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War crimes probe in Ukraine expands

Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia are the newest members of an E.U.-backed Joint Investigative Team, probing war crimes in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Eurojust's press conference with ICC and national prosecutors
Eurojust's press conference with ICC and national prosecutors (AN/Eurojust)

Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia are the newest members of an E.U.-backed Joint Investigative Team probing war crimes in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Judicial authorities from the three Eastern European nations joined their counterparts from Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine for two days of coordination meetings that wrapped up Tuesday with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

"The main aim of the JIT is to facilitate investigations and prosecutions in the concerned states as well as those that could be taken forward before the ICC," said the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation, known as Eurojust, which hosts the team.

"The joining of the JIT by Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia reinforces the clear message that no effort will be spared in gathering evidence on alleged core international crimes committed in Ukraine and bringing those responsible to justice," it said. "The fact that the JIT was already set up in March is a sign of the rapid response that is enabling close cooperation and an effective and swift exchange of information and evidence."

Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine set up the JIT on March 25, one month after Russia invaded Ukraine — widely condemned as an illegal act of aggression — and sharply escalated the war that began in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan's office began participating last month.

"Never in the history of armed conflicts has the legal community responded with such determination," said Eurojust President Ladislav Hamran, whose E.U. agency held the coordination meetings for prosecutors and investigators from member nations and said it is supporting the JIT with operational, analytical, legal and financial assistance that will greatly speed up its work.

"In parallel there are six E.U. member states that have opened their investigations, based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, and we know that other non-E.U. countries are doing the same," he said. "Meanwhile, NGOs and civil society organizations are also collecting precious information about core international crimes allegedly committed in Ukraine."

'An extra 200 to 300 cases' daily

The team is investigating attacks by Russian forces on civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha and on civilian infrastructure including hospitals and a theater in Mariupol that sheltered hundreds of people. Khan's ICC team also is gathering evidence in Ukraine, including Bucha, though ICC can’t prosecute the crime of aggression because Russia and Ukraine have not joined the court.

"Today is a momentous day, it's an important day that the Joint Investigative Team has three new members," Khan told a press conference. "I think this is what is needed for crimes that are of the magnitude that we often see at the ICC. We need to build partnerships. And I think what it shows is that there's no dichotomy between cooperation and independence."

Khan said the team's coordination meetings have shown "there is this common front of legality" not just towards Ukraine, but with regard to "peace and security all over the world." He said he has made two trips to Ukraine, in April and May, when his office sent 42 experts along with 30 specialists from the Netherlands into the field — the largest such deployment in the history of the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, which will mark its 20th year of operation in July.

"Hopefully in the next few weeks I will be working towards opening an office in Kyiv," he said, adding that 13 nations are conducting investigations into war crimes in Ukraine "and I welcome that." Those include investigations by prosecutors in Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and Ukraine.

"Every day we have an extra 200 to 300 cases," said Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, whose office has identified about 500 suspects and has started prosecuting about 80 of them from among the 15,000 criminal investigations it has opened so far related to Russia's invasion. "Now, we have cases only about war crimes."

U.S. President Joe Biden says Russian President Vladimir Putin is a "war criminal” while Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calls Russia's killing of civilians “war crimes.” Ukraine's courts have convicted two Russian soldiers of war crimes for shelling civilian buildings and sentenced a captured Russian soldier to life in prison for killing a civilian.

Russia denies its soldiers have carried out any atrocities. The Associated Press and PBS series Frontline report they have identified at least 273 potential war crimes.