'You're not going to get away with it': Ukraine unveils first war crimes charges amid 8,000 investigations

  • The first war crimes charges accuse 10 Russian servicemen of holding civilians hostage and mistreating them
  • Ukraine has opened more than 8,000 war crimes investigations against Russia
  • The Biden administration is quietly helping Ukraine with its war crimes probes with money and expertise

Ukrainian authorities unveiled their first war crimes charges Thursday against members of Russia's military, as the U.S. and other countries worked behind the scenes to help Kyiv with more than 8,000 criminal investigations connected to potential atrocities in the two-month old war.

The first charges accuse 10 Russian servicemen of holding civilians hostage and mistreating them in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb, in March. Russia's military occupied Bucha for a month, and authorities and witnesses say mass graves and bodies in the streets were found in the town after the Russian withdrawal. Some Bucha residents were found dead with bullet wounds and their hands tied behind their backs.

Ruslan Kravchenko, Bucha's chief prosecutor, said all of the accused were noncommissioned officers and privates from Russia's 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, a unit recently honored by Russian President Vladimir Putin for its commitment to the "motherland and state interests." 

Ukraine's Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova told USA TODAY that her office is documenting and cataloguing evidence of suspected deliberate bombing of civilian buildings, hospitals and other infrastructure by Russian pilots, as well as mass graves, reports of civilians shot at close range with their hands bound, bodies showing signs of torture and brutal accounts of rape and other forms of sexual violence. 

The 10 suspects unveiled Thursday have not been identified by name, though prosecutors published their photos and appealed for information about their identities.

Venediktova's office has published a separate list of Russian officials, ministers, military commanders and propagandists who are under investigation for suspected war crimes. 

"The most important thing for our investigations right now is to stop the war," said Venediktova, 43, a former law professor. "It's a huge problem to try to investigate what's happening in somewhere like Mariupol when we don't have access to the territory at all. Or in Kharkiv, where they are under air raid attacks almost every hour. If the Russians had not withdrawn from the Kyiv region, we would not have known about some of the terrible things they did. Russia is doing everything it can to hide what it's done." 

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Ukraine's Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, center, and Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Britain's Karim Khan, right, visit a mass grave on the grounds of the Church of Saint Andrew in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on April 13, 2022.

First charges a 'milestone' in probe that could eventually target Putin 

War crimes experts, including two top former U.S. ambassadors, said Thursday’s announcement is a critically important step in what will undoubtedly become a years-long effort to hold Russia accountable for atrocities committed in Ukraine.

"This is a milestone to have some charges being brought. And I think there will be many more to come,” said Clint Williamson, a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues. 

Williamson, who is assisting the Ukraine government on war crimes matters as part of a U.S.-European Union project, said bringing charges against specific individuals is a critical aspect of an overall campaign for accountability that could ultimately include a tribunal for far more senior leaders, including Putin.

"I think it is important for the Ukrainian people to see that progress is being made on investigations and prosecutions,” said Williamson. 

"It's also potentially important as a deterrent for Russians who might be inclined to commit crimes to see that there actually is some sort of accountability process that's in motion,” added Williamson, who is a former war crimes prosecutor himself.

Stephen Rapp, another former war crimes prosecutor and war crimes ambassador, said such charges against suspected front-line perpetrators of violence against civilians are in many ways as important as trying to hold top leadership accountable.

"It basically sends a signal that you’re not going to get away with it, that you cannot kill your way out of these things," Rapp said. "This is an effort to show with real hard evidence and real hard law that there are consequences – and that people who are responsible for these crimes can be confronted by their victims and in a fair process be convicted and sent away for the rest of their lives."

Rapp agreed that one benefit of bringing such cases immediately is that it could serve as a deterrent as Russia shifts its assault to the eastern part of Ukraine.

“You want to raise the risk, and certainly the perception of risk to the perpetrators,” said Rapp.

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Ukrainian prosecutor: 600 suspects on her list

Venediktova said her office oversees about 100 separate Ukrainian teams comprised of investigators, prosecutors, human rights lawyers, and forensic experts and ballistic specialists who have spread out across the country to try to collect evidence where alleged war crimes have taken place, in areas where Russia's military forces have recently withdrawn. She said that all of Ukraine's law enforcement agencies are helping collect evidence.

In all, Venediktova's office has identified about 600 suspects, mostly from the senior ranks of Russia's military hierarchy, though some suspects are junior members who were taken captive by Ukraine as prisoners of war. Ukraine wants to prosecute the majority of the cases in its own courts.

Behind the scenes, the Biden administration is quietly helping Venediktova’s team with money and expertise to build her case against the Russian officials on her suspect list, as well as to coordinate with various international organizations that have opened their own probes. 

"The U.S. is supporting a range of international investigations into atrocities in Ukraine. This includes those conducted by the International Criminal Court, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe," U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack said Wednesday during remarks at an informal meeting of the UN Security Council. "The U.S. welcomes the opening of the investigation by the ICC into atrocity crimes committed in Ukraine, and we intend to engage with all stakeholders to achieve our common objectives in ensuring justice."

