How to catch a war criminal: Investigators are building a case against Putin in Ukraine’s killing fields

 How to catch a war criminal: Investigators are building a case against Putin in Ukraine’s killing fields

It is a sleepy rural scene: a pale grey sky hangs low over a grassy slope, bordered by the bare branches of winter trees. The hard work of farm life is clear in the deep grooves of a rudimentary driveway leading to and from scattered buildings.

Warning: This article contains images and details readers might find distressing.

Your eyes can’t help but follow the tracks, until a gut-twisting moment of clarity: the bodies of two men are lying awkwardly, dead, in the middle of the image.

This is Ukraine’s Bucha District, where body-by-body, bullet-by-bullet, the full horror of what happened here is being revealed, and a case against Vladimir Putin is being built.

Ruslan Kravchenko, a Bucha District police prosecutor, is one of the first to bear witness to the killing of these men and document details that may one day form part of a war crimes trial.

“Two bodies of killed men [have been found], both with similar gunshot wounds on the left near the neck and the bullet has gone through. We have determined that one of the bodies has been beheaded,”  Kravchenko tells reporters, his face expressionless, his voice monotone.

“According to preliminary evidence we collected confirming the involvement of the Russian armed forces in these murders I can state this crime can qualify as a war crime.”

It is a painstaking job, surely traumatising. The investigators lift the shirts of the dead men, turn over their bodies and press their flesh, tracking the path of the bullet. They snap photographs on their phones, jot facts and observations in notebooks. Every detail holds potential to become the crucial piece of evidence required to successfully prosecute the case.

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Human rights researchers investigate alleged war crimes in Bucha

In another part of Bucha, Human Rights Watch researcher Richard Weir is also documenting a suspected war crime.

Dressed in body armour, Weir scours the rubble of destroyed homes to explain what happened here.

“There was a body that was here,” he says, pointing to a patch of earth stained red with blood. “I’m trying to look for any physical evidence as to how she was killed or [what direction] she was killed from.”

Weir picks up a bullet casing and photographs the end, capturing the brand and dimensions that can perhaps be matched to Russian military weapons down the track.

As Weir works, Ukrainian investigators at the same scene emerge from a basement with a man’s body on a stretcher. His hands are tied behind his back with plastic zip ties.

It is a red flag that a war crime was likely committed here.

Vladimir Putin looking thoughtful while a Russian military general in dress uniform passes behind him
If a case against Vladimir Putin goes to trial prosecutors will be trying to prove he had knowledge of war crimes unfolding in Ukraine but did not stop them. (Reuters: Maxim Shemetov)

The fight for justice

In the shadow of Russia’s war with Ukraine a second battle is underway: the fight for justice.

In early March, barely a week after Russia’s military entered Ukrainian territory, 39 member countries of the 123-strong International Criminal Court supported chief prosecutor Karim Khan’s call to investigate potential war crimes in Ukraine.

It was the first indication that the global community was ready to enforce Russia’s accountability for the invasion, and the war crimes it has almost certainly committed as a result.

A man and a woman sit at a wooden desk in a courtroom
William Smith has spent his career investigating and prosecuting war crimes.(Reuters: Chor Sokunthea)

Far away in Melbourne, William Smith is watching closely.

The struggle to prosecute a war criminal is one he knows well.

“My first thought was that I can’t believe this is happening again,” says Smith, who has spent 25 years prosecuting the perpetrators of some of recent history’s most notorious war crimes.

Smith worked in The Hague as an attorney on the investigation of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, accused of war crimes and genocide during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. Milosevic was convicted and imprisoned until his death in 2006.

His trial was considered the most important of its kind since the Nazis were tried at Nuremberg following WWII.

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