Ukrainian defence attorneys face moral dilemma in war crime trials

Ukraine is investigating thousands of alleged war crimes

Published : 2 April 2024, 06:45 AM
Updated : 2 April 2024, 06:45 AM

Sometimes Ukrainian lawyer Khrystyna Vrashchuk shudders when she thinks about the work she does.

She is one of more than 200 attorneys who are defending suspected Russian war criminals and their local collaborators in cases across the country, presenting a moral dilemma that the lawyers do not always find easy to live with.

On the one hand, suspects are accused of committing sometimes heinous crimes against Ukrainians in more than two years of war. On the other, the rule of law dictates that they have legal representation, and Kyiv says it is determined to uphold it, whatever the cost.

  • Ukraine is investigating thousands of alleged war crimes

  • Kyiv provides suspects with legal representation

  • Such work poses a moral dilemma for Ukrainian attorney

Vrashchuk, 42, recalled how she argued in court against a Ukrainian woman whose husband and brother were allegedly tortured to death by three Russian soldiers near Kyiv in 2022.

The woman, she argued, had not produced enough evidence to prove she was related to the dead men, and the attorney asked that the woman be excluded from the case on that basis.

"Believe me, I wanted to come back home as soon as I could and just wash myself in hot water," Vrashchuk told Reuters.

Russia denies committing war crimes in Ukraine and has said that some events, such as the execution of Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha in 2022, were staged.

Ukrainian authorities say they are investigating more than 120,000 alleged war crimes tied to the full-scale invasion that began in February 2022. The United Nations estimates that more than 30,000 civilians have been killed or wounded.

Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin said in late February that local courts had so far handed down at least 81 convictions, most in absentia, and identified more than 500 suspects.

In one prominent trial, a court in the northern region of Chernihiv sentenced 15 Russian soldiers in absentia last month for holding 368 people hostage in a basement for nearly a month, resulting in 10 deaths.

In Vrashchuk's case, the woman she argued against was eventually allowed to be included in proceedings.

The Kyiv-based lawyer is currently assigned to four cases involving Russian soldiers and nearly 30 more involving local collaborators, work that brings with it a burden of guilt.

She said she felt the need to ask forgiveness from a relative who has been serving in the military since the early days of the war. He approved, Vrashchuk said, lifting an emotional burden that helped her continue.

"We approach this job cold-blooded: the law above all else," she said.


Attorneys have collectively received around 700 orders to defend clients charged with or suspected of violating Article 438, Ukraine's war-crimes statute, said Oleksandr Baranov, head of the Coordination Center for Legal Aid Provision, the state body that provides legal aid.

Another 4,000 have been handed out in cases involving other alleged wartime crimes by suspected Ukrainian collaborators, such as high treason.

Lawyer Artem Halkin, a Donetsk region native whose house was destroyed in the Russian invasion, maintains an air of dispassionate professionalism when discussing his work on dozens of cases.

In one of them, he asked that an indictment of his client, a captured Russian soldier accused of fatally shooting a supermarket guard in Bucha, be returned for not fully complying with the criminal procedural code.

The court agreed, and now the soldier is being re-tried based on a decision by an appeals court.

Kyiv-based Halkin, 49, said his more complex cases have included those in which he argued that clients originally arrested for treason after leaking information to the enemy should be prosecuted for espionage, which carries a lighter punishment when the facts support it.

"Naturally as a defence attorney, regardless of the person ... I want to achieve the most positive result for them," he said.

Baranov said that despite calls for harsh punishment, it was critical for Ukraine to distinguish itself from Russia, which has been accused by Kyiv, Western officials and rights groups of abusing prisoners of war and staging show trials - something Moscow denies.

Shoddy work can also invite legal challenges further down the road, he added.

Ultimately, said Baranov, attorneys walk a fine line as they carry out their duty to the law.

"It seems like just a word game, but for me they're two different things: It's one thing to say a person is innocent, and another to say their guilt hasn't been proven," he said.