New testimony published Thursday by the human rights group Amnesty International details various accounts of Russian forces “extrajudicially” executing Ukrainian civilians and repeatedly engaging in “unlawful violence” across the Kyiv region of Ukraine, including the city of Bucha — where evidence of torture and beheadings has been uncovered in recent weeks.
The organization said it has obtained evidence of at least four separate unprovoked deadly attacks in different Ukrainian cities that it hopes can be used to prosecute Russia for war crimes.
In one instance, a 46-year-old woman who lived with her husband, 10-year-old daughter and mother-in-law in the village of Bohdanivka described how Russian soldiers forced their way into their home in early March and asked her husband if he had any cigarettes. When the husband said he did not, a soldier shot him in the arm. Another proceeded to shoot the man in the head. According to the man’s wife, he didn’t die immediately. Instead, she and her family were forced to watch as he endured a slow death.
Another harrowing story included in Amnesty International’s report involved an 18-year-old woman in the village of Vorzel who had been staying with her parents in the cellar of their home for more than a week when Russian forces arrived in the town in early March. Her parents had just left the cellar to retrieve food when the teen heard gunshots. It was only after Russian tanks passed that she peeked over a neighbor’s fence to see her parents lying in the street face down, their bodies marked with bullet holes.
“Testimonies show that unarmed civilians in Ukraine are being killed in their homes and streets in acts of unspeakable cruelty and shocking brutality,” Agnès Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said in the report, adding, “The intentional killing of civilians is a human rights violation and a war crime. These deaths must be thoroughly investigated, and those responsible must be prosecuted, including up the chain of command.”
According to the United Nations, the willful killing and/or torture of civilians constitutes a war crime. But the punishment for such acts remains unclear.
While calls for penalties against Russia for alleged war crimes have intensified in recent weeks, there is growing dispute about whether punishment could be enforced. Some have argued that seeking penalties for alleged war crimes could have the effect of making Russian President Vladimir Putin even more dangerous.
“It is also possible that international efforts seeking to hold leaders responsible for human rights crimes could backfire,” Joseph Wright, a political science professor at Penn State, and Abel Escribà-Folch, a political and social science professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, wrote for the Conversation. “Leaders who face the prospect of punishment once a conflict ends have an incentive to prolong the fighting. And a leader who presides over atrocities has a strong incentive to avoid leaving office, even if that means using increasingly brutal methods — and committing more atrocities — to remain in power.”
Even as financial sanctions against Russia continue to mount, with President Biden on Wednesday implementing new penalties, critics question whether they have succeeded in deterring Putin from continuing his war.
“As someone who was there, it doesn't seem that sanctions, at least right now, are having any impact on the Russian invasion,” Mills said.
On Thursday, Der Spiegel magazine reported that Germany’s foreign intelligence service had intercepted radio conversations between Russian soldiers talking about killing civilians in Bucha. In at least two separate conversations, Russian troops spoke of interrogating Ukrainian soldiers and civilians before shooting them, according to the Washington Post.
The growing evidence of Russian war crimes demands that the world take action, Amnesty International said.
“In addition to justice, we want policymakers in all countries to take war crimes seriously,” Mills said. “We want the world to know what is happening. … That's obviously our goal.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Leon Klein/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images