Ukrainian prosecutor: Putin is 'the main war criminal of 21st century'

Putin is ‘the main war criminal of the 21st century’: Ukrainian prosecutor accuses Moscow’s forces of using rape as a weapon as she collects war crime evidence

  • Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova visited Irpin, in Kyiv Oblast, on Tuesday
  • She was there collecting information on allegations of Russian war crimes
  • Venediktova accused Putin’s forces of using rape as a ‘strategy’ to ‘scare society’
  • Russia has denied its force have committed war crimes, despite evidence
  • Rapes carried out by Russian soldiers have been widely reported in towns that were occupied by Russian forces – such as Irpin and neighbouring Bucha 

Ukraine’s prosecutor general has called Vladimir Putin ‘the main war criminal of the 21st century’ as she accused Russia of using rape as a tactic in its brutal invasion.

Visiting the devastated city of Irpin near Kyiv, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said Ukraine was collecting information on allegations of rape, torture and other suspected war crimes by Russian forces which occupied the region for a month.

Venediktova said the allegations included the rape of women, men, children and an old woman. Asked whether rape was a deliberate Russian strategy in the war, she told a news conference: ‘I am sure actually that it was strategy.’

‘This is, of course, to scare civil society… to do everything to (force Ukraine to) capitulate,’ she said on Tuesday.

She provided no specific details of the rape allegations, saying some of the victims remained in Ukraine and were afraid of speaking out for fear of Russian forces returning.

Visiting the devastated city of Irpin near Kyiv, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova (pictured on Tuesday) said Ukraine was collecting information on allegations of rape, torture and other suspected war crimes by Russian forces which occupied the region for a month

Rapes carried out by Russian soldiers have been widely reported in towns that were occupied by Russian forces in the early days of Putin’s invasion, and have since been liberated after Moscow’s armies pulled back and re-focused their efforts in the east.

When Ukrainian forces, journalists and civilians re-entered Irpin and neighbouring Bucha, they discovered hundreds of bodies of civilians that had been raped, tortured and executed – some with their hands tied behind their backs.

Russia has previously denied targeting civilians and has rejected allegations that its forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine, despite mounting evidence.

Venediktova said Putin bore responsibility for what happened in Ukraine as commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces.

‘Putin is the main war criminal of the 21st century,’ she said, recalling Russian military interventions in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Russia’s Chechnya region, Syria and in Ukraine in 2014.

‘If we speak about (the) crime of aggression, we all know who started this war, and this person is Vladimir Putin,’ she said.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the accusations and has dismissed previous suggestions that Putin is a war criminal. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in March dismissed as ‘unforgivable’ a comment by U.S. President Joe Biden in which he said Putin was a war criminal.

Daria Piven, 33, lights a candle on the grave of her parents Nadia and Volodymyr, who were killed during the Russian occupation, on May 1, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova called Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘The main war criminal of the 21st century’

Speaking on Monday, Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada said Russia must be held accountable for its troops committing sex crimes, including against children.

Echoing Venediktova’s comments, Yulia Kovaliv told a Canadian House of Commons committee that Russia is using sexual violence as a weapon of war and said rape and sexual assault must be investigated as war crimes.

She said Russia also has kidnapped Ukrainian children and taken them to Russian-occupied territories and now Russia itself. Ukraine is working with partners to find the children and bring them back.

‘Russians, a few days ago, killed a young mother and taped her living child to her body and attached a mine between them,’ the ambassador said. She said the mine detonated.

All of Russian society, and not just President Vladimir Putin ‘and his proxies,’ should bear responsibility for the war on Ukraine because more than 70% of Russians support the invasion, Kovaliv said.

Last month, a hotline for rape and sexual assault victims at the hands of Russian troops received 400 calls in just two weeks.

The Ombudsman for Human Rights in Ukraine, Lyudmyla Denisova, said the line was so overwhelmed that the five psychologists who operate it ‘cannot cope with the load’.

Victims include adults and children, both male and female, with some attacked while terrified relatives were forced to watch.

In Bucha, 25 victims aged 14 to 25 were ‘systematically’ raped while being held captive in a basement. Nine are now pregnant.

Pictured: Destroyed houses are photographed in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 30, 2022

The line, set up with Unicef, received 400 calls between April 1 and April 14 as Russian began to withdraw from the Kyiv region, after a failed attempt to capture the capital. Mrs Denisova said: ‘Our five psychologists cannot cope with this load.

‘I asked Unicef to almost double the number of psychologists, to ensure that the care is of good quality and that there is no burnout, including those psychologists who receive such appeals day and night. And these cases are very terrible.’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said earlier this month: ‘Hundreds of cases of rape have been recorded, including those of young girls and very young children. Even of a baby.’

Speaking to Lithuanian lawmakers in April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: ‘In areas freed from the occupiers, the recording and investigation of war crimes committed by Russia continues. New mass graves are found almost daily.

‘Testimonials are being collected. Thousands and thousands of victims. Hundreds of cases of torture. Bodies continue to be found in drains and cellars.

‘Hundreds of cases of rape have been recorded, including those of young girls and very young children. Even of a baby!’  

His comments came after a Russian soldier was arrested after allegedly recording himself abusing a Ukrainian baby.

