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Russian-affiliated soldiers charged with war crimes for allegedly torturing U.S. citizen in Ukraine: DOJ

Four Russia-affiliated soldiers were indicted for war crimes in the Ukraine conflict for allegedly locking up and torturing a U.S. citizen after the invasion in February 2022, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

The charges are the first ever brought under a U.S. war crimes law, the department said. The defendants are charged with three war crimes – unlawful confinement, torture, and inhuman treatment – and one count of conspiracy to commit war crimes. If convicted, the defendants each face a maximum sentence of life in prison. None of the men are in custody.

Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan, 45; Dmitry Budnik; and two men whose last names are unknown, Valerii and Nazar, were each charged with interrogating, severely beating and torturing the U.S. citizen, according to the indictment. The men allegedly threatened to kill the victim and conducted a mock execution, according to the indictment.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the indictments were the first use of a 1996 U.S. war crimes statute "for heinous crimes against an American citizen.”

'As they interrogated him, they tortured him'

"We allege that, as they interrogated him, they tortured him," Garland said. "They beat him, again, with a gun. They punched him in his chest and stomach. They threatened to shoot him. They stripped off his clothes and took pictures. One of their conspirators threatened to sexually assault him."

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks alongside Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (L) and FBI Director Christopher Wray (R) during a press conference at the U.S. Department of Justice on Dec. 6, 2023 in Washington, D.C. The Department of Justice announced today that four Russian military personnel have been indicted for war crimes committed against a U.S. national living in Ukraine, the first of such charges ever to be brought under the U.S. war crimes statute.

Garland called the charges a historic first for the department, but said, "You should expect more."

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the charges reflected international cooperation in investigating the crimes and demonstrated the government would hold war criminals accountable. He said war crimes investigations are among the most complex his agency investigates.

“Caught in the crossfire of a war he had no part in, this American was tormented for days at the hands of these defendants,” Wray said.

The announcement came as Congress is stalemated over providing additional emergency funding for Ukraine. The Biden administration proposed additional funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, but congressional Republicans balked at providing it without also tightening security along the southern U.S. border.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice on Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as from left, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Director Staci Barrera, of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Assistant Attorney General Nicole M. Argentieri of the Criminal Division, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland, look on.

Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security, said agents with his department − as well as the FBI − investigated the case for more than a year. In August 2022, agents traveled to interview the victim, relatives of the victim and members of his community, to confirm the Russian occupation in the area, Mayorkas said.

“The evidence gathered by our agents speaks to the brutality, criminality, and depravity of Russia’s invasion,” Mayorkas said.

Mkrtchyan and Budnik were commanding officers of military units of the Russian Armed Forces or their proxies, and Valerii and Nazar were lower-ranking military personnel, according to the indictment.

In April 2022, Mkrtchyan and soldiers under his command allegedly abducted the victim, a U.S. citizen, from his home in the village of Mylove in southern Ukraine and unlawfully confined him for at least 10 days, according to the Justice Department.

Thrown face down to the ground, with hands tied behind his back

During the abduction, Mkrtchyan, Valerii, Nazar, and others allegedly threw the victim face down to the ground while he was naked, tied his hands behind his back, pointed a gun at his head and severely beat him, including with the stocks of their guns, according to the department.

The victim was locked up in a building the soldiers were using as a jail and detained about 10 days, Garland said. The indictment alleges that Mkrtchyan and Budnik led and participated in at least two interrogation sessions during which the four defendants and others tortured the victim.

During one interrogation, Mkrtchyan, Valerii, and Nazar allegedly stripped off the victim’s clothes and photographed him, the indictment said. The defendants and others then allegedly severely beat the victim, pointed guns at the back of his head, and threatened to shoot him, the indictment said.

Budnik allegedly threatened the victim with death and asked for his last words, the indictment said. Shortly thereafter, Nazar and others allegedly conducted a mock execution, the indictment said. They allegedly forced the victim to the ground, put a gun to the back of his head, then moved the gun slightly and shot a bullet just past the victim’s head, the indictment said.

“These charges reflect that the defendants’ alleged actions are not only grave breaches of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, but also violations of U.S. law,” said Jessica Aber, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice on Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Attorney General Merrick Garland looks on.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice on Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Attorney General Merrick Garland looks on.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 4 Russian soldiers charged in U.S. with war crimes: DOJ