Ukraine begins Bucha war crimes investigation, charging 10 Russians

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Ukrainian authorities have pushed ahead with efforts to investigate and prosecute potential war crimes committed by Russian forces in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledges the alleged perpetrators may never face justice.

Prosecutors filed their first war crimes charges Thursday against 10 Russian service members accused of torturing and taking civilians hostage on the outskirts of the capital. The Russians are not in custody, and the charges were filed in absentia to Ukrainian courts.

This decision signals Kyiv’s resolve to hold Moscow accountable and its determination to ensure that the voices of the victims and their families are heard, said Mervyn Cheong, a law professor at the National University of Singapore who also serves as counsel before the International Criminal Court.

The Kremlin’s troops pulled out of the Kyiv region in early April as Russia refocused its invasion in Ukraine’s south and east. Since then, evidence of atrocities in Bucha has drawn global outrage. Investigators and journalists have documented signs of torture and mutilation on dead bodies in city streets, as well as mass graves of residents.

Zelensky said Thursday that the Russian servicemen were part of the 64th Guard Motorized Brigade, which President Vladimir Putin recently honored in a presidential decree. “We know all the details about them and their actions. … None of these b——s will avoid responsibility,” Zelensky said.

But Zelensky later added that it may be hard to hold members of the brigade responsible because they have been deployed to the eastern battlefield, where fighting is fierce. “There they will get retribution from our military,” he said.

Video reporter Joyce Koh visited Bucha, Ukraine, where authorities are still finding bodies weeks after Russian forces retreated from the area. (Video: Joyce Koh, Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

Signs of massacre in Bucha spark calls for war crimes probes

It is highly unlikely that the Russian troops will ever stand trial in Ukraine, but it is still useful for Kyiv to continue legal proceedings, said Steven Freeland, an international law expert at Western Sydney University.

The move could further pressure Moscow and allow Kyiv to establish more credibility to its allegations, he said. “If you’re [accusing] others of completely violating the rule of law, you don’t want to be seen as establishing a process that ignores the rule of law.”

Russian authorities have denied wrongdoing in Bucha while dismissing the gross evidence as fraudulent. But legal inquiries into potential Russian atrocities in Ukraine are picking up pace. The ICC, backed by over three dozen countries, launched an investigative process on March 2, while Washington has said it is helping Kyiv compile evidence that may be used to target Russian leaders.

On Thursday, an arm of the Council of Europe called on its 46 member nations to create an international criminal tribunal to investigate and adjudicate alleged war crimes ordered by top Russian officials.

The 10 service members identified Thursday are all relatively low ranking, with the most senior being noncommissioned officers, according to Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova.

But bringing charges against them could be a reflection of the evidence compiled by authorities, said Cheong, the Singapore professor. Eyewitness testimony, for instance, would be more readily available for lower-ranked personnel who were on the ground, he said.

Paulina Villegas contributed to this report.

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