The International Criminal Court has also opened an investigation into Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

War crimes in Bucha: What we know

Ukraine and Western countries have accused Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine ever since hundreds of bodies were found around Kyiv following the withdrawal of Russian forces from the area.

A team of AFP journalists saw 20 bodies on Yablunska (Apple Tree) Street in Bucha on April 2, after Russian forces left the town.

In the weeks that followed, reporters spoke to dozens of witnesses, consulted death certificates and obtained a list of all the bodies found in the city – sometimes including details of how they died.

Here is what we know about the events in Bucha that sparked an international outcry and prompted the West to harshen its sanctions against Russia and boost military aid supplies to Ukraine.

Pleasant suburb devastated

Before the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, Bucha was a family-friendly suburb of Kyiv with around 37,000 inhabitants.

Surrounded by pine forest, it is located around 30 kilometres (19 miles) northwest of the capital.

Since the first days of the invasion, like Irpin and other areas around Kyiv, it saw fierce fighting.

The Russian army first arrived on February 27 but only fully took control on March 5, according to Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organisation that carried out an investigation there.

Ukrainian authorities had carried out several civilian evacuations before this date.

It is estimated that around 4,000 inhabitants were left when Russian forces took over.

Following the withdrawal of Russian forces on March 31, the mayor of Bucha, Anatoliy Fedoruk announced on April 1 that the city had been ‘liberated’.

A photo shows massive destruction in the area of conflict at the Bucha town after it was liberated from Russian army in Ukraine on April 4, 2022

First macabre discoveries

AFP journalists arrived in Bucha the following day.

Looking around the devastated town, they discovered Yablunska Street, one of the longest thoroughfares in Bucha, with 20 bodies in civilian clothing scattered over several hundred metres.

One man had fallen onto his bike, another still had a shopping bag in his hand. Yet another man was seen with his hands tied behind his back.

At least two of them appeared to have head wounds.

The bodies looked like they had been on the ground for at least several days.

How many dead?

During the month-long occupation by Russian forces, two large mass graves were created to temporarily bury the bodies since the city’s three cemeteries were inaccessible because of the fighting.

Following the withdrawal of Russian forces – some 400 bodies were found – either in the mass graves or buried in gardens or sometimes lying out in the open, according to local police chief Vitaly Lobas.

Lobas on April 20 said ‘around 25 percent’ remained unidentified, and the majority had been shot dead.

AFP saw a mass grave behind a church on April 3. It contained more than 80 bodies, the police said.

There were similar scenes in other areas in the Kyiv region that were occupied by Russian forces.

In the region as a whole, more than 1,000 civilian bodies have been found, according to Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna.

‘War crimes’

On April 4, two days after pictures of the Yablunska dead first appeared in the media, President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the site.

‘These are war crimes and it will be recognised by the world as genocide,’ he said.

On April 13, International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan said while visiting Bucha that a forensic team would be working there, and that Ukraine as a whole was a ‘crime scene’.

Khan said on April 25 that investigators would work with a joint investigation team formed by Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine and supported by Eurojust, the EU’s judicial cooperation agency, to facilitate the collection of evidence.

Human Rights Watch said its own investigation had uncovered evidence of ‘summary executions, other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, all of which would constitute war crimes and potential crimes against humanity’.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that its investigators during a mission to Bucha on April 9 documented the death of 50 civilians, including by summary execution.

France has also sent a team of 18 experts from the forensic department of the national gendarmerie.

A Ukrainian soldier is seen on a street, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, April 4, 2022

Russian denial

Just hours after the first images of the bodies on Yablunska Street were published, the Russian army said the scene had been staged, claiming that two bodies could be seen moving in a video.

An AFP team which photographed and filmed the two bodies in the same place and position as in the widely shared video was able to view it at a higher quality than the one used by the Russian army and found that the bodies were not moving.

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of ‘crude and cynical provocations’ while Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Ukraine had either carried out the executions of civilians itself or positioned the bodies.

She accused Western media of ‘complicity in this punitive action to kill civilians in Bucha’.

Satellite images released by the US company Maxar Technologies, combined with photos taken by AFP, show that several bodies were left out in the open for at least three weeks.

In radio communications between Russian soldiers intercepted by German intelligence and quoted by the Spiegel magazine on April 7, soldiers could be heard talking about the atrocities in Bucha.

In one communication, a soldier told another that he and his colleagues killed a man on a bicycle.

Hunting the guilty

Despite Russian denials, Ukraine and its Western allies, along with the United Nations, believe they have proof that Russian forces were responsible for the deaths of most of the civilians found dead in Bucha.

Since the very first days, Ukraine has blamed Russia’s 64th motorised infantry brigade which was based in Bucha.

Ukrainian prosecutors on Thursday said they were investigating 10 of the brigade’s servicemen for war crimes and declared them wanted suspects.

Putin on April 18 signed an official decree praising the brigade for its ‘mass heroism and valour, tenacity and courage’.

He did not say where the brigade had been based.

A witness interviewed by AFP said that at the beginning of the Russian occupation she had seen mostly young Russian soldiers.

But, a couple of weeks in, she remembered ‘brutal’ older troops moving in.

‘That’s when the massacres started,’ she said.

She said some may have been officers from Russia’s FSB security service.

According to the communications intercepted by German intelligence, Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group may also have been involved.

The Wagner Group has caused controversy through its involvement in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Reporting by AFP 

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