Ukrainian prosecutors believe over 50,000 crimes have been committed since Russia invaded in February. BIRN talked to some of the people gathering evidence in the hope that the perpetrators will eventually face justice.
By Milica Stojanovic
Fifteen people died after a Russian missile hit a line of people waiting to buy bread in the north Ukrainian city of Chernihiv on March 16.
Chernihiv had been under attack since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 this year, and the total death toll in the city that day in March was 53.
CNN reported that the governor of Chernihiv Oblast, Vyacheslav Chaus, told media that it was not the first shelling of civilians by Russian forces.
“The Russians are shelling and destroying mostly civilian infrastructure in the city of Chernihiv and other cities in the region,” Chaus said.
After the invasion began, the Ukrainian authorities quickly started collecting evidence about crimes committed by Russian forces for use in domestic prosecutions.
The Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office said that from the start of the invasion until December 17, it registered over 54,000 alleged war crimes and crimes of aggression, some 52,000 of which it classified, under domestic legislation, as breaking the laws and customs of war.
In October, Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin said that the Ukrainian authorities had so far indicted 186 individuals for war crimes. However, many are not reachable by the authorities for arrest or prosecution, as they are either in Russia or in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
“Most of them, or a large number of them, have been notified of suspicion in absentia, but this is in cases in which we have identified the perpetrators,” Kostin told media.
The cases of 45 suspects were made ready for trial, and Kostin said that by mid-October, ten people had been convicted, all of them in person.
As the conflict continues with no end in sight, there are a whole series of domestic and international efforts to investigate war crimes committed in Ukraine in the hope that perpetrators can sooner or later be brought to justice.
The Ukrainian judicial authorities are conducting large-scale probes and have begun domestic prosecutions. The International Criminal Court has also started an investigation and has deployed a large team to Ukraine.
There is also an EU-backed joint investigative team, made up of Ukraine and six EU countries and coordinated by European judicial cooperation body Eurojust.
Some EU countries like Germany and Spain have also opened their own investigations into possible war crimes in Ukraine.
In the field, besides domestic and international investigators, some Ukrainian NGOs are also working on documenting crimes by gathering evidence from crime scenes, checking open source data and interviewing survivors, and two of them spoke to BIRN about the complex situation they have encountered on the ground.
One of the NGOs is Truth Hounds, whose investigators came to their first field mission to the location of the Chernihiv March 16 bread line attack. They have been providing evidence to the Ukrainian judicial authorities for potential use in prosecutions but have also issued their own reports.
On their first mission and a second in June, they gathered testimonies, photos, evidences about weapons used in the Chernihiv attack, which they later combined with open-source materials about armaments and the Russian army.
In October, they published a report entitled ‘Who’s Next in the Dead Line?’, in which they reconstructed the attack in detail, identified the exact time and the type of weapon that was used, and finally the units that were probably involved.
Maryna Slobodianiuk, who heads the investigation department at Truth Hounds, conducted some of the field missions herself, met survivors and refugees and took their testimonies.
“Psychologically, it is not easy to see all the buildings totally ruined and demolished, or seriously damaged, with people [continuing] to live [there] with their families,” Slobodianiuk told BIRN.
“And also just to meet the survivors, to hear their stories, to see some pictures they took, I mean of their wounds and injuries, if we tell about tortures, for instance, and also, we also visit some villages that are close to the Russian border and that [are] really under still severe shelling from the Russian side,” she added.
Documenting survivors’ stories
Global Rights Compliance, a foundation made of lawyers and experts in the field of international humanitarian law and human rights in conflict-affected areas, provides support for the Ukrainian judicial authorities as they investigate war crimes.
Anna Mykytenko, Global Rights Compliance’s senior legal adviser and Ukraine country manager, explained to BIRN they are offering this support mostly via ‘mobile justice teams’, newly created units of “international lawyers who can accompany the Office of the Prosecutor General and investigators on the ground, to help with documentation of crimes, with the collection of evidence, interviewing witnesses”.
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Mykytenko has worked with Ukrainian judicial investigators who spoke to many survivors of atrocities in the Kherson region, which was seized by Russian forces before being taken back by Ukraine.
“What you see is people who lived under the Russian occupation for a week or two weeks or a month or half a year, and they think it is the worst that happened to them and their hope is that these territories will not be reoccupied,” Mykytenko said.
She said that the testimonies she heard demonstrated the locals’ resilience despite what they suffered: “When asked if they were subjected to any crimes, they say, ‘No, no, we were not, but you know, Russian soldiers came around a couple of times, they made us all kneel down, they shot above our heads, but that is OK.’”