Venediktova said senior legal advisers from Britain, the European Union and Williamson, Schaack's predecessor, have been in Ukraine since "the first days of the war" to help plan and coordinate investigations and provide foreign expertise. Several European countries including Germany, France and Poland have opened their own criminal investigations into alleged war crimes in Ukraine, as has the International Criminal Court. 

She added that Ukraine needs more technical assistance from U.S. software companies such as Microsoft to help process and securely store thousands of digitized victim statements, photos and video clips. There's a "huge mass" of data that needs to be analyzed, managed and protected from potential cyber attacks, she said.

Ukraine's prosecutor's office has established a website where victims and witnesses can submit evidence. And there's a flood of digital information coming in – from witnesses' social media posts, photographs, video and audio recordings – that authorities are trying to sort through and analyze.

Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, said it could take years to wade through all the evidence. But she said it is critically important to process it as soon as possible, to point investigators to the most important cases – and those that could lead to speedy prosecutions.

Rapp, who is also advising Ukraine on war crimes matters, said Russia’s aggression against its Western neighbor presents unique challenges – and opportunities – when compared to other conflicts, such as Syria and Myanmar.

In those and other recent cases, the government in power was actively hostile to any sort of accountability process because the leadership was complicit in the crimes. In the case of Ukraine, there is a democratically elected government with robust law enforcement and criminal justice capabilities, as well as the legal authority and mandate to investigate crimes that are occurring on their own territory, Rapp and others said.

U.S. providing money, expertise

So far, the U.S. has provided at least $30 million for accountability efforts in Ukraine, and has "repurposed" potentially tens of millions in other U.S. assistance that had been given to the country for broader purposes, said Williamson.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Obama administration, said Congress was just notified that the Biden administration would request another $33 billion in security, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

The U.S. has received high praise for its efforts to help Ukraine, especially with military aid and war crimes prosecutions.

But some experts say the U.S. could do more, and faster, including contributing experienced U.S. federal agents and prosecutors to the effort who have special training in gathering evidence of war crimes and human rights violations.

IA grave digger prepares the ground for a funeral at a cemetery on April 20, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine.

"We need more (boots) on the ground," Rapp said.

Such on-the-ground assistance could help Ukraine with the nuts-and-bolts of actually gathering evidence and building cases, said Rapp. He said both the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have agents who can travel internationally and do that kind of work, as well as prosecutors who are familiar with what kind of evidence is needed to get convictions.

To that end, the EU recently established a "Joint Investigative Team," which the U.S. government could join – either by deploying people overseas or helping remotely from Washington, Rapp said.  

Malinowski, however, said Washington is moving at warp speed in helping Ukraine – and that it plans to do more soon. "This is, I think, by U.S. government standards, an unprecedented and unusually fast and comprehensive assistance effort."

"I'm sure there's more that can be done," the congressman said. "That's why the administration is coming to us with a new supplemental spending request."

Dozens of bodies wait to be buried at a cemetery in Bucha, outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 5, 2022. Ukraine’s president told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that the Russian military must be brought to justice immediately for war crimes, accusing invading troops of the worst atrocities since World War II. He stressed that Bucha was only one place and there are more with similar horrors.

Wayne Jordash, a British international criminal lawyer who has worked on humanitarian cases for the last 20 years and has been working in Ukraine since 2015 on war crimes cases in Crimea and Donbas, said Ukraine is not lacking in strategic advice from foreign lawyers and experts. He said what Ukraine needs now is people on the ground who are willing to go with Venediktova's local prosecutors into the areas where crimes have been committed and work with them.

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Jordash is part of an advisory council set up by Venediktova and is in the process of designing a program of "mobile justice units" that will support Ukraine's prosecuting authorities. He said the idea of these units is not to do separate investigations but to "inject expertise and resources" where needed. The flexible and mobile units have been designed to meet that need.

The first of these "mobile justice units" is due to launch within a few weeks, Jordash said, and it will be comprised of leading experts in various fields, from prosecutors to open source investigators,communications experts to forensic specialists. 

Jordash said more units will be brought online as the concept is developed and as other places within Ukraine become available to be investigated.

"We need to be alert to the fact, for example, that at some point somewhere like Mariupol is going to need to be investigated, and it's likely to be a complete disaster there. It's going to take a lot of focus," Jordash said, referring to the city where Ukrainian officials say there is evidence of mass graves. Until recently Mariupol had been under near-constant bombardment by Russia. About 100,000 people  remain trapped there.

The charges against the 10 Russian servicemen unveiled Thursday accuse them of rounding up civilians, blindfolding them, tying their hands with plastic ties and forcing them to their knees. The victims were threatened with murder and the Russian soldiers deliberately fired shots in their direction. They were also allegedly deprived of food and water. Prosecutors are still building cases against those accused of more serious crimes in Bucha. 

Reuters reported this week that Venediktova's office may soon unveil charges, likely against three Russian pilots suspected of bombing civilian buildings, two operators of a rocket launcher suspected of targeting civilian areas and two military personnel suspected of murder and rape. Some of the suspects in these cases were captured by Ukraine's military, while others will be charged in absentia, the wire service reported. 

Contributing: Karina Zaiets 

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