‘Devil’s advocate’? Russian soldier’s Ukrainian lawyer defends his role on the eve of the verdict | Ukraine

Defending a Russian soldier accused of a war crime in Ukraine is not an easy task, which is why some have called Viktor Ovsyannikov “the devil’s advocate”.

But the 43-year-old Ukrainian is unrepentant. “First of all, I am defending a person, not a crime,” Ovsyannikov said Sunday on the eve of the verdict in the trial of tank commander Vadim Shysimarin, 21, who has already pleaded guilty to killing an unnamed man. armed. civilian at the end of February. “I’m trying to prove that my defendant’s actions were mischaracterized. It’s up to the judges to decide. I’m just doing my job.

“My family, friends and colleagues support me,” Ovsyannikov added. “They know someone has to do it. But there are other people who “invited” me to go to Moscow or the Donbass [the area in eastern Ukraine claimed by Russia-backed separatists].”

Prosecutors were stunned on Friday when Ovsyannikov asked kyiv court judges to acquit Shysimarin despite his guilty plea, on the grounds that he had executed an order. Ukrainian prosecutor Andriy Syniuk said the instruction to open fire could not be considered a military order and therefore did not shield Shysimarin from liability.

Ukraine has made seeking justice for atrocities committed by Russian troops a priority and national prosecutors are risking their lives to collect evidence of war crimes, even in areas still threatened by enemy forces or riddled with mines .

Shysimarin is from Ust Illyinsk in Russia’s southeastern Irkutsk region and was commander of the Kantemirovskaya Tank Division on February 28, the day 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov died in the village of Chupakhivka.

Viktor Ovsyannikov answers questions from the media. Photography: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Prosecutors say a group of Russian soldiers fired on a civilian vehicle after their convoy was attacked by Ukrainian forces, then stole the car and drove it away. They then passed the unarmed victim, who was talking on the phone a few dozen meters from his home. One of the men in the car told Shysimarin “to kill a civilian so he wouldn’t report them to Ukrainian defenders,” prosecutors said. He opened fire from the car window and shot Shelipov dead.

This is not Ovsyannikov’s first controversial trial. In 2014, he defended Russian-backed former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was eventually convicted of high treason and sentenced in absentia to 13 years in prison for trying to quell a pro-Western uprising.

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Ovsyannikov maintains that ever since he accepted the task of defending Shysimarin, people have asked him the same question: “How can you defend a war criminal?”

“And I’m so tired of explaining that in Ukraine only a court can recognize someone as a criminal. And, as far as I know, there is no verdict for my defendant at this time.

The trial is unprecedented in Ukraine, where authorities are moving quickly and trying to deliver justice while the conflict is ongoing. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said she was preparing more than 40 cases for war crimes trials. Monday’s verdict is seen as a public test of the independence of Ukraine’s judiciary.

“Of course, it’s a pretty big test and there’s even more pressure from society on the judges to find him guilty,” Ovsyannikov said.

“My first impression of Shysimarin was that of an ordinary person, just like you or me,” he said. “My second impression, when I started working with him, is that he started to understand what had happened. The only thing he wants now is to go home. I have the impression that he perceives this as a kind of dream.

“Sometimes,” he added, “I pity him.”

Jon J. Epps