The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office is working on detailed cases of war crimes against Russia

Olga Gazhurova, a 34-year-old prosecutor from the bombed-out city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, entered their account into her laptop, pausing for explanations.

“Which street did the tanks come from?” She asked.

Before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24, Gazhurova worked as a criminal prosecutor in Kharkiv, more than 500 miles from Kosovo, a village of about 8,400 people that saw little of the violence of the war but much of its aftermath. Hundreds of displaced people have started in Kosovo’s schools or its inhabitants. Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes, and more than 4.2 million Ukrainians have fled the country as of April 3, according to the United Nations.

The International Criminal Court said on February 28 that it is investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine. Experts tell The Post how the lawsuit works. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard / The Washington Post, photo: The Washington Post)

The Prosecutor General’s Office estimates that the country uses about 50,000 investigators from five different law enforcement agencies to investigate war crimes. They are conducting nationwide interviews and carefully documenting evidence they hope to use in the prosecution of war crimes against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the military force he sent to invade Ukraine.

So they flew all over Ukraine, appealing to small groups, mostly women and elderly displaced people in churches, classrooms and auditoriums like this one in Kosovo. They explain that one day there may be compensation for their lost loved ones, injuries and loss of property, and that Russia can only be prosecuted if its victims tell their stories in detail.

Gazhurova and her colleague from Kharkiv, 47-year-old Olga Petrova, stood in front of a stage last week with a painted backdrop of vast lush Ukrainian fields, explaining the process of gathering evidence and digital evidence from nine displaced people scattered across audiences like a toddler running around the room. .

Petrova explained that under international law, the military is obliged to target only military infrastructure and armed militants, not civilians. “As a result, what the Russian Federation, the aggressor country, is doing in Ukraine now is considered a crime … and we are trying to prove it,” she said.

Prosecutors dressed in sneakers and boots, jeans and deep pink and dark green turtlenecks did not dress for any strategic purpose; these are the clothes they grabbed before fleeing from Kharkov. In the anxious moments of stuffing things into bags, chic professional clothes didn’t make their way.

“At this point,” said Petrova, “you can’t act properly.”

Petrova and Gazhurova began their stay in Kosovo with interviews with IDPs at School 1, headed by Halina Hrymalyuk. A 48-year-old woman has claimed responsibility for housing and food for up to 88 displaced people since March 1 due to suspended personal activities.

“Conditions here are bad for these people, but we are doing what we can,” Grimalyuk said.

At first, she said, the government was distributing leaflets asking displaced people to call the phone number if they wanted to talk to the prosecutor or upload photos and videos of potential Russian war crimes. to the state website. But the displaced were often either exhausted, confused, frightened, skeptical, or some combination of them. In late March, prosecutors began walking to displaced people rather than waiting for them to contact.

“I thought the judiciary was lagging behind this invasion,” Grimalyuk told The Washington Post in English. “I work in a public school, so when I heard that the prosecutor’s office was coming here, I honestly didn’t believe it.”

She decided to sit quietly for the interview, hoping to understand the goals of the prosecution. They worked from morning till late at night, Grimalyuk said. They asked specific questions, creating a chronicle of events, and then, after a while, returned to the same questions to judge whether the respondents had the same answers. They carried maps of Ukrainian cities and regions, or provinces, asking displaced people to assign their memory an exact location.

They turned out to be much more effective than Grimaluk thought. “I was impressed,” she said.

Prior to moving to Kharkiv last year, Gajurov lived and worked in Donetsk for eight years, a region that has been embroiled in conflict with Russian and separatist forces since 2014. was forced to leave because of the Russian invasion. She could have lasted longer, she said, if she hadn’t been afraid for her little daughter.

“As a child, this is something that can not be removed from the brain for the rest of his life,” – said Gazhurova.

At school № 1 last week, children from Irpen and Bucha, cities north of Kyiv, which were the site of heavy fighting, played soccer on an artificial field outside the school building. Inside, Vera Kovtun, a 71-year-old Bucha resident, described through tears and panic how Russian troops arrived on February 25 and sprayed machine-gun fire on homes, focusing on windows through which residents could be seen filming on phones.

“We have witnessed the deaths,” Kovtun said. “Corpses were just scattered on the street.”

Tanks passed her one-story house close enough for Kovtun to hear the voices of soldiers, she said. Then Ukrainian forces arrived and engaged in battle with the Russian column. Bending under the crossfire, Kovtun heard a Russian gas tanker explode, throwing another car into her yard. She said that as a result of the explosion she received facial cuts and an eye injury. Koutun said she fled through the front door frame after the door ripped off the hinges, hiding behind brick walls on the way to safety.

