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US Justice Department's 'Nazi Hunter' Takes on Russia War Crimes

FILE - Forensic technicians carry the body of a person who, according to Ukrainian police, was killed and buried in an area ransacked by occupying Russian troops, near the village of Vorzel, Bucha district, Kyiv region, Ukraine June 13, 2022.

As a 37-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department, Eli Rosenbaum has spent much of his career probing and prosecuting fugitive Nazi war criminals.

So, it was no surprise that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland last month turned to Rosenbaum, dubbed the "Nazi hunter," to coordinate the DOJ's investigations of atrocities in Ukraine stemming from Russia's invasion of its neighbor.

In this interview with VOA's Masood Farivar, Rosenbaum and Christian Levesque, a top prosecutor for the DOJ's War Crimes Accountability Team, discuss agency's efforts to hold accountable the perpetrators of war crimes in Ukraine.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Question: Mr. Rosenbaum, you have spent decades investigating and prosecuting Nazi war criminals. You are best known as a Nazi hunter. Tell us about the parallels you see between that work and your current job investigating Russian war crimes and how that experience has shaped your view of why this effort is so important today.

Eli Rosenbaum is seen in an April 2014 photo. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Miriam Lomaskin)
Eli Rosenbaum is seen in an April 2014 photo. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Miriam Lomaskin)

Rosenbaum: Well, the many years, even decades for some of us, that my [Human Rights Special Prosecutions Section] colleagues and I have worked on, human rights violator and war criminal cases have, I believe, prepared us exceptionally well for this crucial mission at this fateful time.

It is almost as though all of the work we've done has prepared us for this very moment. We have a wealth of expertise in international criminal law. Vast experience actually proving in courts of law the complicity of defendants who participated in atrocity crimes. I was in court just two years ago in a Nazi case doing that.

Fundamentally, this new mission is a continuation of the one that I have been privileged to be a part of for over 35 years at the Department of Justice: identifying, investigating and prosecuting persons who have participated in atrocity crimes and other grave offenses, work that is aimed always at securing a measure of justice on behalf of the victims.

Q: Having investigated numerous Nazi cases, you must know a Nazi when you see one. So, when Russian President Vladimir Putin says that Russian forces were sent to Ukraine to "de-Nazify" the country, what do you say to that?

I would say after nearly 40 years of working on these cases I can recognize a Nazi when I see one and I know a Nazi government when I see one. And of course, the Ukrainian government is nothing of the sort. It's an outrageous calumny and it's being used to justify inhumane actions as part of an unlawful war of aggression launched by Russia.

Q: Now, let's talk about your current work on Russian war crimes investigations. My understanding is that the Justice Department is providing support to Ukrainian and the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigators as well as conducting its own investigations of possible war crimes. How are you coordinating with your Ukrainian and European counterparts? And what types of war crimes are you investigating?

Levesque: The Justice Department is in close contact with our partners in Ukraine but also elsewhere in the world on how we can best help with their investigation and prosecution. We're obtaining assistance in our own investigative work as well. We're also committed to providing assistance through the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions section, which is within the Department of Justice's criminal division. That's the section that both Eli and I work within, but also through other Justice Department components as well.

And there are several ways that we are showing this coordination. Less than two weeks ago, the Justice Department participated in a ministerial conference in The Hague in which Ukraine, the United States and 43 other nations got together and formally announced, in a publicly released declaration ... our unified commitment to ensuring accountability for international crimes committed in Ukraine and to enhancing collective action to promote accountability for such crimes.

As you noted, the attorney general has said publicly on June 21 that the department does have ongoing investigations into potential war crimes over which the U.S. has jurisdiction, and that includes the killing and wounding of U.S. civilians, including journalists who are covering, again, the unprovoked Russian aggression in Ukraine. So our U.S. war crimes statute covers breaches, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Convention, among other violations, and as a result that is a priority for investigators in the U.S.

Q: How many of those cases are you currently investigating [are] cases involving U.S. nationals?

Levesque: So, I'll say that one of the important aspects of the rule of law which the attorney general has himself referenced is that we don't provide details about our investigations and so we don't make public the details of those. And I think that that really does include sort of the number of investigations as well. And in fact, it really isn't a helpful number either because that number can change as circumstances change and as the U.S. government learns new information that it needs to respond to and assess in terms of whether we have jurisdiction and whether we will need to conduct an investigation.

