War crime investigators in Ukraine face formidable challenges

KOROPY, Ukraine – Four men pull long strips of cloth to lift a coffin out of a hole in the backyard of a small house. They opened the lid to reveal the moldy corpse of Oleksiy Ketler, who was instantly killed by shrapnel when a mortar hit the road in Koropy, a village outside Khavkiv, northeastern Ukraine, in March.

Mr. Ketler, a father of two young children, would have celebrated his 33rd birthday on June 25 if he hadn’t gone out at the wrong time. Now, his body has become another exhibit in Ukraine’s wide-ranging evidence-gathering effort to prosecute Russia and its military for war crimes in the brutal killings of civilians. Ukraine.

Experts say the process is happening at an extraordinary rate and could become the largest attempt in history to bring war criminals to account. But it faces a formidable set of challenges.

First, investigations are underway even as war is raging in the east. As investigators examined Mr. Ketler’s body, shelling rumbled nearby. Ukrainian helicopters, most likely to bring new troops to the front lines, flew overhead.

In addition, although investigators inside and outside Ukraine are both gathering evidence, there is little coordination. Andrey Kravchenko, deputy prosecutor for the region, who is sitting in his office in downtown Kharkiv, said “there are really not enough people” to investigate, prosecute and hear cases. Grow closer.

A building that prosecutors used as an office was hit by a missile that Kravchenko believes was a targeted attack, and his team now changes headquarters frequently.

The need for accountability is strong.

Yuriy Belousov, Ukraine’s chief war crimes prosecutor, said Ukraine’s judicial system is now almost entirely devoted to investigating war crimes, with most of its 8,300 prosecutors already in place. across the country to collect evidence.

Ukrainian courts have handed down six guilty verdicts against Russian soldiers. Ukraine’s top prosecutor said last week that nearly 20,000 more cases – involving alleged torture, rapeExecution-style killings and the deportation of what Mr. Belousov says could be tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia – are under investigation.

Simultaneously, hundreds of international experts, investigators and prosecutors descended on Ukraine from an alphabet soup of international agencies.

Early in the war, the top prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, arrived in Ukraine with dozens of investigators. However, courts based in the Netherlands hear a limited number of cases and usually prosecute only the superiors of political and military leaders.

It’s also slow: Investigators working on the 2008 Russo-Georgian war did not apply for an arrest warrant until this year.

There are also a number of other initiatives. Amal Clooney, an international human rights lawyer, is part of a team that advises the Ukrainian government on bringing international legal action against Russia. The United Nations has started a Committee to investigate human rights violations in Ukraine – with three human rights experts – but was unable to set up a formal court because Russia has veto power over the UN Security Council.

Investigators in Poland are collecting testimonies from refugees who have fled there to provide Ukrainian prosecutors. France sent mobile DNA analysis teams to the Ukrainian authorities to collect evidence. NGOs based in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, will travel to territories recently occupied by Russian troops to collect witness statements.

Wayne Jordash, a British criminal lawyer living in Ukraine, said the involvement of more countries and organizations did not necessarily lead to a more effective investigation. Mr Jordash, a member of the international task force assisting Ukrainian prosecutors, criticized several attempts to assist Ukraine in judicial support, describing them as “smoke and mirrors”, to no avail. and clear priorities.

Investigators from the International Criminal Court have only just begun work, he noted, and experts from other countries have also been engaged for several weeks.

“You can’t just parachute into an investigation for two weeks and expect it to make sense,” Mr Jordash said.

“Resources are pouring in, but we may find that they are not being used properly,” said Iva Vukusic, a scholar of post-conflict justice at Utrecht University. Duplicate investigative efforts rather than psychosocial support for victims.

Ms. Vukusic pointed out the great size of the effort. Across the country, she said, “there are thousands of potential suspects and thousands of potential trials.” All documents need to be properly analyzed and analyzed, she said.

“If you have 100,000 items – videos, statements, documents – if you don’t know where you are sitting, that limits the use of the document,” Ms. Vukusic said.

She also warned that the leadership of the International Criminal Court could face criticism for working too closely with the Ukrainian authorities because, according to her, Ukraine is also “an actor in the conflict.” This war”.

She fears that Ukrainian officials are placing very high expectations on justice, and could waste scarce resources on absentee trials.

“No big case will end in two years or five years because of the scale of the violence and the fact that it has been going on for so long,” she said.

Mr. Belousov, Ukraine’s war crimes prosecutor, admits the same. “We’re playing a long game,” he said. Even if perpetrators are tried and convicted in absentia, Mr. Belousov said, “We understand that in a year, two or three or five, these guys won’t be able to avoid punishment.”

Mr Belousov said he appreciated the international support but that coordinating it was the “biggest challenge” that law enforcement agencies had to go through.

For example, Kharkiv prosecutors used a shiny new forensic investigation kit donated by the European Union to excavate them in Koropy, a village in northeastern Ukraine. However, a police officer from a unit in Dmytrivka, a 45-minute drive west of Kyiv, said they had not met or met any international investigators or received any equipment from them. .

Mr. Belousov said Ukraine wanted to take the lead in prosecuting cases – a departure from previous post-conflict situations in which national authorities initially left the process to international courts. economic.

But most Ukrainian investigators have little experience in such investigations.

For example, Andriy Andriychuk, who joined the police force in the western region of Kyiv two years ago, said his previous work involved investigating local disputes or cattle theft. Now it involves “more corpses,” he said.

On a recent sunny afternoon, he was called to a wooded area near the town of Dmytrivka. A few days ago, police officers received a call from foresters looking for a man’s grave. The dead man, Mykola Medvid, 56, was buried with his passport; His hat was hung on top of a cross made of sticks.

His daughter and cousin identified his body. The local morgue officially determined the cause of death: a fatal gunshot to the chest.

Since then, his daughter Mariia Tremalo has not heard from investigators. No witnesses have come forward, and it is unclear who may have killed her father, or why. However, she still yearns for justice.

“My father will never be returned,” she said. “But I want the perpetrators to be punished.”

Right now that seems to be all but impossible.

In Koropy, a village near Kharkiv, Mr. Ketler’s mother, Nadezhda Ketler, was unable to deal with the work of grave diggers and inspectors. She wanders the path to another part of her possession. Six officials standing by her son’s body, photographing and documenting his best friend, Mykhailo Mykhailenko, who looked petrified and smelled of stale wine, identified him.

The next day, Mr. Ketler’s body was taken to the city’s morgue, where a final cause of death was determined.

Eventually, Ms. Ketler focused her energies on showing investigators the crater created by the bomb that killed him, leading police to exactly where he died. Miss Ketler stood watching the trees rustle in the wind. She doesn’t talk to anyone. She said she did not know if a guilty verdict in a war crimes trial, if it came, would ease the pain of losing a child.

“I had to bury my son twice,” Ms. Ketler said afterward. “You see, this is hard enough to do once and have to do it a second time. A mother’s pain is going nowhere.”

Evelina RiabenkoDiana Poladova and Oleksandr Chubko contribution report.

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