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U.S. charges four people tied to Russian military with war crimes in Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Almost two years ago, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. And since then, reports of atrocities committed by Russian forces have come to light. Now the Justice Department has announced war crimes charges against four people affiliated with the Russian military. They're accused of abducting and torturing an American citizen in Ukraine. This is the first war crimes case the U.S. has brought in connection with the Ukraine war. And a note to listeners, we will be discussing content that some may find disturbing. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering this, and he's here in the studio. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the defendants. Who are they and what are they charged with?

LUCAS: Well, the four defendants here were all fighting in Ukraine for Russia's military or its proxy force, the Donetsk People's Republic. The indictment says that two of them - Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan and Dmitry Budnik - are commanding officers. The other two are only identified by their first names, Valerii and Nazar. They were lower-level soldiers. As for the charges, they each face four counts in all, three war crimes counts - unlawful confinement of a protected person, torture and inhuman treatment. And then they also face one count of conspiracy to commit war crimes.

SHAPIRO: So those are the charges. What exactly does the Justice Department claim they did?

LUCAS: Well, according to the indictment, this all happened in and around the village of Mylove. It's in southern Ukraine, not too far from the city of Kherson. And prosecutors say that Russian forces took over the village and the surrounding area in the first days of April 2022, so right after Russia launched its full-scale invasion. And that's when, according to prosecutors, the defendants abducted an American man who was living there with his wife. The two are not identified, but the indictment says they were not combatants. Here's Attorney General Merrick Garland on what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: During the abduction, we allege that those defendants threw the victim to the ground while he was naked, tied his hands behind his back, pointed a gun at his head and beat him with their feet, their fists and the stocks of their guns.

LUCAS: Now, as brutal as the abduction itself was there, it was just the beginning of this man's ordeal. The indictment paints a very grim picture of his 10 days in captivity that followed.

SHAPIRO: OK, tell us about that. What happened over those 10 days?

LUCAS: Well, court papers say that the American victim was taken to a Russian military compound, thrown into a makeshift jail there. The defendants allegedly beat him again. They kicked him, they punched him, they beat him with their gun stocks. The indictment says that they stripped him, they took pictures of him. One of them allegedly threatened to sexually assault him. The indictment says that during one interrogation, when the defendants apparently didn't like the man's answers, they dragged him outside. Here's Garland again, describing what allegedly happened when they were outside

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARLAND: There they forced him to the ground, put a gun to the back of his head. The victim believed he was about to be killed. They moved the gun just before pulling the trigger, and the bullet went just past his head.

LUCAS: Now, the American was held from April 2 through April 10 of 2022. He did eventually get out, but the indictment doesn't say anything about the circumstances of how that happened.

SHAPIRO: War crimes investigations are notoriously difficult in the middle of an ongoing war. How did this one come together?

LUCAS: Well, the department actually says that this is the first time it's brought charges under a law passed in the 1990s that gives the department the authority to prosecute war crimes committed against Americans. Now, as for the investigation, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said today that federal agents traveled to meet the American victim in August of 2022 after he had left Ukraine. The man told the investigators what he'd been through, they then worked to corroborate the man's story. Mayorkas says that's how investigators managed, eventually, to identify the four defendants. Now, it has to be said, none of the defendants is in U.S. custody, and there's obviously no guarantee that they ever will be.

SHAPIRO: If that's the case, why does it matter if the U.S. brings charges like this? What is the practical effect of this sort of case?

LUCAS: Well, that's a question that comes up in other kinds of cases, too, cases against, say, Chinese or Russian hackers. Now, department officials always say the U.S. has a long memory. And if the defendants slip up and they travel to, say, an American ally somewhere, the U.S. can find them and have them extradited to face justice here. Today, Garland pointed to history as an example. He said the department worked for decades to identify and deport people responsible for Nazi crimes during World War II. And he said, look, the Justice Department is not going to forget the atrocities in Ukraine, and it's not going to stop trying to hold folks accountable.

SHAPIRO: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.

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