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Ukraine's probe into Russian war crimes will get help from the U.S. and others

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine seven weeks ago today. Since then, the U.S. and European allies have accused Russian forces of committing war crimes. The Biden administration says it's helping Ukraine investigate. So what does that American help look like? NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now with more. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what is the U.S. doing right now to assist Ukraine in its investigation?

LUCAS: So I spoke with Beth Van Schaack about this. She's the U.S. ambassador-at-large for Global Criminal Justice, top State Department official on this. And she says the Justice Department and State Department are working with European allies to support the Ukrainian prosecutor general who is investigating on the ground. The State Department is also helping fund outside experts, so experienced war crimes lawyers and investigators who are also assisting Ukrainian authorities. And Van Schaack says all of this is important.

BETH VAN SCHAACK: It's extremely important for the sanctity and integrity of history to document these crimes, to make sure that we have preserved and authenticated the evidence that is being generated in the various crime scenes around Ukraine.

LUCAS: And it's also important, she says, that victims know that the world sees what they experienced and that the world is working to help deliver justice.

FADEL: You said the U.S. is funding non-governmental groups that are helping investigate these possible war crimes. What are they doing?

LUCAS: Well, before the war began, the U.S. was funding a group of international experts who were helping Ukraine investigate possible war crimes following Russia's takeover of Crimea and Donbas back in 2014. This group is made up of prosecutors, investigators, forensic experts, all people with extensive experience working on these types of cases. One of the people leading this effort is Clint Williamson. He's a former U.S. ambassador for war crimes issues. He says the group is ramping up its operations now, following Russia's full-scale invasion and the sort of violence that we've seen in places like Bucha outside Kyiv. As part of this, there are also so-called mobile justice teams - so international experts on the ground in Ukraine assisting authorities in their investigations. At least one such group is currently in Ukraine. Now, Williamson says Ukraine has very solid, very capable investigators, but they've mostly dealt with lower-level perpetrators in the past, and the scope and scale of what they're facing now, he says, is very different.

CLINT WILLIAMSON: You know, you're potentially looking at command responsibility cases that can go up to senior political and military leaders. So this becomes just a much more complex investigative and prosecutorial approach.

LUCAS: And that's where the outside experts' experience and expertise can come in assisting the Ukrainians.

FADEL: What types of evidence are likely to come into play here?

LUCAS: Well, all sorts of things - investigators will be interviewing eyewitnesses. They'll be looking at ballistics evidence to show what types of munitions were used. They can identify what Russian military units were present at a given time in a given place and who was in command. The U.S. and its allies can also dig in to their own intelligence capabilities, including what's known as signals intelligence, so intercepts of communications. Here's Van Schaack again.

VAN SCHAACK: Gathering all of this together will be very important direct evidence of either orders having been received or individuals admitting to having participated in the commission of international crime.

FADEL: So right now, all about documentation, but this is all with an eye toward potential war crime trials in the future. What could the venue be for trials like these?

LUCAS: Well, there are a couple of options. One would be the International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation. The U.S. isn't party to the courts so that complicates things a bit on the U.S. side. But there are also Ukrainian courts, which, of course, have jurisdiction here. There's also the possibility of courts in some European countries, such as Germany, whose laws allow national authorities to prosecute international crimes. But this is still very much an active war, and as you said, the important thing now is to document what's going on.

FADEL: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.