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Russian sergeant pleas guilty in the 1st war crimes case of the invasion in Ukraine

EMILY FENG, HOST:

In an overflowing Ukrainian courtroom today, a Russian soldier pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed civilian in the early days of the war. This is the first war crimes trial of the current conflict, and Ukraine says many more will follow.

NPR's Greg Myre was at the courthouse today in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, and he joins us now. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Emily.

FENG: What did you see today in court?

MYRE: Yeah, there's huge interest in this case, but it was held in this tiny courtroom in Kyiv. Journalists packed into the court, and they had to squeeze into a second courtroom next door to watch on video. And the case is also being livestreamed.

One of the three judges asked this 21-year-old Russian Army sergeant, Vadim Shishimarin, if he was guilty of shooting dead a 62-year-old Ukrainian man just a few days after the war began in February. This sergeant, dressed in a blue and gray hoodie and responding from inside this glass box, said, quote, "yes - fully yes." Now, he didn't say much more, but a Ukrainian prosecutor laid out the case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MYRE: He said several Russian troops saw this older Ukrainian man on the side of the road in a village in the country's northeast. Now, this man was on his cell phone, and the Russians suspected he might be revealing their position, so the sergeant shot him with an automatic rifle, according to the prosecutors.

FENG: Have the Ukrainians said how they captured this Russian soldier, and have they presented evidence on how they linked him to this specific shooting you just described?

MYRE: No, the Ukrainians haven't said exactly how they detained him. But they released a video earlier this month in which they were questioning him, and he said he was responsible for the shooting. Now, we should note that prisoners of war are not supposed to be put on public display.

Also, whenever a case is built on a suspect's confession - especially in one like this, in the middle of a very hot war - it does raise some questions about whether it was voluntary. But the case continues Thursday, and prosecutors say they will present evidence tying the sergeant to the killing, and a sentence could range from 10 years to life.

FENG: Did this Russian soldier have a defense lawyer? Did that person say anything?

MYRE: Yes, the Russian sergeant does have a defense lawyer. He's a Ukrainian, and he has said that he is concerned about the rights here. He says he wants to show that Ukraine operates in a way that Russia does not.

FENG: This is unusual - no? - to have a war crime trial taking place while the war is still going on.

MYRE: Highly unusual. You know, the basic model was set after World War II, when the Nazis were put on trial in Nuremberg, Germany, shortly after the war. The nations that won the war, including the Soviet Union, prosecuted top-level figures in the Nazi regime.

But Ukraine says waiting to prosecute after a war poses a number of challenges. Years later, evidence may be long gone. Witnesses can be hard to track down. So Ukraine's government says it's identified more than 11,000 possible Russian war crimes, and it wants to investigate now, when evidence is fresh and witnesses can be located.

And Russia, for its part, says its troops have not harmed civilians, despite the overwhelming evidence. And a Kremlin spokesman said of the court case today that it was, quote, "simply fake and staged."

FENG: Are there any risks to prosecuting these war crimes amid the conflict?

MYRE: Yes, there are some risk and some challenges. I think capturing the suspects will certainly be the biggest obstacle. But this war is being documented in unprecedented ways. We've never seen so many videos and so much social media from a war zone. Ukraine also says it's using technology like facial recognition software to help identify and track down suspects.

And the International Criminal Court at The Hague says it's already sent more than 40 people to Ukraine, the largest group it's ever sent on a single mission. Now, neither Ukraine nor Russia belong to the ICC, but Ukraine has welcomed the investigators.

FENG: Thank you. That's NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv, Ukraine.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.