National Security

Lawmakers push for bill to prosecute Russian war criminals who enter US

Associated Press/J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, leads a hearing about the rise in threats toward elected leaders and election workers, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senate lawmakers on Wednesday galvanized around a bipartisan bill that would allow the U.S. to prosecute war criminals who enter the country even if they did not target Americans, a measure introduced in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine amid reports of atrocities being committed at the direction of the Kremlin.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) lauded the proposal during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill. The measure would allow federal agencies to prosecute war criminals found in the U.S., even if their targets were non-Americans, expanding the current war crimes statute. 

“We’ve all been horrified by the reports of war crimes committed by Russian forces,” Grassley said, noting reports of mass graves, torture and bombings of civilian targets including a maternity hospital.   

“When these war criminals get into the United States, they can’t be allowed to live freely in our country. We have to have options to exclude, extradite and punish war criminals,” Grassley said. 

The Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act seeks to allow prosecution of war criminals from other countries who enter the U.S. The bill also seeks to remove the existing five-year statute of limitations for war crimes.

While the U.S. currently does not have the power to prosecute foreign nationals accused of committing war crimes, it can send them back to their country of origin. But that would prove problematic should they be sent back to the same government that was found to be directing the crime, Eli M. Rosenbaum, a Justice Department Counselor for War Crimes Accountability, told the committee. 

“Sometimes, for instance, if the government which directed the perpetration of the crimes is still in power for example, extradition isn’t practicable,” Rosenbaum said.

In the case of Russian forces being found in the U.S., for example, being extradited back to Russia would likely mean no punishment from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The only choice the U.S. has under current law would be to prosecute those who have committed crimes against Americans.

“Because we don’t have so-called present-in jurisdiction, in general Russian war criminals who might come here would not be prosecutable criminally for the underlying war crimes,” Rosenbaum said. “The Justice Department believes strongly that that should be corrected.” 

The Department of Homeland Security is pursuing 1,700 leads about people from about 75 different countries living in the U.S. who were perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other human rights violations, Durbin said.

Andre Watson, an assistant director for national security at the Department of Homeland Security, said the agency has numerous options when it discovers a war criminal living in the U.S., including being able to build an investigation based on crime patterns. But Durbin asked Watson pointedly why, then, had no one heard of any prosecutions taking place.

“The investigations take time because more often than not it requires an extensive work up,” Watson said, citing challenges such as tracking down foreign witnesses abroad.

“I would say our credibility on this issue relies on results,” Durbin responded.

Watson told the panel he was unaware if any Russian war criminals have made their way into the United States.

“To the best of my knowledge, I’m not aware of particulars to confirm that fact at this time,” Watson said. 

Tags Chuck Grassley Dick Durbin
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