The Department of Justice has made its first-ever use of a decades-old war crimes statute to charge four Russia-aligned soldiers with atrocities against an American living in Ukraine in April 2022 during Russia’s war on Ukraine, Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Wednesday.
Speaking at a press conference in Washington at Justice Department headquarters, Mr Garland said the charges are being brought under the War Crimes Act, a statute enacted in 1996 that gives federal prosecutors jurisdiction over alleged war crimes committed against US nationals abroad.
“As the world has witnessed the horrors of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, so has the United States Department of Justice. That is why the Justice Department has filed the first-ever charges under the US war crimes statute against for Russia affiliated military personnel for heinous crimes against an American citizen,” he said.
According to court documents, the four Russian-affiliated individuals — Suren Mkrtchan, Dmitry Budnik, Valerii Lnu and Nazar Lnu — are charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes and with war crimes allegedly committed against a US citizen living in Mylove, a small village located in the Kherson region of Ukraine.
Prosecutors allege that the four defendants abducted the alleged victim from his home in Mylove “on or about” 2 April 2022, stripped the alleged victim of his clothes, threw him face-down on the ground, restrained his hands and beat him while simultaneously menacing him with a firearm.
Mr Garland said the defendants allegedly forced the victim into a makeshift jail and repeatedly interrogated him while threatening him with sexual assault, photographing him while he was naked, threatening to shoot him and at one point conducting a mock execution.
“The victim in this case was tortured, threatened with sexual assault and execution, forced to perform manual labour and beaten in the head, chest and stomach ... again and again. He believed he was going to die,” he said.
The attorney general added that the US investigative effort that led to these first-ever war crimes charges has been modelled after the Justice Department’s decades-old work to find Nazi war criminals, strip of their citizenship and deport them from the United States.
“During that effort, the Department’s Office of Special Investigations brought more than 130 cases against perpetrators of Nazi crimes. In the vast majority of those cases, the perpetrators were not identified until decades after they committed their horrific crimes. This history should make clear that the Justice Department and the American people have a long memory. We will not forget the atrocities in Ukraine and we will never stop working to bring those responsible to justice,” he said.
Christopher Wray, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said the charges against the four Russian-affiliated individuals detail “absolutely unconscionable crimes, including unlawful confinement, torture, and other inhumane acts committed against one of our own citizens”.
“That American like so many others became a victim of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which continues to wreak unimaginable tragedy on the region,” he said.
“Caught in the crossfire of a war he had no part in, this American was tormented for days at the hands of these defendants. And today’s indictment demonstrates our commitment to our mission and our results to seek justice for all Americans even amidst the fog of war”.
The charges against the four Russian-affiliated persons are the first use of the 1996 war crimes statute, as well as the first charges brought since Mr Garland said the Justice Department as assisting their Ukrainian counterparts to investigate war crimes during a visit to Ukraine earlier this year.
Mr Garland told reporters that the charges unveiled on Wednesday would not be the only ones brought as a result of those efforts.
“I can’t get into too many details but this is our first and you should expect more,” he said.