The trial of twenty-two members of Ukraine’s armed forces, including eight women who worked as cooks supporting their troops, started in a Russian court in Rostov-on-Don on Wednesday, June 13. All are accused of being members of a proscribed terrorist group and participating in attempts to overthrow the [Russian-backed] authorities of the Donetsk region.

The captured soldiers were members of the Azov regiment, an elite Ukrainian armed forces unit that fought a three-month bloody defensive battle against Russian troops in the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol. The soldiers on trial were some of the last remaining troops, who had been holed up in the giant Azovstal Iron and Steel Works who surrendered in May 2022.

In August 2022 Russia’s Supreme Court designated the Azov Regiment a “terrorist” organization, after claims that its soldiers were members of a far-right organization harboring neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. The court’s ruling allows for lengthy prison terms under Moscow’s criminal code, which would include sentences of between 10 years, for a participant, and twenty years to life for leaders and organizers of a terrorist organization. 

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Officials of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said at the time of their capture that, under the self-proclaimed republic’s laws, Azov Regiment fighters should face the death penalty.

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The regiment was formally incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard in 2014 after it took part in fighting against Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin referenced the presence of such units within the Ukrainian military as one reason for his so-called “special military operation… to demilitarize and de-nazify Ukraine.” 

Kyiv and its allies say Putin’s claim is bogus and merely a blatant pretext for his war of aggression.

Photographs taken inside the court on Wednesday showed that the Ukrainian soldiers seated behind the usual armored glass paneled “dock.” All the captives appeared pale and very thin, the men with their heads shaved.

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The Red Cross said separately on Wednesday that it had visited 1,500 prisoners of war on both sides, saying such visits were vital for checking detention conditions, relaying information between prisoners and their loved ones, and providing hygiene items and other personal necessities.

 It was not clear if these prisoners were included in the visit total as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused the Red Cross of failing to gain access to all Ukrainian troops captured by Russian forces.

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