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Russian forces' alleged murder, rape and torture of civilians may count as war crimes


Attorney General Merrick Garland says the United States is assisting efforts to examine potential war crimes in Ukraine as evidence of violence against civilians mounts. NPR's Julie McCarthy examines what constitutes a crime in a time of war and whether Russian President Vladimir Putin might be held to account.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: With revulsion deepening at what Russia is doing in Ukraine...



MCCARTHY: ...President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rebuked the U.N. this week. Where is the security in the Security Council, he asked. Members were silent as he invited them to watch this video on the civilian toll of Russia's invasion.


MCCARTHY: The hand of a corpse pokes out from a shallow grave in the winter cold. Burned bodies are piled willy-nilly. An old woman steps past a dead body splayed on the sidewalk. The grisly tableau captures the aftermath of Russian soldiers withdrawing from cities, like Bucha. War crime expert Philippe Sands says it appears that in Ukraine, the laws that govern the conduct of warfare have been violated across the board. But he says a fundamental war crime that stands out here...

PHILIPPE SANDS: Is the targeting of civilians. We've seen terrible images of ordinary apartment buildings being shelled, of civilians who appear to be bound and shot in the head. Those cross a line.

MCCARTHY: Criminal law experts say murder, rape and torture, all alleged against Russian troops in Ukraine, constitute potential war crimes; so too does interfering with corridors set up for civilians to flee the fighting, something Russians have repeatedly done in the besieged city of Mariupol, where the mayor now says 5,000 civilians have been killed. International law expert Melanie O'Brien says the carnage suggests crimes against humanity distinguished from war crimes by their scale.

MELANIE O'BRIEN: Crimes against humanity are crimes that are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population - crimes like murder, rape and deportation.

MCCARTHY: A third category of crime is genocide. President Zelenskyy says Russia is guilty, but O'Brien sees Putin more focused on a territory grab than in the destruction of the Ukrainians as a people. The International Criminal Court, the prosecuting body for crimes related to war, is already collecting evidence. Philippe Sands says while it's fairly certain that war crimes have occurred, the bigger question is who's responsible and whether ICC prosecutors can pin what's called command responsibility on President Putin.

SANDS: And that's a much more difficult task. And what a prosecutor would have to prove is that Mr. Putin has either issued orders for the targeting of civilians or in the face of information that civilians are being targeted doing nothing to stop it.

MCCARTHY: Sands refrains from calling Putin a war criminal.

SANDS: But I would add simply that it doesn't look good for Mr. Putin because it seems hard to imagine there is not knowledge at the top about what is going on.

MCCARTHY: But Sands says drawing the nexus between war crimes and heads of state is painstaking. Liberian President Charles Taylor's conviction took over a decade. The case against Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic was just as arduous. But Mark Ellis, president of the International Bar Association, says in this most documented war in history, he's confident there will be a reckoning.

MARK ELLIS: International law plays the long game, and in the short term, it may be viewed as overwhelmingly challenging. But we've seen time and time again that international justice eventually does work.

MCCARTHY: Court watchers, however, caution patience holding Putin to account. Having pulled Russia out of the ICC in 2016, Putin is not expected to answer any possible international arrest warrants.

O'BRIEN: If Putin stays in power, of course, he's never going to put himself on trial for the crimes he has committed.

MCCARTHY: Melanie O'Brien believes that only a change of regime in Moscow can compel Putin to appear before the court. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.