Mykytenko said that there has been progress in improving the quality of the Ukrainian investigations since February, particularly when it comes to crimes of sexual violence.
“When we came back to Kyiv in the beginning of April, the first cases that we have seen were, let me put it mildly, not up to the standards, in the sense that we saw that investigators could come to a village, gather all the villagers in whole and ask for a show of hands who was raped,” she recalled.
“I don’t need to explain how bad that is,” she added.
But prosecutors then acted to reform the process, Mykytenko explained: “And so then we followed this team in October and what they did, this is also police investigators, they came to every house in the village that was still liveable, and they handed over leaflets which provided the numbers of hotlines for psychological assistance, for medical aids, they spoke with every person about their needs, the needs of survivors”.
She explained that the primary goal of the visit was “to tell people that help is available, to tell people that the justice system is open for them, is willing to receive their reports and there was absolutely no pressure to testify”.
“So it is really the victim-centred approach in practice,” she said. “And do not get me wrong, I am not saying it is perfect, because in the end, it was still all-male investigative team, which in itself is not great, but it is a change.”
Analysing evidence, building cases
Maryna Slobodianiuk from Truth Hounds explained that prior to their field mission they “collect some primary information about incidents that happened in this region or area, and then trying to get some contacts or just names of the person we can go to and ask”.
“But sometimes we just, you know, go to the houses, go to some apartments [where] we know these atrocities happened and just explain to people who we are what we do and for what reason, and then trying to talk to them, to interview them… if they agree to do so,” she said.
After evidential materials are gathered, Slobodianiuk and her colleagues go through them and “try to analyse them and verify what of these materials can constitute war crimes”, as well as examining how a potential case could be strengthened with additional evidence from open sources.
“And then we investigate after analysing these raw materials from the field missions, we start to develop the case, building and investigating, finding out information from different sources and open sources,” she added.
In the early days of the full-scale invasion, some locations which had been the scene of large-scale crimes by Russian forces, like the town of Bucha, were “overcrowded” with people investigating, according to Slobodianiuk from Truth Hounds. This included prosecutors but also journalists, who she said “retraumatised” some survivors.
However, she added, “there are cases where no one at all reaches the witnesses and the survivors and many times we experienced and we met the situation, when we, Truth Hounds, the documenters, were the first who interviewed this person”.
She added that they also have to speak to people who had already been interviewed by domestic investigators “because sometimes the quality of these official investigation interrogations are very low… Because some of them never dealt with war crimes in their professional activity, sometimes they even do not know what to ask, and what to verify, or how to document properly,” she explained.
Hague court deploys team
Right after the full-scale invasion started, the International Criminal Court, ICC announced the start of an investigation, while representatives of many European countries’ representatives and international organisations and institutions also came to Ukraine to gather evidence about crimes committed.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan told media in mid-October that his office has maintained a continuous field presence in Ukraine since May, when it made its “largest ever deployment of 51 staff” to the country to investigate crimes going back to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.
In March, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine established a joint investigation team, an investigative partnership between states supported by Eurojust, the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation.
The ICC joined the joint investigative team in April, then Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia in May and Romania in October. According to the Eurojust website, the EU member states involved are already “all in possession of large amounts of evidence in the form of witness and victim testimonies coming from Ukrainian refugees”.
Eurojust spokesperson Ton van Lierop explained that the investigations are being carried out by the member states and that Eurojust role is to coordinate and enable better communication.
“We want to prevent, for instance, over-documentation, because you can imagine with this evidence database [that the joint investigative team will establish], we will have lots of information coming to us, so we want to know what information is available where, who has collected this,” van Lierop told BIRN.
He added that there is a regular exchange of information between the joint investigative team and the International Criminal Court.
“I think the fact that there is a good cooperation is highlighted by the fact that they are now a participant in this joint investigation team, which is for the first time ever that they are involved in a joint investigation team,” van Lierop said.
Experts who spoke to BIRN towards the beginning of the full-scale invasion, when many of these investigations started, warned that time is of the essence in such cases.
Some nine months later, the track record of indictments is not strong, but Mykytenko of Truth Hounds said she is optimistic about the possibility that cases could be built against more senior officers or officials in the coming year, even if the cases don’t reach the courts until later.
“I do not expect big cases in courts, I do not expect that Ukraine will suddenly have a case against the Ministry of Defence of Russia or something of the similar level, I would be happy if next year we see the process of building sophisticated cases against mid-to-high-level perpetrators,” she said.