For more than three hours on March 29, Kovtun shared her experience with prosecutors. At first, she said, she wondered who wanted to hear her report: “It seemed that what had happened was obvious, but then we realized we needed to prove it a crime against civilians.”

A few days after Kovtun’s conversation with The Post, Ukrainian forces liberated Bucha and dozens of other Ukrainian cities in the north and center of the country, and investigators and journalists soon shared images of dozens of dead Ukrainian civilians.

Irina Venediktov, the chief prosecutor of Ukraine since March 2020, called “ridiculous” Russia’s claim that the atrocities are fabrications.

In an interview, The Post Venediktov showed a photo of a 14-year-old boy on the autopsy table, his chest apparently cut by investigators to reveal cylindrical ammunition the size of a soda can lying in a pool of blood nearby. his heart. His left arm was crippled, amputated at the elbow. The dead boy, they said, was killed by Russian troops near Kiev in the early days of the invasion. Last month, prosecutors shared a cropped version of the photo with the media.

“It’s a chest. There is a piece of a shell inside, ”Venediktava said. “Actually, no words. All the evidence is in the boy’s chest. “

“Day after day, bombs, hospitals, schools, educational institutions were destroyed. And you look at the number of refugees. What is it? What is it? “Said Venediktov, pointing to other photos from the recently liberated Ukrainian cities, which show mass graves and Ukrainians in plainclothes who died with their hands tied behind their backs. Venediktov also showed The Post photos of unexploded cluster bombs, which, according to her words were collected in Kherson – ammunition banned in more than 100 countries in 2010.

“Russians live in their own world. They are zombies, ”she said. “If they can look at these photos, I’m very curious what they can say after that.”

It is likely that no Russian official will ever be forced to defend himself against charges in court, said David Bosco, an associate professor of international studies at Indiana University who studies war crimes.

Any future investigation is likely to be conducted in one of two legitimate locations, Bosco said. The International Criminal Court based in The Hague and the Ukrainian judicial system can issue indictments, but the Interior Ministry tends to prosecute key players – presidents, generals and the like, and for some countries – lower-ranking people.

“The big question in both cases is how to actually get people into your hands,” Bosco said. “All they can do is issue arrest warrants and have them there; then the case just froze. Perhaps these defendants may simply remain in Russia beyond the reach of international justice. “

The Interior Ministry has the option of issuing sealed arrest warrants without disclosing the name of the target publicly to be punished if the accused travels to one of the member states of the court. But this is not true. In many cases, member states refused to cooperate with the court. In many war crimes cases, decades go by without trial. Bosco said there is a high probability that Ukrainians who are recognized as victims of war crimes will receive monetary compensation before the perpetrators are brought to justice.

“Victims in Ukraine are probably more likely to be rewarded than other conflicts around the world, just because there is so much international sympathy and attention,” Bosco said. “There is great support for the investigation. And in many other investigations they have much less information. There will just be a flood. “

The Prosecutor General’s Office says it has “registered” 4,204 individual war crimes, including the deaths of 161 children.

Venediktov praised the courage of domestic investigators, some of whom asked to be as close to the front line as possible to establish first contact with the victims. Many investigators, such as Petrov and Gazhurov, were forced to flee their homes.

“We cannot consider ourselves refugees,” Venediktov said. “We don’t have a military rank, but we act like the military and we are soldiers in our hearts. We serve people, so we don’t need to be motivated. We do our job. We have no choice: we must believe in victory. If they are afraid, they will not be good prosecutors. “

Speaking to an audience of people accustomed to living in a conflict zone, Gajurov and Petrov are calm and gentle. Gazhurova stressed that the definition of war crimes covers a wide range of violence.

Victims’ homes do not need to be destroyed to become victims of war crimes, Gajurova told a group at school No. 2. She said that even if a Russian attack only knocked out their windows or damaged their personal belongings, they could still be considered victims of war crimes.

In Kosovo, prosecutors have faced what is becoming a common obstacle: people displaced from regions where the conflict with Russian and Russian forces began in 2014 are trying to understand why the prosecutor’s office is only interested in Russian war crimes committed in recent weeks.

A 65-year-old woman from Donetsk got up and asked permission to speak at the prosecutor’s office.

“I have documents, photos. My house was destroyed eight years ago, and no one has given us compensation for the last eight years, ”she said.

“We are not authorized to deal with what happened before February 24,” Petrova said. She noted that control over Donetsk has been unclear for the past eight years, and Russia is now claiming it as part of its territory.

“In 2014, it was still Ukraine,” the woman objected.

“Nobody helped us then,” Petrova told the woman. “Now all countries support us.”

Kasia Streck contributed to this report.

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