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U.S. unveils war crimes charges against 4 Russian-allied troops

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice on Wednesday as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, right, looks on.
Mark Schiefelbein
/
AP
Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice on Wednesday as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, right, looks on.

The U.S. Justice Department announced war crimes charges Wednesday against four people affiliated with the Russian military for allegedly abducting and torturing an American citizen in Ukraine following the Kremlin's full-scale invasion last year.

The indictment, unsealed in the Eastern District of Virginia, marks the first time the U.S. has brought war crimes charges in connection with the Russian assault on Ukraine. Ukrainian prosecutors, meanwhile, have brought their own separate and unrelated war crimes cases against Russian troops since the war began.

"As the world has witnessed the horrors of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine, so has the United States Department of Justice," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "The Justice Department will work for as long as it takes to pursue accountability and justice for Russia's war of aggression."

Court papers identify two of the defendants as Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan and Dmitry Budnik — both commanding officers in Russia's military or the Donetsk People's Republic's forces. The other two defendants are Valerii LNU (last name unknown) and Nazar LNU, who were lower-ranking military personnel.

The men are charged with three war crimes — unlawful confinement, torture and inhuman treatment — and one count of conspiracy to commit war crimes. If convicted, the defendants each face a maximum sentence of life in prison. They are not in U.S. custody.

The American citizen, meanwhile, is not identified in the indictment, but the document says he had been living with his wife in the village of Mylove near the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson since 2021.

When Russian military forces and their proxies from the so-called Donetsk People's Republic swept into Mylove and the surrounding region in the days of Russia's onslaught, the defendants allegedly took the victim from his home by force.

During the abduction, the indictment says, they they threw the victim "face down to the ground while he was naked, tied his hands behind his back, pointed a gun at his head, and beat him with their feet, their fists, and the stocks of their guns," according to the indictment.

It was the beginning of what court papers paint as 10 days of brutal treatment at the hands of his captors.

Over that time, the defendants allegedly took the American to a military compound, where he was beaten again. In the days that followed, the indictment says, he was subjected to several interrogations sessions during the defendants stripped and photographed him, beat him and threatened to kill him.

At one point, a co-conspirators allegedly held a knife to the victim's throat. The indictment also describes a mock execution of the American, identified in court papers as V-1.

The indictment says that the defendant Nazar and co-conspirators "took V-1 outside, forced V-1 to the ground, put a gun to the back of V-1's head, then moved the position of the gun and pulled the trigger, causing the bullet to go past V-1's head and causing V-1 to believe he was about to die."

It is unclear how or when the victim regained his freedom.

While this prosecution marks the first by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged war crimes in Ukraine stemming from the Russian invasion, Ukrainian prosecutors are pursuing their own war crimes investigations and already have brought cases against Russian troops.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Washington Desk
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.