International court to open war crimes cases against Russia, officials say
The International Criminal Court intends to open two war crimes cases related 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 which were not allowed to speak publicly.
The cases represent the first international charges brought before the courts since the start of the conflict and come after months of work by special investigative 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.
Chief prosecutor Karim Khan must first present his charges to a panel of pre-trial judges who will decide whether legal standards have been met to issue arrest warrants or whether investigators need more proofs.
It was unclear who the court planned to charge in each case. Asked to confirm requests for arrest warrants, the prosecutor’s office said: “We are not publicly discussing details related to ongoing investigations.”
Some diplomats and outside experts have said it is possible that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin could be indicted because the court does not recognize a head of state’s immunity in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.
Still, the likelihood of a trial remains low, experts say, because the court cannot hear cases in absentia and Russia is unlikely to hand over its own officials.
The Kremlin has denied the war crimes charges, but international and Ukrainian investigators have gathered strong evidence of a series of atrocities since the early days of the invasion.
The first case, the officials briefed said, involves 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 for re-education, the New York Times and researchers found. Some came from orphanages or group homes.
Moscow has made no secret of its program, presenting it as a humanitarian mission to protect Ukrainian children orphaned or abandoned by war.
Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, the programme’s public face, began sending children to Russia weeks after the invasion began in February 2022 and has appeared regularly on television to promote adoptions. Mr Putin signed a decree last May to speed up access to Russian citizenship for Ukrainians.
Mr. Khan, the prosecutor, has publicly signaled his intention to pursue the case, saying the illegal transfers of children to Russia or occupied parts of Ukraine were a priority for his investigators.
Earlier this month he visited a now vacant children’s home in southern Ukraine and his office released a photo of him standing among empty beds. “Children cannot be treated as spoils of war,” he said in a statement after his visit.
A February report by Yale University and the US State Department’s Conflict Observation Program said at least 6,000 Ukrainian children were being held in a total of 43 camps in Russia, with the actual number being considered higher. The Ukrainian government’s National Information Office said that by early March there could be more than 16,000.
“There has been a lot of attention to this issue, and prosecuting it as a crime will generate a lot of backlash,” said Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association. “It is forbidden to forcibly transfer civilians across a border, and during a conflict it can be a war crime. It can also constitute a crime against humanity if it is part of a generalized and systematic policy. Deporting children could even be part of a genocidal intent.
In the second case, the ICC’s chief prosecutor is expected to respond to Russia’s relentless attacks on civilian infrastructure, including water supplies and power and gas plants, which are far from the fighting and not considered legitimate military targets.
The US government has evidence shedding light on Kremlin decisions to deliberately target vital civilian infrastructure, and many in the Biden administration would welcome sharing it with the court, despite him not being a member of it. . But the Department of Defense is preventing intelligence sharing because it fears setting a precedent that could pave the way for lawsuits against Americans.
President Biden has yet to decide whether or not to approve the release of the material, officials say.
Arrest warrants for the suspects in either case are not immediately expected.
In the past, the judges of the International Court have taken several months to consider the charges before issuing arrest warrants or summonses to appear. But the unfolding devastation in Ukraine has put the court under pressure to act quickly.
More than 40 countries parties to the court have requested his intervention. Ukraine itself is not an official member, but it has granted the court jurisdiction over its territory.
The Ukrainian government is currently holding its own war crimes trials, and a host of other international bodies are also investigating.
But above the investigations looms the question of whether cases against Russia will ever make it to court.
In recent weeks, a group of governments and international organizations have intensified talks on the need to create a separate international tribunal with the power to prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression, over which the ICC has no jurisdiction. The court can only hold individuals, even leaders, accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in this case.
But supporters of a new court argue that assault is the supreme crime from which all others flow. It is effective because it speaks more directly to political or military leaders who decide to go to war.
Yet Western governments believe the ICC has a role to play and should continue. Issuance of any arrest warrant, even if not executed, is symbolically important as it can make someone an outcast as these charges do not go away, legal experts say.