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Ukraine war crimes cases to open as International Criminal Court seeks 1st arrest warrants since Russia's invasion

Prosecutions loom for Russian war crimes
International prosecutions could be ahead for Russian war crimes 03:07

United Nations — On March 2, 2022, just one week into Russian President Vladimir Putin's full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Kahn opened an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the country at the request of 43 nations that are state parties to the court. Only a year later, the prosecutor is set to open two war crimes cases, as first reported by The New York Times and Reuters, and will seek arrest warrants for individuals involved in the alleged abduction of Ukrainian children and targeting of civilian infrastructure.

Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Britain's Karim Khan (4th R), visits a mass grave in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 13, 2022, amid Russia's military invasion of Ukraine. FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty

Over the course of the last year, the prosecution — as well as the Ukrainian prosecutor's office — has been gathering evidence from a multitude of country and individual sources.

CBS News investigated alleged torture and war crimes committed in Ukraine by Russian forces last month. In August, CBS News correspondent Chris Livesay spoke with Ukrainian children who had been taken to Russian territory against their will, then rescued and brought back to Ukraine.

CBS News investigates alleged torture and war crimes by Russia in Ukraine 09:20

"Due to the expanding number of perpetrators and victims, justice for Russia's horrific atrocities will require a comprehensive approach," the State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack told a Senate Judiciary Committee in September.

The U.S. is not a party to the statute that established the court, but Van Schaack said "the State Department is looking for ways to support the ICC in accordance with U.S. law and policy to ensure that the ICC is able to operate effectively and fairly and that its prosecutors can level charges against foreign nationals who bear significant responsibility for atrocity crimes committed in Ukraine."

What information is actually handed over by U.S. authorities is for President Biden to decide at this point.

Ukraine has already tried some and sentenced some Russian soldiers in its national courts for crimes committed during the invasion, but the ICC's plan to seek warrants marks the beginning of the first international war crimes cases stemming from Russia's war. It's a record-breaking speed for such international proceedings to get underway.

International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Karim Khan is seen in a children's care home, which he said he found "empty, a result of alleged deportation of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation or their unlawful transfer to other parts of the temporarily occupied territories," in southern Ukraine, during a visit in March 2023. Handout/International Criminal Court

Earlier this month, the ICC prosecutor visited Ukraine for a fourth time, "so that we can deliver tangible results and demonstrate the relevance of the rule of law in real-time," he said.

Like the U.S., Ukraine is not a state party to the Rome Statute, which established the court, but the Ukrainian government has accepted the ICC's jurisdiction for crimes committed in its territory since 2014.

Russia is not a state party to the court either and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made it clear earlier this week that Moscow "does not recognize the jurisdiction" of the ICC.

Ukraine says Russia is "systematically" stealing its children 04:07

"There is no question that international justice is a long game, and while Russia will not cooperate with the ICC at present, there is still significant value in this step from ICC prosecutor Khan," Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center, told CBS News. "An arrest warrant is a direct signal to perpetrators that their actions will have serious consequences. For example, it took 16 years for Ratko Mladic to be arrested by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, but once arrested, he was tried and jailed for life."

"There is a powerful argument that the ICC had to launch these cases to show that Russia cannot assume it can commit crimes with impunity," Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group thinktank, told CBS News. "In theory, it is possible that this will deter Russian officers and officials from committing more crimes, for fear of ending up in court one day."

After Russian retreat from Kherson, evidence of war crimes revealed 02:13

Leila Sadat, a professor of international criminal law at Washington University in St. Louis who's served as a special adviser on crimes against humanity to the ICC prosecutor since 2012, told CBS News the court can issue arrest warrants in absentia and could have a confirmation [similar to a U.S. indictment] of the charges in absentia, too.

Sadat said it's possible an international arrest warrant could even be issued for Putin himself.

"There is no immunity before the International Criminal Court for the nationals of non-state parties, and even the highest officials of those non-state parties, assuming that they're committing crimes on the territories of the state party, such as Ukraine as a state that accepted the ICC's jurisdiction."

"An ICC indictment is a ferocious thing if you are on the receiving end," Sadat said. "The issuance of arrest warrants is the first step to achieving accountability for war crimes — it signals that there is evidence that war crimes have been committed and that identified individuals are responsible for them and the persons charged will forever run the risk of arrest or surrender, particularly if they travel to one of the 123 states that are members of the court," Alex Whiting, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who worked in the office of the ICC prosecutor for three years, told CBS News.

"Many of the defendants tried for war crimes at international tribunals never thought that they would face justice when charged, but over time, the political wheel can turn and suddenly the accused persons find themselves in a courtroom," said Whiting.

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