Trial for Yahidne’s Human Shields Draws to an End

Defence claims that the convicted soldiers were not proven guilty in the nearly one year-long trial prove unsuccessful.

Trial for Yahidne’s Human Shields Draws to an End

Defence claims that the convicted soldiers were not proven guilty in the nearly one year-long trial prove unsuccessful.

Photo of the 15 Russian soldiers tried in absentia for holding 368 Ukrainian civilians in the basement of the school in the village of Yahidne in March 2022. © Ukraine's Prosecutor General's Office
Photo of the 15 Russian soldiers tried in absentia for holding 368 Ukrainian civilians in the basement of the school in the village of Yahidne in March 2022. © Ukraine's Prosecutor General's Office
Wednesday, 19 June, 2024

A Chernihiv court has rejected the appeal against the verdict of 12 years in prison for 15 Russian soldiers, drawing to a close one of the highest profile war crimes trials since the start of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine. The prosecution found the defendants guilty of forcing 368 civilians, including 69 children, into the basement of the school building in Yahidne, during the occupation of the village in March 2022. The youngest was only six weeks old.  

Russian soldiers guarded the exit from the basement so that no-one could leave, using the civilians as human shields to protect their headquarters, located in the school, from Ukrainian shelling. Ten villagers died in the basement.  

The two defence lawyers, appointed by the Centre for Free Legal Aid, maintained that the evidence was not enough to prove the soldiers’ guilt. Their last resource is to appeal to the Supreme Court within three months. 

"We will study the practice of the Supreme Court regarding such cases as well as the arguments of the Court of Appeal. I will take a decision together with my colleague,” attorney Mykola Kashuba told IWPR on June 17, referring to the other defence lawyer, Ihor Savytsky. 

Yahidne, a village about 140 kilometres north-east of Kyiv, became a symbol of the cruelty of Russian forces, alongside Bucha, the town near the capital Kyiv where Russian soldiers tortured and slaughtered civilians and left their bodies in the streets.  

Those accused were Amir Kendenov, Buyan Dorzha, Arzhaan Saay, Vitaly Mongush, Sain Kenden, Dorzha Demir-oola, Sholbana Dambar-oola, Buyan Dadar-oola, Oleksiy Borysov, Sayan Khomushka, Ariana Khertek, Eres Oorzhak, Nazita Mongush, Aigarim Mongush, Siin-ool Suvan. They all hail from the Republic of Tuva, in southern Siberia, apart from one from the Saratov region, in south-western Russia. None of them responded to the summons and the court decided to consider the case in absentia. Prosecutors believe that the accused have left the territory of Ukraine and may currently be in the Russian Federation. Investigators are working to identify three commanders, who preliminary findings indicated were nicknamed Spider, Maple and Deaf. 

The trial started in April 2023. Over six months, 84 victims testified, describing the unbearable conditions, the sexual harassment women suffered and the hunger that affected articularly children endured.  

At a hearing held on September 20, 2023, witnesses said they did not know the names of their abusers and their military ranks but recognised them from photos obtained during the pre-trial investigation. When Russian forces retreated from Yahidne on April 3, 2022 they left behind military documents which were key to identify the defendants. 

“They [the accused] were indifferent to the fate of the victims, indifferent to their lives and health. It did not matter to them that a child who was one and-a-half years old or that an  elderly person was 90 years old,” prosecutor Serhiy Krupko said during the debate, on February 27, 2024, adding that the defendants violated the Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilians, which prohibits the use of human shields.  

The court analysed information from Ukrainian forces, which knew about the presence of the civilians in the basement and did not hit the Russian military headquarters in the school to avoid harming the villagers.  The prosecutor also considered photographic evidence provided by one of the victims, Olga Menyailo; the 52-year-old managed to take images with her mobile phone while in the basement and kept a diary in which she tried to record events and the dates when people died.  

At the February 27 hearing, the two defence attorneys asked for the defendants’ acquittal for lack of sufficient proof of guilt. Kashuba represents 14 of the defendants, while Savytsky defends only one soldier, Aigarim Mongush: the reason for the division is unknown. Kashuba argued that under international law, criminal responsibility lies with the commanders, not their subordinates, while Savytsky called out the inconsistencies in the testimony of the victims in court, stressing what he defined as discrepancies between the investigation protocols and the testimonies in court.  

On March 11, 2024, the Chernihiv district court sentenced each of the 15 Russians to 12 years in prison, the highest term for violating the laws and customs of war as per Part 1 of Article 438 of the criminal code.  

During the May 28 hearing by the Chernihiv Court of Appeal, the defence lawyers stressed that the victims did not specifically recognise the accused in court.  

“They [victims] gave a standard answer, ‘the Tuvans, they are all alike, how could they be remembered?’... Why are only 15 servicemen of the Russian Federation being prosecuted for this crime? Many more servicemen were [there, but] the 15 Tuvans are being prosecuted only because an officer notebook with servicemen's data was found,” Kashuba argued, stressing that the investigation and the prosecution had not established the validity of the Russian military documents found in Yahidne and presented as evidence. 

Kashuba and Savytsky stressed the criminal responsibility of the commanders and, with regards to the ten civilians who died in the basement, they asked for the crime to be reclassified as intentional murder as per Part 2 of Article 438 of the criminal code. 

Krupko rejected the defence’s claims and called on the judges to uphold the sentence.  

“The main evidence is [proven by] the psychological and pedagogical supervision in the journals we found. Sixty-four servicemen from military unit 55115 were stationed [in Yahidne]. [We found] colour photos, all the personal information, the type of troops, their positions, even their Russian phone numbers. Military tickets were also found, and this set of documents confirmed the accused's affiliation to one or another military unit, type of army, and position.” 

The judges deliberated that no inconsistencies were found in the victims’ testimonies and rejected the request to re-classify the crime: the court stated that the deaths of the ten civilians resulted from the exacerbation of chronic diseases and improper conditions in the basement, thus the Russian military had no intent to kill.  

“The fact that the victims could confuse the events and the person by whom these actions were committed is explained by [their] physical, moral and emotional state, [they] were in inhumane conditions on the verge of survival for a long time, people died before their eyes, lost their minds, at the same time, neither the accused nor other servicemen were introduced to them by name. Such a minor inaccuracy cannot indicate the inadmissibility of the identification protocols, as the defenders baselessly believe,” the court stated in its ruling.  

The panel of judges also pointed out that international law established not only command responsibility for a war crime but also the personal responsibility of each soldier who violated the laws and customs of war. The court recognised the actions of the accused as intentional and rejected the call for the crime to be reclassified. 

The verdict remained unchanged and entered into force immediately after the announcement.  

In Yahidne, the school is being turned into a war memorial, as a testament of Russian atrocities.  

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