including one of the Russian soldiers who was with Shishimarin at the time of the incident – will be brought to testify in court.
The soldier’s weapon will also be examined as part of the probe, he said.
The Kremlin earlier said it was not informed about the case, saying Moscow’s “ability to provide assistance due to the lack of our diplomatic mission there is also very limited”.
Russia is believed to be preparing war crime trials for Ukrainian soldiers.