Any Russian moves to prosecute and potentially execute some of the hundreds of Ukrainian fighters who surrendered in Mariupol could be in breach of the Geneva conventions, which state that prisoners of war should not be punished for having taken part in hostilities.
The concerns were underlined by the UK’s armed forces minister, James Heappey,who told the radio station LBC: “I think there have been enough atrocities in this war already without seeing the execution or whatever of the prisoners of war, which I fear this is a prelude to. I just think we have to be very clear, that sort of atrocity the west would stand in utter condemnation of. Prisoners of war have a status enshrined in the Geneva convention.”
Among those who have called for the prosecution of the fighters who have been leaving the sprawling Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol is the pro-Russia Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin, who said on Wednesday that a court would decide their fate.
The Geneva conventions comprise four treaties and three protocols establishing international legal standards for humanitarian treatment during wars. The single term Geneva convention usually refers to the agreements negotiated in 1949 after the second world war.
The 1949 convention says PoWs must not be prosecuted for their direct part in hostilities, and makes clear that detention after capture should not be seen as a form of punishment but a means to prevent further participation in the conflict.
The only permissible exception is that the detaining power may prosecute prisoners for possible war crimes. One of Russia’s claimed justifications for its war of aggression against Ukraine was that members of the Azov regiment in Mariupol were responsible for war crimes.
Early on in the battle for the port city, the Russian defence spokesperson Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov claimed: “It was these Azov battalion Nazis who had been exterminating civilian population in Donetsk and Luhansk republics, deliberately and with exceptional cruelty, for eight years.”
Concern over the potential fate of some of the Ukrainian soldiers has been raised after threats by Russian officials to treat them as “terrorists” rather than combatants.
Although Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, promised that the fighters who surrendered would be treated “in accordance with international standards”, this was immediately undermined by statements from other Russian officials.
“Nazi criminals should not be exchanged,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, the chair of the State Duma, in a speech on Tuesday, referring to Ukrainian offers of a prisoner exchange. “Our country treats those who surrendered or were captured humanely. But with regards to Nazis, our position should be unchanged: these are war criminals and we must do everything so that they stand trial.”
Russia’s justice ministry appealed to the supreme court to declare the Azov regiment a terrorist organisation on Tuesday, possibly introducing another hurdle to a potential exchange.
Azov has been a key part of the Russian propaganda narrative about the war in Ukraine, which was originally launched with the supposed goal of “denazification”. It was formed in 2014 as a volunteer militia to fight Russia-backed forces in east Ukraine, and many of its original members had far-right extremist views. Since then, the unit has been integrated into the Ukrainian national guard and its commanders say it has moved away from its far-right origins.
Both sides in the conflict have been accused of breaches of the Geneva conventions in their treatment of prisoners. Matilda Bogner, the head of the United Nations human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine, said there was “credible information” of mistreatment of prisoners.
“We have received credible information of torture, ill-treatment and incommunicado detention by Ukrainian armed forces of prisoners of war belonging to the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups,” Bogner said. Soldiers were “being coerced to make statements, apologies and confessions, and [subjected to] other forms of humiliation,” she said.