WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Wednesday that it had charged four Russian soldiers with torturing an American living in the war-ravaged region of Kherson in Ukraine, using a war crimes statute for the first time since it was enacted nearly three decades ago.
The indictment, unsealed in Virginia, could be followed by other charges against Russians found to have committed “atrocities on the largest scale in any European armed conflict since the Second World War,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in announcing the prosecution.
For the first time, Garland also acknowledged that the department had begun a formal investigation of the “murder of more than 30 Americans” by Hamas fighters during the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, under the same war crimes law being used against the Russian soldiers.
The victim in the Ukraine case, who was not identified in court filings, said he was abducted in April 2022 from his home in Mylove, a village in southern Ukraine, despite telling Russian forces moving into the area that he was not a combatant and had been living in the country with his wife since 2021.
During the victim’s roughly 10 days in captivity, the soldiers beat him brutally with their fists and the butts of their guns and threatened to sexually assault him. In one harrowing episode, according to prosecutors, they hauled him from the building where he was being held captive to stage a mock execution — which ended when a bullet was fired inches from his temple as he knelt on the ground.
The two commanders, identified as Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan and Dmitry Budnik, along with two subordinates identified only by their first names, now live in Russia. The prospects that they would travel abroad anytime soon, where they could be captured, are remote, officials said.
But the prosecutions are part of a broader effort by the Justice Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to hold Russian military officials and proxy forces accountable for brutal acts committed against the relative handful of Americans living, fighting or working in Ukraine.
“The rule of law is the best answer we have to crimes that cannot truly be answered,” Garland said.
To coordinate that effort, Garland appointed Eli Rosenbaum, a veteran prosecutor, in June to oversee the Justice Department’s war crimes accountability efforts. Rosenbaum is best known for his dogged pursuit of Nazi war criminals and the unmasking in the 1980s of the role that the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, played in the mass killings of civilians during World War II.
The department’s initial efforts to investigate potential war crimes were hampered by the uncertain situation during the early stages of the war when the department’s presence was limited to a single official, working out of the embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. But the number of U.S. investigators, including FBI agents, has steadily increased, and U.S. investigators have worked closely with Ukraine’s national police and other law enforcement agencies.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.