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International Criminal Court opens war crimes investigation in Ukraine

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International Criminal Court opens war crimes investigation in Ukraine
Buildings burn Wednesday in the small city of Borodyanka, near Kyiv, Ukraine, after they were hit by Russian artillery. Photo by Alisa Yakubovych/EPA-EFE

March 3 (UPI) -- The International Criminal Court announced late Wednesday that it will immediately proceed with investigations into allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide committed in Ukraine as far back as 2013.

The investigation is beginning a week after Moscow initiated its invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in officials accusing the Kremlin of committing war crimes, including attacking civilian targets and undefended residential buildings.

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"I have notified the ICC presidency ... of my decision to immediately proceed with active investigations in the situation," ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said in a statement. "Our work in the collective of evidence has now commenced."

Khan decided to open the investigation at the urging of several of the court's member countries for ICC action against Russia.

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On Monday, Khan announced his intention for an investigation -- prompting Lithuania the next day to submit a referral, which was followed by a joint referral from 38 governments on Tuesday.

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As Ukraine is not a member of the ICC, the referrals allow Khan to bypass the lengthy process of getting approval for the investigation and provides him with procedural discretion.

The international court has jurisdiction over Ukraine as it has twice previous accepted two applications for investigations -- one concerning crimes in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014 and another extending that probe to crimes committed after February 2014.

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In announcing his intentions to open the investigation earlier in the week, Khan said his office's preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine had already "found a reasonable basis to believe crimes within the jurisdiction of the court had been committed."

The investigation will go back to Feb. 21, 2013, when protests erupted against Ukraine's then-pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, over his government's rejection of an agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union to foster a closer relationship with Russia.

Part of the inquiry will also be Russia's forced annexation of Crimea in 2014, fighting against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region and the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine that began a week ago.

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Charges could ultimately be filed against Moscow in The Hague court. However, Russia is not a member of the ICC and is not required to cooperate with its investigation.

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"With an active investigation now underway, I repeat my call to all those engaged in hostilities in Ukraine to adhere strictly to the applicable rules of international humanitarian law," Khan added. "No individual in the Ukraine situation has a license to commit crimes within the jurisdiction of the International Court."

On Wednesday, the ICC also assigned the Ukraine case to judges.

"The ICC prosecutor's decision to open an investigation sends a message to current and would-be rights abusers, no matter how powerful that justice may one day catch up with them," Balkees Jarrah, interim international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

"Broad support for the court's work will be critical to the investigation's success and help ensure that victims in Ukraine have a path to justice that they so desperately need."

Since the Russian invasion, more than 200 civilians have been killed in widespread fighting across Ukraine and hundreds more have been injured, according to United Nations data.

Scenes from the Russian war on Ukraine

European Union leaders attend a summit at the Chateau de Versailles near Paris on March 11, 2022. Photo by the European Union/ UPI | License Photo

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