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Judgement Day: European Nations Start Probing Alleged Russian War Crimes in Ukraine


FILE - A Ukrainian serviceman walks past as fire and smoke rises over a damaged logistic center after shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 3, 2022.

WARSAW, POLAND —

In an impassioned video speech earlier this week, Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy highlighted the Russian shelling of fleeing civilians from a town on the outskirts of Kyiv, saying there can be no forgiveness for the shooting of unarmed people.

“Instead of forgiveness, there will be a day of judgment,” he intoned.

Germany and Britain are among European countries that want to ensure there is judgment and are in the process of setting up war crimes units to gather evidence to be used later for war crime prosecutions.

Lists of incidents are already being drawn up amid rising international outrage over attacks on civilians and critical infrastructure, say European officials. As of Monday, the United Nations had recorded 474 civilian deaths and 861 civilians injured as a direct result of the conflict triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

But U.N. and Ukrainian officials say the death toll could be much higher.

Germany’s justice minister, Marco Buschmann, told a German newspaper Tuesday that the country’s federal prosecutor has started to collect evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is “a serious violation of international law that cannot be justified by anything,” Buschmann said. “Possible violations of international criminal law must be consistently prosecuted,” he added.

Spain’s public prosecutor’s office has also opened a probe into possible “serious violations of international humanitarian law by Russia in Ukraine.” The aim is to “determine the criminal nature” of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the office said in a statement.

And Britain is in the process of assembling a war crimes unit based in Poland, U.K. officials say. It will also collaborate with investigators from the Metropolitan Police in London who are gathering evidence of alleged war crimes stretching back to 2014 as part of a broader investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In a statement, the Metropolitan Police have appealed for anyone who may have been a victim of a war crime in Ukraine, or witnessed one, to contact them. The ICC probe could include the slaughter by snipers of 53 protesters in Kyiv’s Maidan square on February 20, 2014, during the final days of the uprising which toppled then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, announced last week that he was going ahead with an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine since Moscow’s invasion. The announcement came after 39 countries requested a probe.

Separately, Ukraine Monday urged the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, to order Russia to stop its devastating invasion, saying Moscow is already committing widespread war crimes and “resorting to tactics reminiscent of medieval siege warfare.” The ICJ is the U.N.’s top court and has the authority to settle disputes between states in accordance with international law. It can give advisory opinions on international legal issues.

According to Der Spiegel magazine, the decision to launch a German probe was spurred by mounting reports of the Russian use of cluster bombs, air-dropped or ground-launched explosives that release smaller submunitions. German investigators say the use of cluster bombs will figure prominently in the initial stages of the inquiry.

They are also investigating reports that Russia has drawn up lists of Ukrainian politicians and activists marked for execution by Russian forces. They also will examine whether any war crimes were committed in the Russian shelling of a nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia. World leaders accused Russia of endangering the safety of an entire continent with the shelling. Ukraine's president dubbed it "nuclear terror."

The German investigation will begin as a structural probe which will focus on specific alleged war crimes and seek to identify the chain of command behind them before pinpointing individual suspects, say German prosecutors.

One German official told VOA the probe will almost certainly cover Russia’s use of a 500-kilogram bomb on a residential area in the Sumy area, in what the Ukrainian parliament dubbed a “crime against humanity.”

In a statement, the parliament said, “Russian planes dropped bombs on Sumy, Ukraine. There are civilian casualties. The bombs hit residential areas of the city. Houses of civilians were demolished and damaged. This is a targeted attack on civilians. The Russian occupants saw what they were attacking.” At least 21 people, including two children, were killed in the airstrike on the northeastern city, according to regional authorities.

Prosecutors from Germany and other European nations are also likely to focus on the shelling and shooting of civilians Sunday in Irpin, a satellite town on the outskirts of Kyiv, when Russian troops opened fire on them as they made their way to a fleet of yellow buses local authorities had arranged for an evacuation. A total of eight people died, including a family with two children, who were killed by mortar fire.

The scene was captured on video by independent news organizations, including by reporters of The New York Times, with the footage showing civilians throwing aside suitcases and plastic bags and diving for any cover they could find as mortars landed.

Ukrainian officials have accused the Russians of purposefully shelling the civilians. Kyiv says Russian commanders knew the victims were non-combatants trying to escape as Russian drones had been flying over the area just moments before the thump and crump of mortars turned a road leading from a buckled bridge into a killing zone.

“They are shelling us without mercy,” a shell-shocked Marina Starodubtseva told reporters on the scene as she dragged her young daughter into a bus while Ukrainian territorial defense force volunteers assisted the elderly and infirm over a nearby guardrail.

Russia's Defense Ministry denies the accusation of deliberately targeting Irpin’s civilians.

Other possible war crimes likely to figure in the probes include attacks on health care facilities, leading to the deaths of at least nine people, according to the World Health Organization.

The agency has documented 16 attacks on such facilities since the launch of the Russian invasion. There has been a significant increase in attacks on these facilities as well as ambulances. On Saturday, the agency recorded half a dozen attacks. Catherine Smallwood, a WHO manager for Europe, said during a press briefing Tuesday the attacks have been “increasing quite rapidly over the past few days.”

Hans Henri Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe, said the agency “strongly condemns” the attacks, adding, “Health workers, hospitals and other medical facilities must never be a target at any time, including during crisis and conflicts.” The agency has called for safe passage for medical supplies.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry says it managed earlier this week to intercept a Russian cruise missile as it was bearing down on the country’s most important children's medical center, the Okhmatdyt Hospital in Kyiv.

The ICC likely will face daunting challenges to filing prosecutions for alleged Russian war crimes committed in Ukraine, say legal analysts. “It is extremely difficult to prove intent to commit war crimes. So difficult, that only six people have been convicted by the ICC and served sentences,” according to Catherine Gegout, an analyst at the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg (the Institute for Advanced Study) in Bremen, Germany.

The greater and more immediate legal threat may come from the German courts, which are less constricted by bureaucracy and procedure.

Germany observes the principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against international law that take place outside the country, regardless of whether the victims or perpetrators are German nationals. Germany has recently used the principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by members of the Islamic State terror group in Syria and Iraq. In January, a German court handed a former Syrian colonel a lifetime prison sentence for his role in overseeing the murder of 27 people and the torture of 4,000 others 10 years ago.

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