THE HAGUE (AP) – The International Criminal Court announced Friday that it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin on war crimes charges, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abduction of children from Ukraine.
It was the first time that a global court issued an order against the leader of one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The ICC said in a statement that Putin is “allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation (of children) and illegal transfer (of children) from the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
Moscow immediately rejected the move — and Ukraine hailed it as a major breakthrough.
Its practical implications, however, could be limited as the chances of Putin facing trial at the ICC are unlikely as Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction or extradite its nationals.
But the moral condemnation is likely to stain the Russian leader for the rest of his life – and in the near future whenever he wants to attend an international summit in the country that will arrest him.
“So Putin could go to China, Syria, Iran, his … few allies, but he just won’t travel to the rest of the world and he won’t travel to ICC member countries that he believes would … arrest him,” Adil Ahmad Haque said , an expert on international law and armed conflict at Rutgers University.
Others agreed. “Vladimir Putin will forever be marked as a pariah on a global level. He has lost all his political credibility worldwide. Any world leader who stands with him will also be disgraced,” David Crane, a former international prosecutor, told The Associated Press.
The court also issued an arrest warrant for Maria Lvova-Belova, commissioner for children’s rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation. The AP reported on her involvement in the kidnapping of Ukrainian orphans in October, the first investigation to trace the process back to Russia, drawing on dozens of interviews and documents.
ICC President Piotr Hofmanski said in a video statement that although ICC judges have issued orders, it will be up to the international community to enforce them. The court does not have its own police force to do this.
The ICC can impose a maximum sentence of life imprisonment “when justified by the extreme gravity of the crime,” according to its founding treaty, the Rome Statute, which established it as a permanent court of last resort to prosecute political leaders and other key perpetrators of the world’s worst crimes — war crimes , crimes against humanity and genocide.
Still, the chances of Putin or Lvova-Belova facing off remain extremely slim, as Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction – a position it vehemently reaffirmed on Friday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia does not recognize the ICC and considers its decisions “legally invalid.” He called this move by the court “outrageous and unacceptable”.
Peskov declined to comment on whether Putin would avoid traveling to countries where he could be arrested by the ICC.
Ukraine’s head of human rights, Dmytro Lubinets, said that 16,226 children were deported based on data from the country’s National Information Bureau. Ukraine managed to return 308 children.
Lvova-Belova, who was also involved in the orders, reacted with dripping sarcasm. “It is great that the international community appreciated the work to help the children of our country, that we do not leave them in war zones, that we take them out, create good conditions for them, that we surround them with love, caring people,” she said.
Ukrainian officials were delighted with the move.
In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it “a historic decision that begins with historic responsibility.”
Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, recalled that on the night of the Russian invasion, “I said at the Security Council meeting that there is no purgatory for war criminals, they are going straight to hell. Today I want to say that those of them who will remain alive after Russia’s military defeat will have to stop at The Hague on their way to hell.”
In Washington, President Joe Biden called the ICC’s decision “justified,” telling reporters as he left the White House for his home in Delaware that Putin “clearly committed war crimes.” Although the US does not recognize the court either, Biden said it was a “very strong point” to show the Russian leader’s actions in ordering the invasion.
Olga Lopatkina, a Ukrainian mother who has fought for months to reclaim her adopted children who were deported to an institution run by Russian loyalists, welcomed news of the arrest warrant. “Everyone must be punished for their crimes,” she said in a text message to the AP.
Although Ukraine is also not a member of the global court, it has granted it jurisdiction over its territory, and International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan has visited it four times since the investigation opened a year ago.
Apart from Russia and Ukraine, the USA and China are not members of the 123-member ICC.
The ICC said its pre-trial panel found “reasonable grounds” that Putin “bears individual criminal responsibility” for the child abductions “because he committed the acts directly, together with others and/or through others” and because he did not “properly exercise control over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts.”
During a visit this month, ICC prosecutor Khan said he went to a nursing home for children 2 kilometers (just over a mile) from the front lines in southern Ukraine.
“The drawings hung on the wall … spoke of the context of love and support that was once there,” he said in a statement. “But this home was empty, due to the alleged deportation of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation or their illegal transfer to other parts of the temporarily occupied territories.”
“As I noted to the United Nations Security Council last September, my office is investigating these alleged actions as a matter of priority. Children cannot be treated as spoils of war,” Khan said.
And while Russia has rejected the charges and warrants, others have said the ICC’s action will have an important impact.
“The ICC has made Putin a wanted man and taken its first step to end the impunity that has for too long emboldened perpetrators of Russia’s war against Ukraine,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate director of international law at Human Rights Watch. “The warrants send a clear message that issuing orders to commit or tolerate serious crimes against civilians can lead to a prison cell in The Hague.”
Crane, who 20 years ago accused Liberian President Charles Taylor of crimes in Sierra Leone, said dictators and tyrants around the world “are now on notice that those who commit international crimes will be held accountable.”
Taylor was eventually taken into custody and put on trial in a special court in the Netherlands. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
On Thursday, a UN-backed investigation cited Russian attacks on civilians in Ukraine, including systematic torture and killing in occupied regions, among potential issues of war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity.
The extensive investigation also revealed crimes committed against Ukrainians on Russian territory, including deported Ukrainian children who were prevented from reuniting with their families, a “filtration” system aimed at singling out Ukrainians for detention, and torture and inhumane detention conditions.
On Friday, the ICC put Putin’s face on the child abduction charges.
Casert reported from Brussels. AP writers Hanna Arhirova in Kiev, Ukraine; Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed.
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