By Luke Harding
Russian soldiers march toward Red Square to attend a Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, on 9 May, 2023. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
The US has charged four Russian soldiers with war crimes after they allegedly abducted and tortured an American citizen last year who was living in southern Ukraine, according to court documents unsealed on Wednesday.
The US Justice Department said the accused Russians kidnapped the American in April 2022 from his home in the village of Mylove, in Kherson province, where he lived with his Ukrainian wife.
Russian troops swept into the region during the first days of Vladimir Putin’s invasion, seizing the city of Kherson and surrounding rural settlements. The soldiers took the American to a military compound where he was held for 10 days and interrogated.
According to the indictment he was severely beaten on several occasions. They stripped him, tied his hands behind his back and hit him with their fists, feet and the stocks of their guns. They also photographed him naked, threatened him with sexual assault and carried out a “mock execution”.
This involved asking the American for his last words, putting a gun to the back of his head and then firing a bullet just past him, it said.
The case is the first time the US government has used a decades-old law which allows the prosecution of individuals who commit war crimes against US nationals. It follows a major global investigation by FBI special agents and the Department for Homeland Security, with assistance from the Metropolitan police in London.
In a press conference on Wednesday the US attorney general, Merrick Garland, said the charges were “an important step towards accountability for the illegal war in Ukraine”. He described the crimes committed by “Russia-affiliated military personnel” as heinous, and a part of Moscow’s “brutal invasion”.
The four soldiers were named as Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan, Dmitry Budnik and two other men known only by their first names, Valerii and Nazar. They have been charged with four counts of unlawful confinement, conspiracy to commit war crimes, inhuman treatment and torture.
According to locals who spoke to the Guardian, Mkrtchyan was the Armenian-born commander of a military outfit from the “Donetsk People’s Republic” or DNR, a Russia proxy force which arrived in Mylove from the occupied east of Ukraine. Some 300 to 400 civilians – from a pre-war population of 1,000 – stayed in the village during Russian rule.
Mkrtchyan and his men tortured anyone connected with the Ukrainian state, including policemen and government employees, locals said. In March he arrested two teenage boys after they tore down Russian and DNR flags from the village’s Soviet war memorial. “An officer put them up against a wall and shot over their heads. They were made to dig trenches,” Serhii Melnikov, a villager, recalled.
The US citizen was also made to do forced labour and to dig trenches for the Russian military. He was eventually released and managed to leave Ukraine with his wife. Mkrtchyan was subsequently sacked as commander after illicitly selling petrol allocated for his vehicles, villagers said. In November 2022 Ukraine’s armed forces liberated Mylove, which is situated on the right bank of the Dnipro River.
“In the midst of war, Ukrainian prosecutors and investigators have risked their lives to bring justice to the Ukrainian people,” Garland said. “When the time comes, the United States and our partners will be ready to bring accountability to Russia.” He added: “The rule of law is how we protect people and protect our shared humanity.”
“The evidence gathered by our agents speaks to the brutality, criminality, and depravity of Russia’s invasion,” the homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, added. Investigators interviewed the American, his family and others who were in Mylove at the time to identify the Russians, Mayorkas said.
The attorney general, Merrick Garland, has been outspoken on war crimes in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022.
The international criminal court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in March for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia did not recognise the ICC and considered its decisions “legally void”. He called the court’s move “outrageous and unacceptable”.
The United States is not a member of the ICC, but the justice department has been cooperating with it and supporting Ukrainian prosecutors as they carry out their own war crime investigations.
The charges carry mostly symbolic significance for the moment given the unclear prospects that any of the four defendants would ever be brought to an American courtroom to face justice. They come as the Biden administration, in an effort to show continued support for Ukraine during a separate war between Israel and Hamas, is pressing Congress to approve military and economic aid for Kyiv’s war effort.
The US and Russia do not have an extradition treaty, but the justice department has brought repeated criminal cases against Russian nationals, most notably for cyber crimes and including for interference in the 2016 presidential election. In some of those cases, the defendants have been taken into custody by American officials, such as when they have traveled outside Russia.
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