US Files War Crime Charges Against Russian Troops Accused of Torturing an American in Ukraine

news conference at the Department of Justice
Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, left, and FBI Director Christopher Wray, look on. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Wednesday said it has filed war crime charges against four members of the Russian military accused of abducting and torturing an American during the invasion of Ukraine in a case that's the first of its kind.

The case marks the first prosecution against Russians in connection with atrocities during their war against Ukraine and is the first war crimes case involving the victimization of an American, officials said.

“The Justice Department and the American people have a long memory,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in announcing the case. “We will not forget the atrocities in Ukraine. And we will never stop working to bring those responsible to justice.”

The four Russians are identified as members of the Russian armed forces or its proxy units. Two of them are described as senior officers. None of the four is in custody.

The Russians are accused of kidnapping the American from his home in a Ukrainian village in 2022. The American was beaten and interrogated while being held for 10 days at a Russian military compound, before eventually being evacuated with his wife, who is Ukrainian, U.S. authorities said.

The American told federal agents who had traveled to Ukraine last year as part of an investigation that the Russian soldiers had abducted him, stripped him naked, pointed a gun at his head and badly beaten him, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.

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

Homeland Security and FBI investigators interviewed the American, his family and others who were around the village of Mylove around the time of the kidnapping to identify the four Russians, Mayorkas said.

Garland has been outspoken on war crimes in Ukraine since Russia's invasion began in February 2022, and the Justice Department assigned federal prosecutors to examine the potential of bringing criminal charges.

Independent human rights experts backed by the U.S. have said they’ve found continued evidence of war crimes committed by Russian forces, including torture that ended in death and rape of women aged up to 83 years old.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in March for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia doesn’t recognize the ICC and considers its decisions “legally void.” He called the court’s move “outrageous and unacceptable.”

The United States is not a member of the ICC, but the Justice Department has been cooperating with it and supporting Ukrainian prosecutors as they carry out their own war crime investigations.

The charges carry mostly symbolic significance for the moment given the unclear prospects that any of the four defendants would ever be brought to an American courtroom to face justice. They come as the Biden administration, in an effort to show continued support for Ukraine during a separate war between Israel and Hamas, is pressing Congress to approve military and economic aid for Kyiv’s war effort.

The U.S. and Russia do not have an extradition treaty, but the Justice Department has brought repeated criminal cases against Russian nationals, most notably for cyber crimes and including for interference in the 2016 presidential election. In some of those cases, the defendants have been taken into custody by American officials, such as when they’ve traveled outside Russia.

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