A huge industrial site, on top of it a steelworks full of bunkers and kilometers of tunnels: In May, the Azov steelworks became the bastion of the Ukrainian resistance that was respected and celebrated around the world. Thousands of fighters and civilians had stayed here for weeks and put up fierce resistance to the Russian troops.
Her fate repeatedly made headlines. Several evacuation attempts failed, and civilians could only be evacuated from the plant step by step.
At the end of May, the remaining fighters surrendered. They were then taken to Russia or to pro-Russian separatist areas.
According to Russian information, there are said to be more than 2,500 soldiers. According to their own statements, the Russian military has so far found more than 150 bodies in the steelworks. A video on Twitter shows how Russian soldiers walk through the evacuated building.
Even during the siege, Putin claimed that the Azov steelworks were mostly Nazis. In doing so, he served the war narrative according to which Russia was conducting a “special military operation” to “denazify Ukraine”.
Now there is growing concern about what will happen next for the prisoners of war. The Ukrainian leadership had offered a prisoner swap, which Russia has so far not complied with.
According to the government in Kyiv, the Ukrainian secret service is in contact with the Azovstal soldiers. The government is doing everything it can to get them released, Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskij recently said on Ukrainian television. The secret service knows what the conditions of detention are like, how the fighters are cared for and whether the fighters are released. However, Monastyrsky did not provide more detailed information.
The treatment of prisoners of war is regulated in the third Geneva Convention. This intergovernmental agreement on international humanitarian law lays down certain basic rights that must be secured. Russia signed the convention in 1867.
Accordingly, prisoners must be treated humanely at all times, receive medical care and be housed under humane conditions. They must not be tortured or killed, and they must be protected from “violence or intimidation, as well as from insult and public curiosity”.
The “Red Cross” must also have access to the prisoners, and the prisoners must also be able to contact their families.
It is unclear whether the soldiers from Mariupol are complying with these requirements. The information about the situation of the prisoners of war differs.
The British “Guardian” reported at the end of May that the prisoners were housed in “satisfactory conditions”. Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov battalion fighting in the steelworks, had been able to call his wife and reported that there was no violence against the prisoners “The conditions meet the requirements,” he was quoted as saying, not knowing if he was able to speak freely on the phone call.
However, Nataliia Zarytska, the wife of another soldier, told the British Times that she had not had any contact with her husband since May 17. While he called her daily from the steelworks, there has been radio silence ever since. She doesn’t even know if her husband is still alive.
It was only on Tuesday that the members of the Duma decided in the last reading to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights. In doing so, they anticipated a decision by the other members.
Activists are now warning of a possible intensification of crackdowns on Russian civil society amid the military operation in Ukraine and a possible reintroduction of the death penalty in Russia. That could then also be applied to some fighters from the steel mill, some believe.
Many volunteers from abroad are also fighting on the Ukrainian side. Kyiv itself called them for help. In Moscow, however, these volunteers are referred to as mercenaries. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said they were not considered combatants.
The international conventions for the treatment of prisoners of war would not apply to them. Therefore, if they were caught, they would have to face a long prison sentence “in the best case”. In the worst case, however, with death.
The pro-Russian separatists from the occupied parts of the Donbass have repeatedly publicly threatened to have captured foreigners in the ranks of the Ukrainian army executed.
A first trial against three foreign fighters who supported the Ukrainian army in Mariupol began on Wednesday.
According to the BBC, the accused are Moroccan Saaudun Brahim and two Brits, Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48, both from Bedfordshire.
Aislin had already fought in the Kurdish militia YPG in Rojava in northern Syria. According to his own statements, he has been part of the Ukrainian army since 2018. Aslin and Pinner’s families also confirmed that both had lived in Ukraine since 2018 and had been members of the military for years.
His family said in a statement to the BBC that they are currently working with the Ukrainian government and foreign ministry “to try to get Aiden home. Aiden is a dearly loved man and will be greatly missed and we hope that he will be released very soon.
The German government has called on the Russian leadership to comply with international law when treating Ukrainian prisoners of war. “This is an urgent appeal, says deputy government spokeswoman Christiane Hoffmann.
The federal government has repeatedly asked Moscow to respect international law. The topic was discussed during the talks between Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, she confirms. She did not provide any information on the question of whether Germany should mediate.