Q: Let's talk about the larger investigation being carried out by the Ukrainians and the ICC and supported by the DOJ. Since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we've been getting almost daily accounts of all types of atrocities, from indiscriminate shelling of civilian populations, populated areas, to rapes, sexual assault and violence and summary executions by Russian soldiers. How do investigators go about determining whether any of these rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity?

Rosenbaum: I mean, you know, war crimes investigations, generally, as we've learned over many, many years, always present serious challenges, often daunting challenges.

The fact that the crimes are still being committed, that Ukraine is at war, as one prosecutor abroad said, “the entire country arguably is a crime scene.” All of these facts make these cases more difficult to build. However, perpetrators in particular, and would-be perpetrators ought not to underestimate the determination of prosecutors in the United States and elsewhere to pursue these cases. Nor should they underestimate the resources that are available to us: cutting edge investigative techniques that were certainly unavailable, say, at Nuremberg after World War II. And yet they succeeded at Nuremberg without those investigative techniques, without DNA analysis and geo fencing and sophisticated communications intercepts and the like. There wasn't even an internet or a cell phone back then. So, imagine how much more we can do with the resources and the techniques that are available to us today in terms of where the investigations stand.

Q: Are investigators at the point where they have identified certain atrocities that would amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity or genocide?

Levesque: I would say that there is a continuous assessment that is going on and for prosecutors and law enforcement what that means is methodically obtaining information, taking investigatory steps. And then only when you feel that you have completed that part of the process can you truly make an assessment that is a conclusion as to whether you believe atrocities have been committed, so it is a methodical process that we undergo to reach those conclusions.

Q: Did you want to add anything to that, Mr. Rosenbaum?

Rosenbaum: I would just echo what Ms. Levesque has said, which is that for the Department of Justice, these are determinations made in the context of investigations of specific incidents where we may have jurisdiction.

I would contrast that with, for instance, the role of the State Department where they have made and announced determinations about the kinds of crimes that are being perpetrated in Ukraine by Russian forces now.

Q: Broadly speaking, can either of you talk about some of the more egregious cases of possible war crimes or categories of war crimes that you have come across and find particularly disturbing?

Levesque: As I mentioned before in reference to our U.S. war crimes statute, it covers grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Convention, among other violations. But as a result, the focus in terms of war crimes investigation is on grave international crimes. And so, some examples of grave international crimes include intentional killings of civilians, torture or inhumane treatment, willfully causing great suffering or serious bodily injury, unlawful deportation or transfer and unlawful confinement of a protected person. Now also using rape or sexual assault as a weapon of armed conflict is a serious violation as well. But this is the nature of the very serious and grave allegations that we as prosecutors at the Department of Justice but also our foreign counterparts are focusing our efforts on.

Q: Now, have you seen any evidence any of those types of crimes that you just enumerated happening in Ukraine?

There is a constant stream of information that we are all experiencing through the media and through many other sources and many other outlets as we receive that information; it includes information that could potentially constitute actual evidence of those crimes. And so that is the kind of information that we are reviewing to determine the conclusion as to whether there is evidence supporting war crimes or other atrocities.

Rosenbaum: I would add one small point to that, perhaps. I was with Attorney General Garland in Ukraine last month when he spoke so movingly about what is happening there. And he said — quote — “America and the world have seen the many horrific images and read the heart-wrenching accounts of brutality and death that have resulted from Russia's unjust invasion of Ukraine.” I can't say it more powerfully than that. And the result of what we're seeing, the attorney general said, is that the U.S. — quote — “stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in the face of Russia's continued aggression and assault on Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Q: Mr. Rosenbaum, during the USIP event last month, you said that the goal of these investigations is that both the perpetrators and facilitators of war crimes are held accountable. Who are facilitators?

Rosenbaum: The facilitators of the crimes include, for example, sanctioned individuals and other persons involved in Russian illicit financing and sanctions evasion in support of the Russian regime and its efforts to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty. In March, the attorney general announced the creation of the KleptoCapture Task Force to further leverage the department's tools and authorities against efforts to evade or undermine economic sanctions, economic actions taken by the U.S. government in response to Russia's unprovoked military aggression. The task force has already facilitated the seizure of super yachts of sanctioned individuals with close ties to the Russian regime. They've dismantled Russian criminal networks and they've enforced sanctions violations, among other actions.

