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Ukraine’s ‘Azov Regiment’ prisoners of war are on trial in Russia

Eight women are among 22 prisoners of war in Ukraine whom Russia has accused of membership in a ‘terrorist group’.

More than 20 Ukrainian soldiers captured during the months-long battle to defend the port city of Mariupol from Moscow’s forces are on trial in southern Russia.

The captured soldiers are members of the Azov Regiment, an elite unit of the Ukrainian armed forces that has been fighting Russian troops for months in Mariupol’s Sea of ​​Azov port.

After a violent three-month battle that reduced much of Mariupol to rubble, the remaining Ukrainian defenders – who had bunkered inside a massive steel mill – surrendered to Russian forces in May 2022.

On Wednesday, a court in Russia’s southern Rostov-on-Don began hearing a case against the Azov cadres, a military unit that Russia described as a “terrorist group.”

In August last year, Russia’s top court designated the Azov Regiment, a former volunteer battalion with far-right roots that was formally integrated into Ukraine’s army, a “terrorist” organization.

Russia’s Supreme Court ruling allows longer prison terms for members of Azov, whom Russian authorities accuse of harboring neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideologies.

Eight of the 22 defendants on trial are women. Pictures taken inside the court on Wednesday showed pale and very thin Ukrainian soldiers – men with their heads shaved – sitting behind a glass panel inside the courtroom.

The defendants face charges of involvement in a terrorist organization and participation in the move to overthrow the Russian-backed authorities in the Donetsk region. They face 15 years to life in prison if convicted.

The Red Cross said Wednesday it had visited 1,500 prisoners of war on both sides of the conflict.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says such visits are important to check detention conditions, relay information between detainees and their loved ones, and provide hygiene items and other personal needs.

A view shows an explosion at a plant at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during Ukraine-Russia clashes in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on May 11, 2022.
An explosion at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during the defense of the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, in 2022 [File: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

The ICRC and its partners have so far delivered nearly 2,500 private messages between POWs and their families in the Ukraine conflict and helped nearly 5,500 families provide information about the fate of their loved ones in the conflict.

“For prisoners of war and their families who have been able to share the news, the impact … is immeasurable,” Ariane Bauer, the ICRC’s regional director for Europe and Central Asia, told reporters.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused the Red Cross of not pushing hard enough to gain access to Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russian forces.

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