A local resident helps police, forensic experts and war crimes prosecution teams to exhume a burial site containing the bodies of six civilians that were executed by Russian forces in the yard of a house in the town of Pravdyne on the outskirts of Kherson on November 28, 2022 in Kherson, Ukraine.
A local resident helps police, forensic experts and war crimes prosecution teams to exhume a burial site containing the bodies of six civilians that were executed by Russian forces in the yard of a house in the town of Pravdyne on the outskirts of Kherson on November 28, 2022 in Kherson, Ukraine. © Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Tracking Down Truth in Ukraine

NGO has identified over 200 alleged criminals since 2014 as part of efforts to monitor, document and investigate IHL violations.

Tuesday, 7 November, 2023

On October 26, Truth Hounds and the Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ), filed a case with German Federal prosecutors, requesting an investigation into crimes committed in Ukraine under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The case focuses on the commanders of Russian ground forces who unlawfully detained, tortured, and executed four men in the Kharkiv region during their occupation of the area from March to September 2022. Kateryna Mitieva, Truth Hounds head of communications, spoke to IWPR’s Olga Golovina to explain the role that her organisation was playing in supporting justice processes in Ukraine.

IWPR: What are the main goals and tasks of Truth Hounds in Ukraine?

Kateryna Mitieva: Truth Hounds document and investigate international crimes and other serious human rights violations committed in Ukraine in order to hold the perpetrators accountable, achieve justice for victims and prevent future international crimes. Since 2014, Truth Hounds have carried out over 220 field missions in war zones, collected about 5,000 testimonies from eyewitnesses, conducted 50 investigations and identified over 200 alleged criminals.  

Truth Hounds have become key advisors to many national investigative institutions and law enforcement agencies, guiding them in collecting and verifying evidence. Moreover, a significant part of the regional prosecutors’ war crime portfolio consists of cases built and supervised by the Truth Hounds team. We also host training for national law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to increase their expertise in international humanitarian law (IHL) and war crime investigations. 

Kateryna Mitieva, Truth Hounds head of communications. Photo courtesy of K. Mitieva

What should Ukraine improve regarding the quality of its domestic justice in prosecuting war crimes committed in Ukraine? What gaps have you identified in its capacity?

In terms of improving the quality of domestic justice, we believe that priority number one is the education of investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and journalists in the Law of Armed Conflicts and International Criminal Law (ICL). The existing capacities of Ukrainian NGOs and state education institutions are unable to meet the growing demand. Whereas there are many highly qualified Ukrainian IHL and ICL experts, there are not enough trainers who can disseminate the knowledge. The best possible solution would be to create a massive training-of-trainers programme with continuous support, embedded in the Office of the Prosecutor, the Security Service of Ukraine, National Police, Ukrainian judiciary and Ukrainian Bar Association.

Another essential step will be the creation of an institute of special attorneys, appointed by the state to defend those accused of war crimes. Fair trial is a fundamental right that even Russian war criminals cannot be deprived of. The current free legal counsel is insufficiently educated and protected from public outrage. These two approaches have already been initiated in Ukraine. 

How does your organisation cooperate with International institutions in terms of war crimes investigations?

Expanding the prospects of establishing justice, we liaise with foreign investigative bodies and prosecutors on cases that could be opened on the principle of extraterritorial jurisdiction. Over the past few years, five proceedings on crimes committed in Ukraine — including the abduction and torture of civilians, as well as missile and cluster munitions attacks — have been initiated in other countries as a result of submissions by Truth Hounds. The most recent case prepared in partnership with Civitas Maxima concerns the attack on a Swiss journalist by Russian forces in March 2022 in the Mykolaiv region. Another criminal investigation was opened in France at the request of Truth Hounds and FIDH. We are also working closely with Trial International and the Clooney Foundation for Justice to initiate more investigations in Germany and France.

Moreover, Truth Hounds maintain fruitful cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and have already sent nine submissions on various incidents. Among them there are two submissions done together with Global Diligence, IPHR and GRC regarding the persecution of Crimean Tatars, encroachments of Russian forces on the cultural heritage and identity of the indigenous population and Ukrainians on the peninsula, qualifying these actions as a crime against humanity. The cast ICC submission compiled information about attacks against civilians during the first six months after February 24, 2022. 

What practical steps can be taken to protect the victims of war during justice processes?

Protection of those who were victimised during the hostilities is one of the key responsibilities of the state and other actors who are authorised to document and investigate war crimes. Foremost, these people should be protected from re-traumatisation and provided with all necessary support and conditions for rehabilitation by the state. 

The testimony of these people is the evidence base for further criminal proceedings, so their personal data and status must be protected. Collecting first-hand accounts, Truth Hounds are obliged to receive a consent form from the eyewitness and guarantee not to disseminate any data if there is no permission.   

What role is OSINT now playing in the investigation of war crimes? How has this impacted justice processes?

Truth Hounds investigators identify and track down the specific individuals who are believed to bear responsibility for committing war crimes. To determine the suspects’ identity and compile their personal files, investigators analyse eyewitness and survivor testimonies, open data, and use OSINT tools. For this purpose, the team analyses digital content, satellite imagery, radio intercepts, radar data, and other footage, using cross-platform search engines, face and voice recognition apps, digital tracking tools, etc. This comprehensive approach guarantees the accuracy of conclusions and ensures a strong evidence basis for future trial proceedings. OSINT methodology helps in identifying types of weapons and alleged criminals, for example because of satellite imagery Truth Hounds were able to determine that the 559th Aviation Regiment of the 1st Guards Mixed Aviation Division of the 4th Army of the Russian Air Force is allegedly responsible for the commission of an air attack on Mykolaiv on March 21, 2022.  

How does this collaborative approach between civil society and state institutions affect the delivery of justice, in particular outreach to survivors?

The scale of international crimes committed in Ukraine is so grand that it is extremely difficult for Ukrainian investigative bodies to collect evidence and investigate all incidents on their own. Moreover, in the regions, investigators and prosecutors often need more experience and knowledge to investigate war crimes. Therefore, only in cooperation with NGOs, international partners and foreign and international investigative bodies, is it doable to collect a complete evidence base on as many cases as possible and to build criminal proceedings in order to ultimately bring those responsible for these crimes to justice.

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