However, Russia has indicated that it considers the fighters of the Azov regiment “terrorists” and that it intends to try them as criminals and not as prisoners of war. As for Ukraine, it was singled out by several NGOs for violating the Geneva Convention, for having broadcast videos of repentant Russian fighters.
How many are they?
As with any conflict, field data is often fragmented and difficult to verify. The number of prisoners of war is no exception. No numbers were provided at this stage.
In Mariupol, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported “3,826 prisoners,” including “2,439 Ukrainians taken prisoner during the surrender of Azovstal” and “1,387 Marines” taken prisoner earlier. The ambassador in Moscow of the breakaway republic of Lugansk, Rodion Miroshnik, on Thursday gave the figure of 8,000 Ukrainian prisoners for the two breakaway territories, “and every day hundreds are added to that”.
On the Ukrainian side, no number of Russian prisoners was reported. In Azovstal, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had registered “hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war”.
Regular army soldiers who fall “into the power of the enemy” are considered “prisoners of war” whose status is defined by the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which also applies in cases where war has not been officially declared.
This status pertains to “members of the armed forces or militiamen who are part of those armed forces”, specifies William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University in London. These prisoners, he continues, have rights and must, in particular, be protected against any act of violence or intimidation, against insults and public curiosity.
However, according to the NGOs, some of these rights have been violated since the beginning of the conflict. In March, Human Rights Watch urged Ukraine to stop portraying repentant Russian prisoners of war in the media.
HRW also called on Ukrainian authorities to investigate possible “war crimes” against Russian prisoners after footage emerged that appeared to show Ukrainian soldiers shooting them in the legs. More recently, Amnesty International has been moved by the fate of “Ukrainian prisoners of war in Azovstal”, presented in Russian media “in a dehumanizing way” as “neo-Nazis”.
In this context, the ICRC registration process plays a key role, emphasizes Julia Grignon, a researcher at the Instituto de Pesquisas Estratégicas da Escola Militar (Irsem). “It’s a guarantee, it means they won’t disappear because then we can demand accountability”.
And the exchanges?
Having become common practice, prisoner exchange is not governed by international law and takes the form of an over-the-counter agreement. Since the beginning of the invasion, several exchanges of soldiers and civilians have already taken place between Ukrainians and Russians, without being systematically confirmed by the two sides.
The request, made by Kyiv, to exchange a close friend of Vladimir Putin, the oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, for Ukrainians captured by Russia is still pending. Russian negotiator Leonid Sloutski recently made it known that Moscow would study this possibility.
Can they be judged?
“Prisoners of war cannot be tried for the simple fact of having participated in combat”, underlines the French expert. “On the other hand, soldiers who allegedly committed crimes during the clashes can be prosecuted.”
In Ukraine, the first Russian soldier on trial for war crimes since the start of the offensive was sentenced to life in prison on Monday in Kyiv for the murder of a civilian.