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Russian army has committed 10,000 war crimes in Ukraine, investigator says

Exclusive: Human rights defender Oleksandra Matviichuk on uncovering Russia’s war crimes as part of ‘Tribunal for Putin’

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Valeria Costa-Kostritsky Thomas Rowley Verstka Media
15 June 2022, 12.00am

Vladimir Putin recently claimed there were two kinds of states in the world - "sovereign states" and "colonies"

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Image: Kremlin.ru

After more than 100 days of war, Russian authorities continue to deny that the country’s forces have committed any war crimes in Ukraine.

But this is disputed by independent Ukrainian investigators, such as Oleksandra Matviichuk, a human rights lawyer.

Since the Russian invasion began on 24 February, Matviichuk – along with a team of volunteers, lawyers and paralegals – has been recording war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Russian army in Ukraine.

Volunteers travel daily to recently liberated Ukrainian towns and villages to document any actions by the Russian army that could fall under the Rome Statute, an international treaty which established the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as as the International Criminal Court.

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Matviichuk says her team – whose work is part of a wider initiative known as ‘Tribunal for Putin’ – has currently recorded 9,685 crimes attributable to the Russian military.

She says that in the future, Russian authorities and military personnel could be tried by the International Criminal Court.

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“A court will have the last word”, says Matviychuk, on the Russian military's actions in Ukraine

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Image: Oleksandra Matviychuk

“I have the impression that we are putting out thousands of fires every day,” Matviichuk told Verstka, an independent Russian media, openDemocracy and Czech outlet Deník N. “While you are far away you can just turn off the news and go about your daily routine. Many people don’t have that option anymore.”

“Russia is using war crimes as a method of warfare… there are a huge number of them, [all] very different. We only manage to document them. To do this, we screen [the events] – these are short descriptions of events that give us an understanding of what happened.”

"The purpose of this terror was to defeat [Ukrainian] resistance via the suffering of civilians, to intimidate people so much that they would be afraid to resist"

After the screening process, Matviichuk says, experts will analyse the cases to filter out which are suitable for an international court, which will be investigated at the national level, and which are of value for future museum archives.

“Many of the crimes that we record will be difficult to investigate,” she says, due to the sheer volume of allegations. “Our legal system can’t handle this much.” Ukraine’s General Prosecutor’s Office has so far reported 13,000 open investigations in relation to the Russian invasion.

At the same time, Matviichuk notes, the fact that Russia’s war is ongoing, and “that new crimes are being committed every day”, makes the investigations even more difficult.

“The priority is saving people [during hostilities], helping them to return to normal after what they have gone through,” she says, rather than investigating and analysing what has happened.

Calls for an international tribunal

According to the Tribunal for Putin initiative, Russia has conducted at least 720 strikes against historical monuments, hospitals, schools and religious sites in Ukraine. It has also recorded 605 instances of Russian use of indiscriminate weapons. On three occasions, the Russian military has also used chemical weapons, including phosphorus.

These weapons have damaged infrastructure at a number of towns and cities like Izyum, Chernihiv and Mariupol, says Matviichuk. “People were essentially left without heating, water, electricity and gas in February. They melted snow to have something to drink.”

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Burnt-out apartment blocks in Borodianka, Kyiv as a result of Russian shelling

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(c) SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

She continued: “Residents had to spend the night in basements because their houses were being shot at. They couldn’t get medical help. Remember how hospitals were shelled?

“The situation in some cities gets to the point that people simply cannot survive. At the same time, no one is allowed to leave.”

Tribunal for Putin has also documented 432 cases of kidnapping of civilians in Ukraine, and 173 instances of civilians being murdered – whether by forces on the ground or by drone – in attacks witnessed by other civilians. There are also nearly 800 cases where witnesses reported seeing people dying during Russian shelling or airstrikes.

The initiative has also documented three cases of sexual violence, though Matviichuk says their group did not “initially focus” on rape. “Most of the people who we work with have not undergone special training to interview those who have experienced sexual violence,” she explains.

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Nearly seven years after the start of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, we speak to one of the human rights activists calling for new legislation on war crimes.

When Russian troops were pushed out of the Kyiv region in late March, a trail of brutal violence was left behind in towns such as Bucha, Irpin and Motyzhin, just outside the Ukrainian capital. On 13 June, a new mass grave with seven bodies was found near Bucha: all of the corpses had signs that they had been shot in the head, and that their hands had been tied, according to Kyiv regional police.

Matviichuk says “a court will have the last word” on what happened in these areas, but that the Russian military’s actions should be qualified as “terror”.

“As I understand it, the purpose of this terror was to defeat [Ukrainian] resistance via the suffering of civilians, to intimidate people so much that they would be afraid to resist,” she says.

The Tribunal for Putin initiative is planning on handing its data to the International Criminal Court, and calls for an international tribunal to be held into Russian defendants. The International Criminal Court has already opened an investigation into the conflict in Ukraine.

“If the international system is not capable of stopping [the Russian] regime, then something needs to be done with this international system, which is now in ruins, just like Mariupol,” says Matviichuk. “[That system] was created after the Second World War in order to prevent that war repeating itself. But now it’s happening right before my eyes.”

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