Prisoners of war from the Azov steel mill: will they face the death penalty in Russia?

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Voices are being raised in the Russian State Duma calling for the death penalty for the fighters in the Ukrainian Azov regiment. What do people think about this in Germany and what would the consequences be for Russia?

Hoping for a prisoner exchange – the prisoners of war from the Azov steel plant

More than 1,700 Ukrainian soldiers defending the Azov steel plant in Mariupol have, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, since April 16 May go into Russian captivity. Among them were the wounded, some of whom were taken to Novoazovsk, located in the area controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, for treatment.

Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Hanna Maljar spoke of the evacuation of the soldiers from the steel mill and assured them that they would return home through an exchange procedure. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also expressed the hope of saving the lives of the soldiers. “Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes,” he stressed.

Death penalty for Azov militants?

However, the Russian side does not rush to negotiate an exchange. The head of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, even declared that the prisoners, whom he calls “Nazi criminals”, should not be returned to Ukraine. On May 26, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation plans to rule on the classification of the Azov regiment as a “terrorist organization” and thus on a ban in Russia. The request of the Russian Prosecutor General's Office is to be discussed behind closed doors.

Removal of Ukrainian prisoners of war from the Azov Steel Plant in Mariupol on May 17, 2022

For his part, the chairman of the Duma Committee on International Affairs and a member of the Russian delegation at the talks with Kyiv, Leonid Slutsky, suggested to lift the moratorium on the death penalty, which has been in effect in Russia since 1996, specifically for a trial against the soldiers of the Azov regiment. “The whole world should be shown that Ukrainian nationalists only deserve the death penalty,” he threatened.

International legal guarantees

According to German military expert and former NATO general Egon Ramms, sending Ukrainian prisoners to the death penalty in Russia would be a clear violation of international law. “The soldiers who were evacuated from Mariupol, including the wounded, are being taken prisoner. That's based on the Geneva Convention of 1949. When I hear that there are members of the Duma who suddenly say out loud, they face the death penalty , then obviously Russian representatives have once again misinterpreted the legal basis or they start committing a war crime again,” said Ramms on ZDF.

The Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War was passed in August 1949. Article 13 states: “Prisoners of war shall at all times be treated humanely. Any tort act or omission on the part of the Detaining Power which results in the death of, or seriously endangers the health of, any prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited and constitutes a serious violation of the present agreement.”

A Russian soldier at the destroyed Azov Steel Plant, May 18, 2022< /p>

Andreas von Arnauld, institute director and vice-dean of the law faculty at Kiel University, told DW that prisoners of war should not be punished for taking part in a conflict, but they should be punished for war crimes. For this they have the right to a proper and fair trial.

Proceedings against Russia before the ECtHR?

Christina Binder, Professor of International Law and International Human Rights Protection at the University of the German Armed Forces in Munich, points out to DW that although Russia has passed the 13th Additional Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, in which states agree to the complete abolition of the death penalty in peace and in Wartime obligation, not ratified, but decreed a corresponding moratorium.

“In general, Europe, i.e. in the sense of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, including Russia and excluding Belarus, is and was a death penalty-free area. Non-execution the death penalty is today a condition for admission to the Council of Europe,” said Binder.

According to the expert, Russia “left” the Council of Europe on March 16, 2022, or Russia was expelled from it. This also implies a withdrawal by Russia from the European Convention on Human Rights, which will only take effect after six months. “Human rights violations that are committed by mid-September 2022 and for which Russia is responsible, i.e. that are committed against individuals who are 'under the sovereignty of Russia', could therefore be brought before the European Court of Human Rights,” explains Binder. This would also apply to the torture and even execution of the Azov regiment fighters.

Consequences of violating the Geneva Convention

According to the expert, serious violations of the Geneva Convention are described in Article 130. This includes intentional killing, torture or inhumane treatment, including biological experimentation, willful infliction of great suffering, or serious harm to physical integrity or health.

In the event of violations of this kind, Russia could be held accountable as a state and individual perpetrators could be held criminally responsible, emphasizes Binder, adding: “In the event of an execution without the appropriate court proceedings, Russia violates international humanitarian law. However, there is no compulsory enforcement of the law in international law, no 'police' So it amounts to sanctions by other states, such as economic sanctions.”

According to the expert, individuals can be held individually liable in national courts for serious violations of the Geneva Conventions. However, in this case Vladimir Putin enjoys immunity as the acting head of state. A jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court could also be considered. “Neither Russia nor Ukraine are contracting parties to the Rome Statute, but Ukraine has recognized the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court for violations of the statute – in this case war crimes committed on Ukrainian territory after 2014. Any immunity of incumbent heads of state is irrelevant here.” , emphasizes Binder.

Ukrainian human rights activists are meanwhile following the fate of their compatriots with concern. In an interview with the British online portal iNews, the head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, lawyer Oleksandra Matviychuk, called on the UN to provide additional guarantees that Moscow will comply with the provisions of international law and Ukrainian prisoners of war treated with dignity. In her opinion, the story of the defenders of the Azov Steel Plant deserves books and films about them in the future. “This story has to have a happy ending,” she said.

Watch Video 01:55

Ukrainian fighters leave Azov Steel Plant