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Ukraine files first war crimes charges against Russian soldiers accused of torture

By Darryl Coote & Ashley Williams
Priest Andrii Gavalin presides over the funeral of Eugene Bogdanov, 35, in Bucha, Ukraine, on May 10. Bogdanov went missing two months ago. His wife, Natalia Bogdanova, was searching for him throughout the Kyiv and Bucha regions when his body was found at a morgue in Belaya Tserkov on May 9. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

April 28 (UPI) -- Ukrainian prosecutors have filed criminal charges against Russian soldiers accused of committing war crimes in Bucha, Ukraine -- the first such charges announced since Russia began its invasion of the country in February.

Ukraine's general prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, wrote in a social media post that 10 non-commissioned Russian officers and privates participated in the "torture of peaceful civilians" during their occupation of Bucha, where over 300 bodies were discovered this month after Russian forces retreated at the end of March.

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The accused soldiers are part of Russia's 64th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade.

"The investigation established that during the occupation of Bucha, they took unarmed civilians hostage, didn't provide food and water to them, kept them on their knees with their hands tied and their eyes covered in duct tape, and they were mocked and beaten," said Venediktova in the post, adding, "Some were tortured for no reason at all."

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The criminal filings come after the United States revealed credible evidence of Russian troops executing surrendering Ukrainians in Donetsk on Wednesday.

Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, shared the information during an arria-formula meeting titled "Ensuring Accountability for Atrocities Committed by Russia," stating that if her allegation is true, the Russian troops responsible would have violated a core principle of the law or war.

"Russia has failed in its objective of capturing Kyiv, and it has failed in its objective of subjugating Ukraine. But we have all still seen the Kremlin inflict massive brutality across the country, and the United States has assessed that Russia's forces are committing war crimes in Ukraine," she said, explaining the assessment is based on "careful and rigorous review" of public and intelligence sources.

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She said that during the early stages of the two-month-old war it appeared the war crimes consisted of the deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure. However, once reporters, human rights defenders and Ukrainians gained access to areas after Russian troops retreated, interpersonal violence such as that seen in Bucha where Ukrainian civilians were executed with their hands bound behind their backs, was revealed.

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"These images and reports suggest that atrocities are not the result of rogue units or individuals; they rather reveal a deeply disturbing pattern of systematic abuse across all areas where Russia's forces are engaged," Van Schaack said.

The city of Bucha, in the region of the capital Kyiv, has come to represent the brutality of Russia's war against Ukraine as the bodies of Ukrainian civilians were found scattered over its streets early this month after the retreat of Kremlin forces. Kyiv officials have blamed Russia for the deaths, stating some of the people were tortured before being killed.

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Ukrainian officials have said more than 410 bodies were discovered in Bucha and surrounded cities following Russia's retreat from the region.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for Human Rights, said at the meeting her team documented during a one-day visit to the city the unlawful killing, including summary executions, of 50 civilians, mostly men but also of women and children.

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She said her office is also looking into reports of other violations committed in Bucha, as well as more than 300 other killings, including executions, in more than 30 settlements in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy.

Her office is also looking into dozens of allegations of conflict-related sexual violence while having corroborated more than 170 cases of apparent arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances of public officials, journalists and activists in areas controlled by Russia.

"The treatment of prisoners of war by the parties also raises serious concerns. Videos apparently recorded by combatants are available online, depicting intimidation, torture and even killing of prisoners of war," she said during the meeting. "Accountability of these violations and the rights of victims to a remedy and reparations must be ensured."

Ida Sawyer, the crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch, told the member states the organization has documented a "litany of apparent war crimes" committed in Ukraine since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the human rights watchdog has documented the killing of civilians and damage to homes, schools and hospitals across the countries from apparently indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.

"What we hear again and again is that the victims of these violations want justice," she said.

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Sawyer added that what they are seeing unfold in Ukraine is consistent with the war crimes they have documented Russia committing in other countries such as Syria.

"The lack of accountability for those violations has regrettably opened the door for what is occurring today," she said.

Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer who is a member of a task force working with Ukraine on accountability for Russian war crimes, echoed the notion that previous crimes that have gone unpunished paved the way for the war in Ukraine.

The response from the international community to Russia's invasion was swift, with democratic nations imposing stiff sanctions against Moscow and the United Nations creating a commission to document war crimes with 13 other countries having launched their own investigations into war crime allegations.

An unprecedented 43 countries referred the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court, which responded by launching an investigation of its own.

However, Clooney said she worries that this response will stand as the height in holding Russia to account instead of as a starting point, that the politicians' actions will amount to a wealth of investigations, reports and committees but a dearth of prosecutions, convictions and sentences.

"Politicians calling for justice but not delivering," she said.

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"My fear is that you'll get busy, and distracted and that each day there will be a bit little less coverage of the war and people will become a little bit more numb to it and that Ukraine will end up alone in pursing the perpetrators of these atrocities," she said. "We cannot let that happen."

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