Cages are built inside a music hall, as Russia appears to prepare for trials of Ukrainians
By Marc Santora
During the last performance at the Mariupol Chamber Philharmonic, on Feb. 20 — days before Russia’s invasion and the start of their city’s destruction — children filled the majestic stained-glass hall for a classical music concert. This week, the sounds of clanging iron echoed through the chamber as Russian occupation forces erected cages to be used in trials of captured Ukrainian soldiers.
The construction of the cages, documented in the Russian news media, offers perhaps the clearest indication to date that Moscow is preparing to hold show trials of Ukrainian soldiers and others on newly occupied soil, proceedings that some Ukrainian officials and independent observers fear will be designed to deflect responsibility for atrocities committed by Russia as their forces laid siege to the city.
Denis Pushilin, head of Russian proxy forces in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, in eastern Ukraine, said Ukrainian soldiers would soon be brought before the court, telling a local Russian news media outlet Wednesday, “The first tribunal should be conducted before the end of summer.”
The prospect of such trials has sparked outrage across Ukraine and calls by Ukrainian officials for the United Nations and Red Cross to intervene more forcefully to protect prisoners.
The Kremlin has a long and brutal history of using the trappings of legal proceedings to give a veneer of credibility to its efforts to silence critics, impose its own narrative on events and intimidate the public. Similar trials have been held for years in parts of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists, with the United Nations and others denouncing them as deeply flawed.
In an interview Thursday in Kyiv, Ukraine, Vadym Boichenko, the exiled mayor of Mariupol, said Moscow was desperate to show its people a “victory.” As it fails to advance on the battlefield, he said, they will exploit Ukrainian prisoners of war to intimidate Ukraine and underscore Russian control of Mariupol.
It was unclear who might be tried, but Russian investigators in June said they had opened more than 1,100 cases against Ukrainians for “crimes against peace.” Those being investigated include members of the Azov regiment, who are widely regarded as heroes in Ukraine for holding out for weeks underneath a Mariupol steel plant as Russian forces bombarded the city at the end of one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Although it is now part of the Ukrainian National Guard, the regiment started out as a far-right militia, and Russian propagandists have consistently pointed to it as evidence to support their unfounded claims about the influence of Nazism in the country and have painted its members as war criminals.
Boichenko said the Russians might use the occasion of Ukrainian Independence Day — which is celebrated Aug. 24 and marks the nation’s break from the Soviet Union in 1991 — to create their own spectacle with trials.
“They will accuse the heroic men and women who were defending our city of destroying our city,” he said.