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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

International court to open war crimes cases against Russia, officials say


Car lights illuminate the street during a blackout in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, Dec. 8, 2022.

By Marlise Simons


The International Criminal Court intends to open two war crimes cases tied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and will seek arrest warrants for several people, according to current and former officials with knowledge of the decision who were not authorized to speak publicly.


The cases represent the first international charges to be brought forward since the start of the conflict and come after months of work by special investigation teams. They allege that Russia abducted Ukrainian children and teenagers and sent them to Russian re-education camps, and that the Kremlin deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure.


The chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, must first present his charges to a panel of pretrial judges who will decide whether the legal standards have been met for issuing arrest warrants, or whether investigators need more evidence.


It was not clear whom the court planned to charge in each case. Asked to confirm the requests for arrest warrants, the prosecutor’s office said, “We do not publicly discuss specifics related to ongoing investigations.”


Some outside diplomats and experts said it was possible that President Vladimir Putin of Russia could be charged, as the court does not recognize immunity for a head of state in cases involving war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.


Still, the likelihood of a trial remains slim, experts say, as the court cannot hear cases in absentia and Russia is unlikely to surrender its own officials.


The Kremlin has denied accusations of war crimes, but international and Ukrainian investigators have gathered powerful evidence of an array of atrocities since the invasion’s early days.


The first case, the briefed officials said, deals with the widely reported abduction of Ukrainian children, ranging from toddlers to teenagers. As part of a Kremlin-sponsored program, they were taken from Ukraine and placed in homes to become Russian citizens or sent to summer camps to be re-educated, The New York Times and researchers have found. Some came from orphanages or group homes.


Moscow has made no secret of its program, presenting it as a humanitarian mission to protect orphaned or abandoned Ukrainian children from the war.


Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, the program’s public face, began sending children to Russia within weeks after the invasion began in February 2022 and has regularly appeared on television to promote adoptions. Putin signed a decree in May to speed up access to Russian citizenship for Ukrainians.


Khan has publicly signaled his intentions to pursue this case, saying that illegal transfers of children to Russia or to occupied parts of Ukraine were a priority for his investigators.


Earlier this month, he visited a children’s home in southern Ukraine, now vacated, and his office posted a photograph of him standing among empty cots.


“Children cannot be treated as the spoils of war,” he said in a statement following his visit.


A report published in February by Yale University and the Conflict Observatory program of the U.S. State Department said that at least 6,000 children from Ukraine were being held in a total of 43 camps in Russia, with the actual number thought to be higher. The National Information Bureau of the Ukrainian government said that as of early March it could be more than 16,000.


“There has been a lot of focus on this issue, and pursuing it as a crime will generate a lot of reaction,” said Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association. “It’s forbidden to forcibly transfer civilians across a border, and during a conflict it can be a war crime. It can also amount to crimes against humanity if it is part of a widespread and systematic policy. Deporting children could even be part of genocidal intent.”


In the second case, the ICC chief prosecutor is expected to address Russia’s unrelenting attacks on civilian infrastructure, including water supplies and gas and power plants, which are far from the fighting and are not considered legitimate military targets.


The U.S. government has evidence shedding light on Kremlin decisions to deliberately target vital civilian infrastructure, and many in the Biden administration are said to favor sharing it with the court, although it is not a member. But the Defense Department is blocking the intelligence from being shared because it fears setting a precedent that could open the way for prosecuting Americans.


President Joe Biden has yet to decide whether to approve the release of the material, according to officials.


Arrest warrants for suspects in either of the two cases are not expected imminently.


In the past, the judges at the international court have taken several months to review charges before issuing arrest warrants or summons to appear. But the devastation taking place in Ukraine has put the court under pressure to act swiftly.


More than 40 countries who are parties to the court have requested its intervention. Ukraine itself is not a formal member, but it has granted the court jurisdiction over its territory.


Ukraine’s government is now holding its own war-crimes trials, and a host of other international bodies are also investigating.


But looming over the investigations is the question of whether any cases against Russia will ever reach a courtroom.


In recent weeks, a group of governments and international organizations have stepped up talks on the need to create a separate international court with the power to prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression, over which the ICC has no jurisdiction. The court can hold individuals, even leaders, accountable for only war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in this case.


But advocates of a new court argue that aggression is the paramount crime from which all others flow. It is effective because it addresses most directly the political or military leaders who decide to wage war.


Still, Western governments believe that the ICC does has a role and should proceed. The issuance of any arrest warrant, even if not carried out, is symbolically important because it can make someone a pariah as these charges do not go away, legal experts say.

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