Russian War Crimes In Ukraine A Step Closer To Being Prosecuted In Germany

In October 2023, the Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ), a non-governmental organization founded by Amal and George Clooney, filed three cases with the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office, requesting an investigation into crimes committed in Ukraine. The CGJ represents 16 survivors and families of victims. The filings concern crimes perpetrated by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, following Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Since the beginning of the war, CFJ’s Docket initiative, consisting of international lawyers and investigators, has been collecting evidence and preparing submissions detailing crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. Their work included multiple field investigations in Ukraine as well as extensive analysis of open-source data. The collected evidence has then been used to bring proceedings in Germany under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Over the years, German courts have been leading globally in the efforts to prosecute international crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction, including crimes perpetrated by Daesh (also known as IS, ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State), a non-state actor, against the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority community in Iraq.

As indicated by CFJ, all three cases were filed against high- and mid-level commanders identified as likely suspects.

The first case concerns an indiscriminate missile attack, carried out by Russian Tu-22 bombers, which launched Kh-22 supersonic missiles on a resort in the Odesa region, in the summer of 2022. Kh-22 supersonic missiles are one of the least precise and most destructive missiles in the Russian weapons arsenal. The attack resulted in 22 civilians being killed and 40 seriously injured.

The second case relates to the commanders of Russian ground forces who unlawfully detained, tortured, and executed four men in the Kharkiv region between March to September 2022. The crimes are said to have been committed as part of a widespread and systematic pattern and amounting to crimes against humanity. CJF filed the case jointly with Truth Hounds, a leading Ukrainian human rights organization working on documenting atrocity crimes.

The third case concerns the commanders of Russian units involved in executions, torture, sexual violence, looting and other violations committed during the occupation in the Kyiv region in March 2022. According to the local administration, the crimes resulted in 177 civilians killed, 266 houses completely destroyed, and 2400 civilian objects, including 17 schools and kindergartens damaged or partially destroyed.

In relation to all three cases, the Docket represents survivors and families of victims.

As CFJ explains, “If German authorities find the evidence presented against specific perpetrators convincing, they can open a criminal investigation and issue arrest warrants for the suspects, which would enable their arrest, extradition, and prosecution. The arrest warrants can be enforced in countries outside of Germany through the Europol and Interpol systems. The ICC can also issue arrest warrants against key suspects. (…) Once the investigation is open, The Docket will continue to provide additional evidence to the German prosecutors, coordinate with the Ukrainian Office of the Prosecutor, and provide all necessary support to the survivors and families involved in the proceedings.”

Involving courts outside of Ukraine is crucial. As Maryna Slobodianiuk, the Head of the Investigations Department of Truth Hounds, explained, “While Ukrainian law enforcement agencies are doing their best to cover the unprecedented scale of war crimes committed in the country, they are overloaded and have limited options under Ukrainian for pursuing the commanders and masterminds of the crimes. We believe that by opening these proceedings, Germany can significantly contribute to the efforts of ensuring justice for all Ukrainian survivors.”

While the three cases are the first cases filed in Germany under the principle of universal jurisdiction, the Docket team is building further cases.

CFJ has also shared the evidence with the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to support the ICC’s efforts to bring Russia’s top leadership to justice for crimes committed in Ukraine. On March 2, 2022, after receiving a State Party referrals from over 40 countries, the Prosecutor announced opening an investigation into the situation in Ukraine (on the basis of the referrals). The scope of the investigation encompasses any past and present allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide committed on any part of the territory of Ukraine by any person from November 21, 2013, onwards.

Ensuring justice and accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine requires engaging numerous actors, including domestic and international bodies. No stone should be left unturned in this pursuit.

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