Updated May 19, 2022 at 10:05 AM ET

KYIV, Ukraine — In an emotional scene in a Kyiv courtroom, a Ukrainian widow on Thursday spoke directly to the Russian soldier who's pleaded guilty to killing her husband.

The widow, Kateryna Shelipova, broke down in tears on the witness stand. But she was allowed to continue, and addressed the Russian army sergeant in a glass box used to hold defendants.

"What did you feel when you killed my husband?" she said. "Tell me, please."

The Russian soldier, Vadim Shishimarin, 21, replied, "Fear. I understand you probably won't be able to forgive me. But I ask for your forgiveness."

This case is the first war crimes trial in Ukraine since the Russian invasion, and is being closely watched. More than 100 journalists overwhelmed the tiny courtroom Wednesday, leading authorities to move it to a larger courthouse on Thursday.

Shishimarin pleaded guilty Wednesday. But Ukrainian prosecutors wanted to introduce evidence and call witnesses, which they were allowed to do Thursday.

In addition the widow, one of Shishimarin's fellow Russian soldiers was also called to the stand.

The soldier, Ivan Maltisov, testified that an armored vehicle carrying several troops broke down in the village of Chupakhivka in northeastern Ukraine on Feb. 28, just four days into the Russian invasion.

The Russian troops then stole a Volkswagen Passat and were driving through the village. They encountered 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov, who was walking with his bike and talking on his phone.

The Russians allegedly feared that Shelipov might be divulging their position. One of the other soldiers in the car told Shishimarin to shoot the man, Maltisov said. Shishimarin initially refused, but after an argument, he fired several rounds out the window from the back seat of the car, hitting the victim in the head and killing him instantly.

His wife, Shelipova, heard the shots ring out. When she looked out of her house, she saw a car with Russian soldiers in it. After they left, she went out looking for her husband, and found his body several hundred yards down the street.

Ukrainian forces captured the Russian troops the following day, March 1, according to testimony.

The prosecutor asked Shelipova what an appropriate sentence would be for the Russian sergeant, and she said life in prison. But she added that she would support a trade of the Russian for the Ukrainian fighters who have surrendered this week to Russia at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

Ukraine takes a different approach

War crimes trials have traditionally been held after a conflict is over, and in recent years, international bodies, like the International Criminal Court at the Hague, have presided over them.

But Ukraine is taking a very different approach. The country says it has already identified more than 11,000 potential Russian war crimes. Ukraine believes that if it waits until the conflict ends, evidence can go cold and witnesses can be hard to track down.

Ukraine says it has identified more than 40 Russian suspects for offenses that include bombing civilian targets, killing civilians, rape and looting. But capturing them will almost certainly be the biggest obstacle.

Russia, meanwhile, denies that its troops have harmed civilians despite the overwhelming evidence. A Kremlin spokesman called the current trial in Ukraine "simply fake."

War crimes trials could also complicate Ukrainian efforts to get back their prisoners of war from Russia. Both sides have captured prisoners and made small exchanges.

But some Russian officials are making the unfounded claim that a number of the Ukrainian fighters who surrendered at the steel plant in Mariupol were Nazis, and should be put on trial in Russia.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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