US seeks to aid war crimes prosecution of Russian leaders

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The Biden administration is compiling information on alleged war crimes in Ukraine that could be used to hold Russian leaders accountable, as federal prosecutors lay the groundwork for trials in European courts, or what could be the first trial for senior officials of a major world power at the World Criminal Court.

While President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to end up before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, even an indictment of the Russian leader or his aides would represent a historic moment for efforts to hold senior officials accountable for atrocities committed under their responsibility. shows, officials and analysts said.

“It would be a huge development in the field, reminiscent of the Nuremberg era during World War II,” Beth Van Schaack, the US Goodwill Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice, said in an interview. She compared the impact of a trial to the shock wave caused by the 1998 arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on the orders of a Spanish judge.

Blaming Putin, State Department officials say, could prompt some Russian officials to reconsider their role in the war. Towns like Bucha, where the departure of Russian forces revealed a gruesome scene of human suffering, including decapitated and trapped corpses, have become synonymous with Russian brutality since the invasion began two months ago.

Van Schaack, who earlier in his career worked on tribunals set up to try crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, leads a State Department team overseeing efforts to document Russian actions and assess whether they meet the standards for crimes against humanity and genocide.

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Already, the State Department has announced its determination that Russian troops have committed war crimes in Ukraine. The Biden administration is also supporting Ukrainian Attorney General Iryna Venediktova’s efforts to investigate Russian actions during the war. Venediktova on Friday accused Russia of plotting to torture, rape and murder civilians.

Clint Williamson, a lawyer who served in Van Schaack’s position from 2006 to 2009 and is currently working on a joint US initiative with the European Union supporting Ukraine’s effort to prosecute potential war crimes, said Venediktova’s office progressed.

As part of this effort, the United States is advising Ukrainian officials on how to build a war crimes case, manage evidence on the battlefield, and interview POWs. Van Schaack said the federal government can also leverage its vast intelligence apparatus to help prosecutions, potentially bypassing the tedious declassification process by sharing commercially available satellite imagery that may reflect sensitive information. It’s also possible that the United States is helping foreign prosecutors in ways that don’t provide evidence, pointing investigators in new intelligence-based directions.

This information could also be shared with officials involved in parallel investigations outside Ukraine, in countries such as Poland and Sweden. Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania have launched a joint investigative effort, facilitating information sharing and police cooperation. Officials warn, however, that there are limits to what kyiv can do at a time when it is locked in a battle for the country’s survival.

The Biden administration has welcomed an investigation by the ICC prosecutor into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. Officials describe the ICC as a venue that could complement trials in Ukraine or other countries.

“Ukraine may want to handle these cases itself, or it may say, ‘Look, we can’t handle some of the big fish or defendants whose crimes have been committed across the country. We prefer to handle the crimes that are dealt with on a regional basis,” Van Shaack said. “And that would be an appropriate way for the ICC to potentially intervene.”

While some countries have laws that protect sitting heads of state from prosecution, the ICC can conduct such trials. That makes the ICC “the only game in town” for Putin’s possible trial while he remains in power, according to Stephen Rapp, who was sent for global criminal justice during the Obama administration.

Even indicting a senior Kremlin official would be significant, said New York University Law School professor Ryan Goodman, who served as a Pentagon attorney during the Obama administration. “It will be a watershed moment, both in the life of the International Court and in the emerging crisis in Ukraine, if and when the prosecutor indicts senior Russian officials, potentially including Putin himself,” he said. he declared.

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How far the Biden administration will go in any investigation will depend on whether the United States decides to drop its past opposition to ICC cases targeting individuals from countries that are not parties to the world court, such as Russia and the United States. United States. While the United States helped establish the ICC, there has been domestic opposition to any measure that exposes American military personnel to international tribunals.

After the ICC authorized an investigation into crimes in Afghanistan, potentially involving US troops for the first time, the Trump administration authorized sanctions against the ICC prosecutor and other officials. The State Department declined to comment on a possible change in position.

Officials say they doubt Putin can stand trial in The Hague, at least while he remains in power. The Court cannot conduct trials in absentia, and many ICC arrest warrants have remained outstanding for years. “Guard is key,” Van Shaack said. “Putin could stay put in Russia and effectively enjoy impunity because he is currently beyond the reach of any court that might want to exercise jurisdiction over him.

US officials, however, hope the specter of prosecution will cause other Russian officials to rethink their role in the war. Experts note that Ukraine has already captured a number of Russian officers who could now be tried in Ukrainian or other courts. Van Schaack said it would not be easy to prove their responsibility for the events organized by the base. “It’s not a walk in the park,” she said. “But the doctrine exists to do that.”

Criteria for establishing such accountability include whether senior officials discipline troops who commit crimes. Earlier this month, Putin awarded the unit accused of executing civilians in Bucha top honors for “mass heroism and bravery, steadfastness and courage”.

The Biden administration is also gathering information on potential Ukraine transgressions. Kyiv publicly paraded Russian prisoners of war in a way that appears to violate international humanitarian law. A recent assessment by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe identified other potential violations of the rules of war by Ukraine.

Van Schaack said the same standards would apply to forces reporting to Putin and those of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, noting that this is “where the equivalence ‘ends'” because in terms of scale , the degree, the lethality and the brutality, it is totally disproportionate in what we ‘see from the Russian side against the Ukrainian side.

She drew a further distinction between the response of Ukrainian officials, who she said condemned reported violations and promised to investigate. Russia, she said, responded “with a web of denial and disinformation.”

Rapp that the slowness of justice should not prevent prosecutors from pressing charges. He noted an indictment by an international court of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic some 45 days after ethnic cleansing began in Kosovo, while a NATO air campaign was underway.

“Unless we get serious and pursue those who are the real perpetrators of these crimes and send a signal that there is no escape from this in this life, it can take a long time. , but you’re never going to get a good night’s sleep, so these crimes are going to happen again,” he said.

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