He is said to have shot and killed a 62-year-old, unarmed man on the street. The alleged perpetrator: a 21-year-old Russian soldier. He is before a Ukrainian court for this war crime – and he meets the dead man’s wife.

“There was a man talking on the phone. Ensign Makeyev gave the order to shoot.” The Russian soldier responsible for the murder of an unarmed civilian is only 21 years old. It is the first of possibly many more war crimes trials in Ukraine.

Sitting in a glass case, the young man also had to answer questions from the wife of the man whose murder he had confessed to the day before. Like the public prosecutor, the widow is demanding life imprisonment for the 21-year-old. “But if he is exchanged for one of our Mariupol defenders, then I’m not against it,” she said in court.

Did soldiers fear the civilian might reveal their location?

According to Ukrainian investigators, in the first days of the Russian invasion, the defendant wanted to flee after an attack on his convoy in northern Ukraine. In the village of Chupakhivka, he and four friends are said to have stolen a car in order to continue towards the Russian border. The victim, a 62-year-old civilian, witnessed the theft of the car. According to the Washington Post, the soldiers feared that the man who was on the phone could give their location.

Now, three months later, the defendant confirms this account. Another Russian soldier “told me to shoot,” he described the course of events. “He started saying in an energetic tone that I should shoot”. After initially refusing, he then pulled the trigger. “It killed him.” The 62-year-old died a few hundred meters from his own front door.

The soldier from Irkutsk in Siberia is now facing the maximum sentence for war crimes and murder. After the prosecutor’s request, the hearing was adjourned on Thursday. The trial is scheduled to continue on Friday with the defense attorney’s plea.

As the BBC further reports, according to the Ukrainian public defender, neither a Russian official nor the Ministry of Defense have made contact. Despite overwhelming evidence, Moscow continues to deny having committed war crimes in Ukraine. A Kremlin spokesman, according to NPR, described the current process as “plain fake”.

“I beg your forgiveness”

In the courtroom, the widow confronted her husband’s killer. “How did you feel when you killed my husband?” she asked, according to US broadcaster National Public Radio (NPR). “Tell me, please.”

“Fear,” he replied, adding: “I understand that you probably cannot forgive me, but I ask your forgiveness.”

But the widow did not give up. “Please tell me why did you (the Russians, ed.) come here? To protect us? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?” She asked the young soldier and played thus responding to Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin’s justification for war. The soldier apparently found no real answer to this, but merely referred to “orders”.

According to media reports, the wife heard the shots and wanted to rush to her husband’s aid. “He was dead with a shot in his head. I started screaming very loudly,” she said, according to the BBC. She also saw the defendant. After the court hearing, the wife is said to have told a reporter that she felt sorry for the young soldier but would never be able to forgive him.

Ukraine is investigating more than 11,000 war crimes cases

“However, with this first trial, we are sending a clear signal that any perpetrator, any person who ordered or assisted the commission of crimes in Ukraine, must not evade responsibility,” Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, wrote on Monday on twitter.

According to experts, according to the “Washington Post”, even acting on orders does not release individual soldiers from having to answer to a court. But it is unusual for such a process to take place during hostilities.

“It doesn’t look like a complicated prosecution,” William Schabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, told the US newspaper. After all, the accused had already admitted his guilt. According to chief prosecutor Venediktova, Ukraine is currently investigating more than 11,000 war crimes cases, and 40 suspects have now been identified.

Not only Ukraine itself has started investigations. Human rights organizations and the International Criminal Court are also investigating locally and remotely. However, it is questionable whether and when the Russian military will have to answer in The Hague. Every war crime must be attributable to a specific person. It is accordingly difficult to compile the corresponding chain of evidence (read the background here). Russia as a state cannot be accused. The International Criminal Court can only try individuals.

Sources: “BBC”; “Washington Post”; “National Public Radio”; with material from the news agencies DPA and AFP