Ukraine begins first trial of Russian soldier charged with rape

KYIV, June 23 (Reuters) - Ukraine on Thursday held a preliminary hearing in its first trial of a Russian soldier charged with raping a Ukrainian woman during Russia's invasion, the first of what could be dozens of such cases.

The suspect, Mikhail Romanov, 32, who is not in Ukrainian custody and will be tried in absentia, is accused of murdering a civilian in the Kyiv capital region on March 9 and repeatedly raping the man's wife, according to court files.

Russia's Defence Ministry did not respond to a written request for comment, and Reuters was unable to reach the soldier. Moscow has denied allegations of war crimes.

Romanov is accused of raping a 33-year-old woman after he and another Russian soldier shot her husband Oleksiy at point blank in the village of Bohdanivka to the northeast of Kyiv.

The two soldiers then left and later returned twice more to rape her, the court files said. The identity of the second soldier had not been established.

The woman asked for the trial to be held behind closed doors as she wanted to avoid details about her and her family being publicised, Prosecutor Oksana Kalyus told reporters after the preliminary hearing in a Kyiv court.

Kalyus said that Ukrainian authorities believed Romanov was in Russia. While he could not be arrested there, he could be arrested in another country if he is found guilty, she said.

"If he crosses the border, he will be arrested and delivered to Ukraine," she said.

A prosecutor working on sexual violence cases told Reuters that up to 50 such crimes were being investigated, but that the number of instances of sexual violence by Russian soldiers since Feb. 24 was likely to be substantially higher.

Officials, activists and doctors have said that many survivors are afraid or unwilling to come forward to the police and prosecutors with their cases, for fear of reprisals from Russia and stigma from their Ukrainian neighbours.

Ukraine says it is investigating thousands of potential war crimes committed during the Russian invasion, which began on Feb. 24. Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova told Reuters that many of the suspects are in Russia but that some have been taken captive by Ukraine as prisoners of war.

Reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Max Hunder; Editing by Tom Balmforth, Mark Heinrich and Toby Chopra

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