Mar 23, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democratic lawmakers ask DOJ to investigate alleged Russian war crimes

Attorney General Merrick Garland in Washington, D.C., on March 10.
Attorney General Merrick Garland in Washington, D.C., on March 10. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu and Eric Swalwell of California in a letter Wednesday asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate whether Russia has committed war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians during its invasion of Ukraine.

The latest: Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the U.S. assessed that Russian forces are committing war crimes in Ukraine.

  • "We are committed to pursuing accountability using every tool available, including criminal prosecutions," Blinken said.

Why it matters: The lawmakers, both former prosecutors, asked the Department of Justice to specifically investigate the deaths of two U.S. nationals in Ukraine who were not involved in active hostilities in the country.

  • Award-winning American journalist Brent Renaud was killed and another journalist was wounded by Russian forces on March 13 after their vehicle came under heavy gunfire at a checkpoint outside Kyiv.
  • Russian soldiers killed James Whitney Hill, a 67-year-old university lecturer from Minnesota, along with at least 10 other people waiting in a bread line in Chernihiv, Ukraine, on March 16.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of committing war crimes during its siege of the port city Mariupol by bombing civilian targets, including a theater and an art school sheltering civilians and a maternity ward.

What they're saying: "As former prosecutors, we request that the Department of Justice open an investigation into possible war crimes committed by Russian forces up to and including any military and civilian leaders who may have authorized the killing of civilians," Lieu and Swalwell wrote in the letter.

  • Dena Iverson, deputy director of the Justice Department’s Public Affairs Office, confirmed that the department received the letter but declined to comment further.

The big picture: The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Ukraine since 2013, potentially setting up future trials for participates at The Hague.

  • The UN Human Rights Council voted in March to set up an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate alleged human rights violations in Ukraine.
  • The Justice Department is able to investigate and prosecute international war crimes and other human rights violators through its Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section.
  • President Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal" for Russia's bombing of civilian targets. Blinken said he agreed with Biden's comments, which were denounced as "unacceptable" and "unforgivable" by the Kremlin.

The bottom line: Investigating and prosecuting war criminal is notoriously difficult and can take years, Axios' Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath reports.

Read the letter:

Go deeper ... Zelensky: 100,000 trapped in Mariupol with "no food, no water"

Editor's note: This post was updated to include news that the U.S. said it has assessed that Russian forces are committing war crimes, as well as a comment from the DOJ.

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