The race to gather evidence of war crimes in Ukraine

Europe has promised to provide Kyiv with financial aid, experts and state-of-the-art technology to help build a case against Russia

A funeral home worker and a police officer with bodies exhumed from graves in Bucha on April 22.
A funeral home worker and a police officer with bodies exhumed from graves in Bucha on April 22.SERGEI SUPINSKY (AFP)

The race is on to gather evidence of the atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine before it disappears or is compromised. Ukrainian authorities have requested the immediate dispatch of international experts and state-of-the-art instruments to carry out the autopsy of hundreds of corpses in the Kyiv area. The goal is to document the possible war crimes attributed to the troops of the Russian army, who occupied that part of the Ukrainian territory for several weeks. Kyiv has also appealed to EU countries to provide specialized equipment that is not available in Ukraine, such as drones to photograph the areas where the alleged war crimes have been committed.

“Modern technology allows you to clarify many details [about the perpetrators of the crimes],” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Wednesday. “Every surname, every home address, every bank account – we will find everything.” He added: “We will do everything we can to bring to justice every Russian military and commander guilty of war crimes.”

In an effort to speed up the investigation on the ground, the European Union has promised to send more human and financial resources to Ukraine. France, which chairs the presidency of the Council of the European Union this quarter, has urged EU members to provide forensic experts and state-of-the-art economic and instrumental aid as soon as possible to help the Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office and the International Criminal Court (ICC) to document possible crimes. The request has led to offers of almost €4 million four ($4.33 million) in aid and 50 experts, and more is expected in the coming days.

A priest officiates a funeral for several victims killed after attacks by Russian troops in the city of Bucha, on April 18.
A priest officiates a funeral for several victims killed after attacks by Russian troops in the city of Bucha, on April 18.YASUYOSHI CHIBA (AFP)

The request for help was made on Wednesday at an emergency meeting of the EU’s IPCR crisis response team, which was activated on February 27 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to subsequent reports, to which EL PAÍS has had access, the meeting focused on the need to increase logistical and economic aid to support the investigations of the Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office and the ICC.

Both the European Commission and the French presidency insisted during the IPCR meeting on the “urgency” of facilitating assistance as the corpses must be analyzed as soon as possible. According to the aforementioned report, a wide range of support is needed from fingerprints and ballistic experts to forensic doctors who can certify the exact cause of each death.

A team of French experts is already on the ground in Ukraine, examining and identifying the bodies and taking DNA samples. The goal is to collect evidence of murder, rape and torture before it disappears or is compromised ahead of a possible trial. The team has identified an average of 15 bodies a day.

A new team of police and forensic experts from Slovakia arrived on Friday, and countries such as Germany, Slovakia and the Netherlands announced that they will also send a team. Others, such as Finland and Sweden, are weighing up the decision. And some, such as Portugal, have requested clarification on what security measures will be provided for the professionals carrying out the investigation.

In terms of human resources, France has provided the most support, sending 10 of the 11 researchers posted on the ground. More countries are expected to send experts in the coming days. In terms of economic resources, 12 EU countries have provided a total of €3.97 million ($4.3 million), with Germany and the Netherlands, providing the largest share with €1 million each ($1.08 million). This figure too is likely to increase next week.

Three women try to identify their relatives among the bodies of civilians found in the town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 8.
Three women try to identify their relatives among the bodies of civilians found in the town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 8.VALENTYN OGIRENKO (REUTERS)

The effort to gather evidence of possible war crimes gained momentum following the discovery of mass graves and executed civilians in Bucha, a city located north of Kyiv, after the withdrawal of Russian troops. The images of the atrocities sparked international outrage and calls for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be prosecuted before Ukrainian or international justice. The mission to collect evidence began quickly, but the scale of the atrocities has overwhelmed the work of investigators. And the work could increase as new killings are discovered in other parts of the country.

The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, visited one of the scenes of the atrocities on Wednesday: Borodianka. “These are atrocities, these are war crimes. It must be punished. It will be punished,” Michel said in Kyiv after meeting with Zelenskiy.

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan has already requested an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine since 2013, when, according to Kyiv, Moscow’s aggression began. Khan’s request is supported by 41 countries.


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