What threatens the Ukrainian Azov prisoners in Russia?

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Russia has classified Ukraine's Azov regiment as a “terrorist organization”. What are the consequences of the court decision for the captured Azov fighters, but also for their sympathizers in Russia?

Removal of captured Azov fighters from the steelworks in Mariupol in May 2022

In addition to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Azov regiment is now the Number 41 on the list of terrorist organizations compiled by the Russian domestic intelligence service FSB. On August 2, the Supreme Court of Russia declared the Ukrainian regiment a “terrorist organization”.

The Azov regiment emerged from a volunteer battalion controversial for its original ties to right-wing extremists. It is now part of the National Guard of Ukraine and reports to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Among other things, its mere existence served as a reason for Russia to begin its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

< p>View of the destroyed Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol in May 2022

The regiment's headquarters was located in Mariupol on the Azov Sea. The Ukrainian port city was occupied by Russian troops in May. Since then, according to Ukrainian sources, more than 2,500 militants who had defended the Mariupol steelworks for 86 days have been in Russian captivity. Russia speaks of 2,439 men who surrendered. More than 50 Azov prisoners died in a camp in Olenivka recently. The site in Donbass is not controlled by Ukraine. Kyiv and Moscow blame each other for the deadly shelling.

Testimonies of alleged witnesses

Russian officials and media have long portrayed the Azov regiment as a “Nazi formation,” claiming Azov miners mined houses, committed atrocities, and used civilians as human shields. The chairman of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, even speaks of “war criminals”.

The request of the Prosecutor General's Office of the Russian Federation to declare the Azov regiment a “terrorist organization” was considered by the Supreme Court within three hours. The trial had previously been postponed twice by a month. The court sessions were all held behind closed doors.

Azov regiment officers mourn a fallen soldier the last honor

However, pro-Kremlin media released testimonies from two witnesses. Georgy Volkov, head of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission that deals with human rights issues in prisons, said in court, allegedly citing statements made by a captured Azov militant, that they practiced cannibalism. And the journalist Marina Akhmedova, who had researched in Mariupol and Volnovakha in Donetsk Oblast, explained: “I have collected numerous testimonies about torture and executions of civilians by Azov members – torture that cannot only be explained by that that we are enemies.”

Consequences for Azov fighters and sympathizers

According to Article 205.5 of the Russian Criminal Code, the founders and leaders of terrorist organizations face life imprisonment and fines of up to one million rubles (about 16,000 euros). Ordinary members can be sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 rubles. Azov regiment sympathizers can be prosecuted in Russia for “justifying terrorism.” Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code provides for sentences of two to five years in prison for such statements and also a fine of up to 500,000 rubles.

Experts of the Moscow Center for Information and Analysis “SOWA”, which dealt with on the issues of racism, nationalism and human rights in Russia, now advises Internet users to take a close look at which groups they belong to in social networks and whether there are any that are linked to a “terrorist” or “extremist” organization.< /p>

The symbols of the Azov regiment were classified as extremist in Russia long before the current court decision, by a district court of the city of Vladimir in 2015. Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation provides for up to 15 days before detention.

Reactions from Ukraine

“It sounds a bit strange: a country that is on the verge of being classified as a sponsor of terrorism and that violates all the rules and customs of war classifies an organization as terrorist,” said Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Ukraine's presidential office. According to him, the Russian court decision has no meaning for the world. Nor will it affect the prisoner exchange negotiations. According to Podoljak, the step is “a purely internal propaganda product”.

Yegor Chernev, deputy for the ruling Servant of the People party, told DW that Russia wanted the court decision to remove the Azov fighters from the scope of the Geneva Convention. Volodymyr Ariev of the opposition party “European Solidarity” agrees. He recalled that back in 2015, Kyiv called on the world to classify Russia as an aggressor.

After Shelling: The camp in Olenivka, where the Azov prisoners were housed

The Ukrainian military stated: “Following the public execution of prisoners of war of the Azov regiment in Olenivka, Russia is looking for new reasons and justifications for its war crimes”. The Azov regiment itself called on the US and other countries to declare Russia a “terrorist state”. “Russia's army and secret services commit war crimes every day. Toleration or silence is complicity,” read a statement.

The head of Ukraine's “Centre for Civil Liberties”, Oleksandra Matviychuk, who is already involved in negotiations for his release Ukrainian prisoner was involved, told DW: “The Azov regiment is part of the national guard. To classify it as a terrorist organization would be the same as classifying the entire armed forces of Ukraine as a terrorist organization, which is actually fighting their country against the Defending invasion of terrorists.”

Adaptation from Russian and Ukrainian: Markian Ostapchuk