The Justice Department will be providing Ukraine with an expert Justice Department prosecutor to advise on fighting kleptocracy, corruption, money laundering, the like. In addition, our department plans to deploy two expert attorneys from our Office of International Affairs, one to a U.S. embassy in Europe and another to the U.S. embassy in the Middle East. Those senior attorneys will work closely with their counterparts in EU member states and Middle Eastern countries to promote mutual legal assistance and extraditions, including in support of the department's KleptoCapture Task Force and its work related to Russian illicit finance and sanctions investigation.

Q: Russia of course denies committing any war crimes and has vehemently opposed any investigations into its actions in Ukraine. Without Russian cooperation in the absence of an extradition treaty, what are the prospects of any perpetrators being held accountable?

Well first of all, I want to say that it's enormously important that we pursue accountability for war crimes and other core international crimes, that we bring the perpetrators to justice.

As Attorney General Merrick Garland said in Ukraine on June 21, "there is no hiding place for war criminals."

As to the real-world prospects for bringing to justice the perpetrators of war crimes and other grave offenses, it may take time, even years in some instances, for the conditions to exist to bring those committing such crimes in Ukraine to justice, but I would submit that recent history shows that the civilized world is more committed than ever before to ending impunity for those crimes. That commitment is reflected in so many ways, including in the creation of international tribunals to adjudicate cases arising out of genocide in Rwanda, atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and elsewhere by burgeoning efforts on the part of national jurisdictions such as Germany to investigate and prosecute offenders, by the ever-expanding international cooperation and investigative efforts, such as through the European Network for the investigation.

And prosecution of genocide crimes against humanity and war crimes, and finally in the growing efforts of civil society organizations to document atrocity crimes and press for the punishment of those responsible for their commissions. Those who might dare to even consider issuing or obeying criminal orders in the wake of Russia's unlawful invasion of Ukraine would do well to consider the example of World War Two Nazi criminals. Despite the passage of so many decades, they are still being pursued into old age by authorities in Germany and elsewhere. In fact, here in the United States my office the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section HRSP, we successfully prosecuted a former Nazi concentration camp guard in Tennessee just two years ago. And that prosecution by the way set a new record for the longest time span between the commission of a crime and the proof of that crime being accomplished against the defendant in a U.S. court — more than 75 years.

Q: Do you see a similar situation playing out in the case of Russia where decades from today investigators will be chasing down Russian war criminals. Is that what you're suggesting?

I don't think that effort will end as long as the perpetrators are alive, but the hope of course is that justice can be obtained in the most important cases, much sooner than that long-term horizon. And I think, I think there's a lesson to be learned from all of this, that neither the passage of time — even decades — nor the flight of perpetrators to countries far from the scenes of war crimes and other atrocity crimes, will offer them reliable sanctuary. There will be no reliable sanctuary for the guilty, and they will at a bare minimum have to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders, wondering whether they have at last been identified and are about to be apprehended. So again, as Attorney General Garland has said, we are on track to reach that long-awaited day when there truly will be, quote, no hiding place for war criminals.

Q: President Biden has called Vladimir Putin a war criminal. Can Putin be held accountable for war crimes committed in Ukraine? Should he be held accountable?

Well, obviously a lot of study by authorities around the world, including academic experts, is underway on that point. I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment further on that.

Q: President Zelenskyy has called for a Nuremberg-style tribunal to investigate war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. Do you think there is a need for such a body?

Levesque: Right now, we really are focused on investigative efforts and using the mechanisms that are currently in place because they in fact currently exist. But we welcome conversations on this. In certain circumstances, international tribunals of various kinds can be effective in ensuring accountability and punishing and deterring war crimes.

Q: And Mr. Rosenbaum, do you have a sense of how the scale of what Russia has committed in Ukraine compares with other conflicts that you have investigated?

Rosenbaum: I'm not sure how I would compare it with other conflicts, but this is the largest war that's been fought on the European continent since World War II. Crimes are being committed on a massive scale. The world is shocked every single day. And the perpetrators are going to receive justice.