KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday declared the Ukrainian Azov Regiment a terrorist organization, a decision that could lead to terrorism charges against some of the captured fighters who served their last combat inside the destroyed steelworks in Mariupol.
Russia and its separatist allies are holding around 1,000 Azov soldiers prisoner, many since their surrender at the steel mills in mid-May. Russian authorities have opened criminal charges against them, accusing them of killing civilians. Adding terrorism charges could mean fewer rights and longer prison sentences.
A leader of a terrorist organization could get 15 to 20 years, and members of the group could get 5 to 10 years, according to Russian state media.
In testimony reporters were allowed to see, witnesses appearing before the Supreme Court supported the proposed terrorism designation, but most of the proceedings were held behind closed doors, so it was unclear whether opponents had testified.
“I can testify myself that Ukrainian snipers – Azov snipers – really shot at civilians trying to flee the city” of Mariupol, testified Marina Akhmedova of the Presidential Council for Development civil society and human rights. “I saw bodies lying on the roads with my own eyes. There were many of them, and they were probably lying 10 meters apart. There were no shell craters next to them.
In a statement, the Azov regiment rejected the decision, accusing the Kremlin of “seeking new excuses and explanations for its war crimes”. He urged the United States and other countries to declare Russia a terrorist state.
Azov soldiers played a key role in the defense of Mariupol, holding out for weeks at the southern port city’s steelworks despite punitive attacks by Russian forces. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed them and other defenders as heroes.
Moscow has repeatedly described the Azov regiment as a Nazi group and accused it of atrocities, but publicly produced little evidence.
The regiment, a unit within the National Guard of Ukraine, has a checkered past. It grew out of a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of several volunteer brigades created to fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The battalion drew its first fighters from far-right circles.
While its current members dismiss accusations of extremism, the Kremlin has seized on the regiment’s right-wing origins to portray the Russian invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russian state media repeatedly showed what they claimed were Nazi insignia, literature and tattoos associated with the regiment.
Last week, dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war, including Azov fighters from the steelworks, were killed in an explosion at a prison barracks in Olenivka, an eastern town controlled by pro-Russian separatists . Moscow and Kyiv blamed each other, with Kyiv saying Russia blew up the barracks to cover up torture against prisoners of war.
Meanwhile, the first grain-laden cargo ship to leave Ukraine since Russia invaded more than five months ago has safely crossed the Black Sea and dropped anchor just outside Istanbul on Tuesday en route to Lebanon, under an agreement Moscow and Kyiv signed last month to unblock Ukrainian agriculture. exports and alleviate a global food crisis.
It is estimated that 20 million tonnes of grain have been blocked in Ukraine since the start of the war. The UN-brokered deal to free the grain calls for the establishment of safe corridors through mined waters outside Ukrainian ports.
The Razoni, which left the port of Odessa on Monday with more than 26,000 tonnes of corn, was to be inspected in Istanbul on Wednesday by a team of Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN officials, as part of the deal.
Other Ukrainian ships are expected to land in the coming days. Some 27 ships were waiting at three Ukrainian ports with cargo and signed contracts ready to depart, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Global food prices have soared in a crisis blamed on war, supply chain issues and COVID-19. Although Ukraine is a major global grain supplier, the deal may do little to address world hunger.
Most grain blocked in Ukraine is used to feed livestock, according to David Laborde, an expert at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. Only 6 million tonnes are wheat, and only half is for human consumption, Laborde said. He said Monday’s shipment is chicken feed.
“A few ships leaving Ukraine is not going to be a game changer,” he said.
Still, Zelenskyy said the resumption of grain exports would reduce the ability of Russian authorities to extract concessions from the West. “They are losing one of the opportunities to terrorize the world,” he said in his nightly video address.
The ship’s departure occurred against the backdrop of continued fighting, especially in southern and eastern Ukraine. A Russian rocket hit an anti-aircraft missile system in the Lviv region of western Ukraine near the Polish border, Ukrainian authorities said. There was no immediate word on damage or casualties.
In other developments on Tuesday:
—The United States announced new sanctions against people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying it had frozen the visa of a woman identified in the media as Putin’s longtime love partner, Alina Kabaeva.
— Brittney, American basketball star Griner was back in court for his trial for possession of cannabis. Prosecutors called a narcotics expert who analyzed the substance found in Griner’s luggage. The defense called a specialist who challenged the analysis as flawed. If found guilty, she could face up to 10 years in prison, although the United States has offered a prisoner exchange to secure her release.
— A train carrying evacuees from the besieged Donetsk region arrived in Kropyvnytskyi in central Ukraine, triggering what Ukrainian authorities described as a forced evacuation in the east. Authorities expect to evacuate 200,000 to 220,000 people from the area before the fall to get them out of harm’s way.
– Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said his country’s forces destroyed six of more than a dozen HIMARS rocket launcher systems the United States had supplied to Ukraine. Ukraine issued no immediate comment. The launchers gave the Ukrainians more accurate and longer-range firepower.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Aya Batrawy contributed from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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