LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Ukraine is prosecuting its first war crimes trial in Russia's war on Ukraine. And today, an emotional scene played out in a Kyiv courtroom. A Ukrainian widow took the witness stand and spoke directly to the Russian soldier who's pleaded guilty to killing her husband. NPR's Greg Myre is in the capital, Kyiv, and is covering the trial. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.
FADEL: So, Greg, describe what happened in court today.
MYRE: Right. So we have this Russian army sergeant, Vadim Shishimarin. Now, he pleaded guilty yesterday to killing a 62-year-old unarmed Ukrainian man back in the first days of the war. But the prosecution wanted to call witnesses, and they did so today. And one of them was this man's Ukrainian widow, Kateryna Shelipova. Now, she broke down in tears on the witness stand a couple times, but she was allowed to address the Russian army sergeant, who's in a glass box that's used to hold defendants. What did you feel when you killed my husband? she said. Tell me, please. And the soldier, Shishimarin replied, fear. I understand you probably won't be able to forgive me, but I ask for your forgiveness.
FADEL: Wow - a gut-wrenching moment, a widow confronting her husband's confessed killer. Why did the soldier say he killed him?
MYRE: Well, just a few days into the war, back on February 28, this Russian sergeant and his fellow troops said they saw this older Ukrainian man on the side of the road with a bicycle in a village in the country's northeast. Now, he was on his cell phone, and the Russians suspected he might be revealing their position. So the sergeant shot him with an automatic rifle. And the witnesses today included another captured Russian soldier who was with Shishimarin at the time of the shooting, and he also testified that the sergeant fired the deadly rounds. He said that he shot from a Volkswagen Passat that the Russians had stolen when their armored vehicle broke down. And all these Russians were captured the next day.
FADEL: Can you tell us why Ukraine decided to start prosecutions while the war's still going on?
MYRE: Right, Leila, it is very unusual. This was the first of these trials, but we expect many more. War crimes are usually prosecuted after a war is over and by an international body. But Ukraine says waiting to do this poses challenges. Years later, evidence may be long gone. Witnesses can be hard to track down. Ukraine's government wants to investigate now when the evidence is fresh and witnesses can be located.
FADEL: Are the Ukrainians concerned, though, that these trials might make it harder for them to get their prisoners of war that are held in Russia, like the fighters who just surrendered in Mariupol?
MYRE: Well, they haven't said that, but it appears there could be complications down the road. Both sides have POWs, and there have been some swaps. But Russian officials are already making unfounded claims that these Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol were Nazis who should be prosecuted as war criminals, and that makes their possible return even more uncertain.
FADEL: NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv, Ukraine, thank you so much for your reporting.
MYRE: My pleasure.
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