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US files war crime charges against Russians accused of torturing an American in the Ukraine invasion

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 (AP) — Four Russian men accused of torturing an American during the invasion of Ukraine have been charged with war crimes in a case that's the first of its kind, the Justice Department announced on Wednesday.

It marks the first prosecution against members of the Russian armed forces in connection with atrocities during their war against Ukraine and the first time the Justice Department has brought charges under a nearly 30-year-old statute that makes it a crime to commit torture or inhumane treatment during a war.

The charges are largely symbolic for now given the unlikely prospects of the Justice Department bringing any of the four defendants — currently all fugitives — into custody. But U.S. officials described the case as a history-making moment in their ongoing investigation into Russian war crimes, and they foreshadowed the potential that more charges could be coming.

“This is our first, and you should expect more,” Attorney General General Merrick Garland said in announcing the case at a Justice Department news conference.

He said the 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.”

The four Russians are identified as members of the Russian armed forces or its proxy units. Two of them are described as commanding officers.

The Russians are accused of kidnapping an American man 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's 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.

He was also subjected to harsh interrogation methods, threatened with sexual assault and forced to participate in his own mock execution, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday in the Eastern District of Virginia.

“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.

"Cases like this one are among the most complex the FBI works, but bringing them is essential to deterring crimes like these and showing would-be perpetrators that no one is above the law and the war crimes will not go unpunished,” FBI Director Christopher Wray 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 United Nations 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 four defendants are identified as Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan and Dmitry Budnik, both of whom are described by prosecutors as commanding officers in Russia's armed forces, as well as two lower-ranking officers identified only by their first names.

All four were fighting on behalf of Russia in its war against Ukraine and are identified in the indictment as either members of the armed forces or military units from the Donestk People's Republic. After invading Ukraine, Moscow in September 2022 illegally annexed parts of the Donetsk region and three other Ukrainian regions under its control as part of Russia.

The charges 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.

Lindsay Whitehurst And Eric Tucker, The Associated Press

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