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Senators Want to Prosecute Russians for War Crimes in Ukraine

September 28, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Senators Want to Prosecute Russians for War Crimes in Ukraine
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel raised the possibility Wednesday of extending U.S. jurisdiction against Russian military personnel to hold them personally accountable for war crimes in Ukraine.

Current federal law allows the Justice Department to prosecute war criminals only if they are American or commit offenses against Americans. Otherwise, they are extradited to countries where they are wanted.

Now the Senate Judiciary Committee is showing bipartisan support for more aggressively tracking down and prosecuting foreign war criminals, particularly the Russians who are blamed for torture and mass murders of Ukrainians.

“We must not look away, we must face this squarely,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The prosecutions would create a dangerous dilemma for U.S. foreign policy. 

International policies normally dictate that arrests of foreigners who committed crimes in other countries are considered an intrusion into their home countries’ sovereignty, perhaps even an act of war.

Senators who spoke during the hearing Wednesday said the atrocities coming out of Ukraine require a new approach.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the United States needs to “let the Russians know you follow [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s orders at your own peril.”

Ukrainian prosecutors claim to have documented nearly 35,000 war crimes by Russians.

Some of them were revealed this month after Ukrainians retook the city of Izium from Russian occupiers.

The once picturesque city of more than 45,000 was nearly destroyed. In a forested area outside of town, authorities discovered mass graves of about 450 of the city’s residents. 

The bodies included children, people with their hands tied behind their backs, some with crushed skulls and others with faces mutilated beyond recognition.

The Senate is considering a declaration that Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism.

The declaration refers to countries that federal law defines as having “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” The list includes Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

Inclusion on the list results in tough sanctions, such as controls on exports to the listed countries of all consumer products that could potentially be used by their military, prohibitions on economic assistance and opposition to loans from the World Bank or other international financial institutions.

The designation also removes diplomatic immunity to allow families of terrorist victims to file lawsuits against state sponsors of terrorism is U.S. courts.

Other proposals would allow the Justice Department to prosecute war criminals who enter the United States regardless of where they committed the offenses, even if no Americans were victimized.

Some of the senators recommended prosecuting Putin.

“At the least, in my view, he could be tried and convicted in absentia,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

The senators sought input from Justice Department and Homeland Security Department officials on their plans for prosecuting war criminals.

Eli M. Rosenbaum, director of war crimes enforcement for the Justice Department, said there’s a loophole in U.S. laws on terrorism.

There are 21 laws against various forms of terrorism but none that would allow prosecution for crimes against humanity, which normally refer to government-sponsored offenses against civilians. They can include mass murder, slave trade, genocide or sex crimes.

“Russian and other war criminals who come here should not be able to escape criminal justice,” Rosenbaum said.

Andre R. Watson, an assistant director for national security at the Homeland Security Department, recommended more stringent efforts to watch for war criminals as they enter the United States.

Often, “victims come to the United States” to escape their tormentors, he said. “Sometimes the perpetrators follow.”

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com and @TomRamstack

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