US files war crime charges against 4 Russian men accused of torturing American during Ukraine invasion

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, right, looks on. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, right, looks on. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Four Russian men accused of torturing an American during the invasion of Ukraine have been charged with war crimes in a first-of-its-kind case, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

It is the first prosecution against members of the Russian armed forces in connection with atrocities during Moscow's war against Ukraine and it is the first time the Justice Department has brought charges under a nearly 30-year-old statute that makes it a crime to subject an American to torture or inhumane treatment during a war.

The charges are largely symbolic for now, given the unlikely prospects of the department bringing any of the four defendants, who are fugitives, into custody. But U.S. officials described the case as a history-making moment in their investigation into Russian war crimes. More charges could be coming.

"This is our first, and you should expect more," Attorney General General Merrick Garland said at a news conference.

He said the American people and their government have a long memory.

"We will not forget the atrocities in Ukraine. And we will never stop working to bring those responsible to justice," the nation's top law enforcement official said.

The four Russians are identified as members of the Russian armed forces or its proxy units. Two are described as commanding officers.

The Russians are accused of kidnapping an American man from his home in a Ukrainian village in 2022. The American was beaten and interrogated while being held for 10 days at a Russian military compound, before eventually being evacuated with his wife, who is Ukrainian, U.S. authorities said.

The American told federal agents who had traveled to Ukraine last year as part of an investigation that the Russian soldiers had abducted him, stripped him naked, pointed a gun at his head and badly beaten him, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.

He was also subjected to harsh interrogation methods, threatened with sexual assault and forced to participate in his own mock execution, according to a five-count indictment unsealed Wednesday in the Eastern District of Virginia.

"The evidence gathered by our agents speaks to the brutality, criminality, and depravity of Russia's invasion," Mayorkas said.

Homeland Security and FBI investigators interviewed the American, his family and others who were around the village of Mylove around the time of the kidnapping to identify the four Russians, Mayorkas said.

"Cases like this one are among the most complex the FBI works, but bringing them is essential to deterring crimes like these and showing would-be perpetrators that no one is above the law and the war crimes will not go unpunished," FBI Director Christopher Wray said.

Garland has been outspoken on war crimes in Ukraine since Russia's invasion in February 2022, and his department assigned federal prosecutors to examine the potential of bringing criminal charges.

Independent human rights experts backed by the United Nations have said they have found continued evidence of war crimes committed by Russian forces, including torture that ended in the rape and death of women up to age 83.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in March for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia does not recognize the ICC and considers its decisions "legally void." He called the court's move "outrageous and unacceptable."

The United States is not a member of the ICC, but the Justice Department has been cooperating with it and supporting Ukrainian prosecutors as they carry out their own war crime investigations.

The four defendants are identified as Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan and Dmitry Budnik, both of whom are described by prosecutors as commanding officers in Russia's armed forces, as well as two lower-ranking officers identified only by their first names.

All four were fighting on behalf of Russia in its war against Ukraine and are identified in the indictment as either members of the armed forces or military units from the Donestk People's Republic. After invading Ukraine, Moscow in September 2022 illegally annexed parts of the Donetsk region and three other Ukrainian regions under its control as part of Russia.

The U.S. and Russia do not have an extradition treaty, but the Justice Department has brought repeated criminal cases against Russian nationals, most notably for cyber crimes and including for interference in the 2016 presidential election. In some of those cases, the defendants have been taken into custody by American officials, such as when they've traveled outside Russia.

photo Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, right, looks on. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
photo Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, with from left, Assistant Attorney General Nicole M. Argentieri of the Criminal Division, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, FBI Director Christopher Wray and U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber for the Eastern District of Virginia. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
photo Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, left, and FBI Director Christopher Wray, look on. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
photo Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Attorney General Merrick Garland looks on. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
photo FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, look on. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
photo Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Director Staci Barrera, of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, look on. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
photo Assistant Attorney General Nicole M. Argentieri of the Criminal Division, speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, look on. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
photo FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, as from left, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Director Staci Barrera, of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Assistant Attorney General Nicole M. Argentieri of the Criminal Division, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland, look on. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
photo Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington, with from left, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Director Staci Barrera, of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Assistant Attorney General Nicole M. Argentieri of the Criminal Division. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)