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Transcript: World Stage: Ukraine with Ukraine Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova

MR. IGNATIUS: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist at The Post.

Our guest today is Iryna Venediktova, who is the prosecutor general of Ukraine and who is going to join us to discuss the war in Ukraine and her work investigating suspected war crimes committed by Russian military and government in the invasion of Ukraine.

Madam Prosecutor General, welcome.

MS. VENEDIKTOVA: Good afternoon. Thank you very much, dear David, that you're having me on your platform. I am very appreciative.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, before we start, we want to hear from you in our audience. You can share thoughts and questions for Madam Venediktova, as with all our guests, by tweeting to us, @PostLive, and if we get questions we can use, I'll ask them later in the show.

Madam Venediktova, let me begin with today's news about the verdict convicting the Russian sergeant in Ukraine's first war crimes case, Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, 21 years old, who was convicted of shooting a 62‑year‑old Ukrainian civilian in the northern town of Sumy. He had pled guilty. He's been sentenced to life in prison. Let me ask you, as prosecutor general, are you satisfied with this verdict and the sentence, and what message does it send to Ukrainians and to Russians too?

MS. VENEDIKTOVA: Before the answer, I can give very short answer but actually for me very important, your platform, to speak about current situation in Ukraine. We have today first sentence, yes, first court decision verdict about our suspect who we started to prosecute guilty, and is it enough, or are we satisfied or not?

Actually, for this date, we have more than 13,000 cases only about war crimes. It means that we investigate cases about killing civilians, raping them, torture them in Kyiv region, in Sumy region, in Chernihiv region, in all territories which are under attack, under shelling, under occupation. This process for me as the prosecutor general of Ukraine, it's a first result of our every day job. We have huge number of these investigations, and unfortunately, every day we have extra 100, 200, 300 cases. It's a huge number. For us, it is the start of a common process of justice because, actually, when we start to prosecute war criminals, for today, we have now suspects in war crimes, more than 50 persons, and in our main anchor case about crime of aggression, more than 600 persons. And such trials, which are absolutely objective, which are open for all people, for all journalists from all parts of the planet, it means we do everything open under rule of law, and such proceedings can save a life of other civilians who are now under occupation, who are now under attack, under shelling, and so on.

I think that it's good for civility for Russian soldiers, for Russian commanders to understand that if they decided to do such atrocities, to kill, to rape, to loot, to torture, we will find everyone, [unclear] or later, but we will identify all of you. We start to prosecute, and you will be responsible for all your atrocities.

MR. IGNATIUS: So that's a powerful statement of the deterrent effect, I hope, of the prosecutions that begin really today with the conviction of Sergeant Shishimarin.

I want to ask you, Madam Prosecutor General, about the defense that he made. He said, as officers and soldiers so often do in war, they were just following orders, that he was told to shoot this civilian, and then his lawyer said something additional, which I found very interesting, which was that soldiers like Sergeant Shishimarin simply weren't prepared for this conflict. They didn't know that they would be invading Ukraine. They weren't ready. What do you make of these arguments in defense, and how are you going to react to them in other prosecutions?

MS. VENEDIKTOVA: We try to do everything open, as more open from first days of investigations as is possible.

For example, today in Kyiv region, we have team of prosecutors of International Criminal Court. In Kharkiv region, we have a team of our part of joint investigation team from Lithuania. We have French experts in Bucha and Kyiv regions. It means that we do our job honestly.

I want to be professional. I don't give you emotion, any emotion here. That's why we understand that you saw this soldier, Shishimarin, but actually, he is a part of tank division, and he is very young, 21 years old, but from other sides, he have done this shot, very cold, and when other commanders told them shoot, he shoot it. And we understand that such people, such militaries we have on the Ukrainian led a lot. Yes. From one side, they actually just execute the commander, but from other side, we see that several days ago we started to prosecute other person who is a commander and who gave the order to kill civilian in Bucha. It is one of the suspects from this 64th Motorized Brigade, which Putin honored it as the Guard.

And we see that from one side, yes, they gave order to kill, and they execute the others. They kill civilians, but from other side, Russian militaries do these atrocities because they just want to do it. They killed Ukrainian people because they just want Ukrainians, and they killed people because they just did not like them. We have huge number of such cases, and of course, we should speak about common responsibility, common responsibility not only people who shoot, who gave command, but another person in top level of military sphere who knew about this and maybe who have done order to do these, but from other side, all of them did not do anything to stop atrocities in Ukraine. It means that they all are responsible for these crimes.

MR. IGNATIUS: I want to get to all of the issues that you mentioned, but I want to ask first. There were reports several weeks ago that Russian prisoners of war might be traded for some of the Ukrainian soldiers who had been fighting and finally had surrendered at Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. What's your view as prosecutor general about whether it's appropriate to trade prisoners of war for people who actually are charged with war crimes? Are you comfortable with that?

MS. VENEDIKTOVA: Actually, I can speak only about‑‑only in the frame of my mandate, of course, only in the fame of my competence, and what we see, of course, not all prisoners of war are criminals.

In our meaning as prosecutors, most of them are just combatants. Yes, they came to Ukrainian land to kill civilians and to do their military goals, but in the mention of‑‑in the frame of criminal court, they are combatants. That's why for us very important to have all evidence, to find all people, to correctly identify them, and have all evidence that only specific person have done atrocities, have done war crimes on the territory of Ukraine.

We understand the methodology. Again, unfortunately, experienced person, we have the war in Ukraine from 2014. That's why we understand how to investigate war crimes, again, sexual crimes on the occupied territory when the conflicts are still going on. It's very difficult. We understand all our challenges. We understand all procedural difficulties in this, and we are ready for this. We are absolutely ready.

I don't speak about details which are not covered in my competence because it's more maybe in the military sphere or politician sphere or diplomatic sphere. That's why I prefer to be only on the stage of prosecutorial job.

MR. IGNATIUS: So you mentioned the enormous number of cases that you're now investigating. I wrote down the number 13,000, but that's a very large number. I want to ask you about several of the most difficult areas for you as prosecutor general. First, I want to ask about the question of sexual assault. There have been repeated reports of sexual assault by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian civilians. How are you proceeding to investigate and prosecute those cases?

MS. VENEDIKTOVA: Well, we have a huge number of facts. Again, everything what we have about sexual violence and sexual crimes, it's, you know, absolutely specific‑‑we have absolutely specific investigation process. We speak about victims, about their rights, about the safety, and when we investigate such crimes, for today, we have two suspects who we started to prosecute in sexual crimes.

What are the difficulties, you should understand me. At first, victims, they are under huge stress. Even the people who now leave on the territory which are under occupation, they are scared to speak with law enforcement agency. I just want to tell you their words: "We are scared because maybe Russians come back, and they kill all of us." People are in shock, and it is not only women, unfortunately. It is men, children, and even elderly women. That's why this has caused difficulties to do safety conditions for our victims, victims who are now transferred to a more safe region, western part of Ukraine or even abroad. They are still not ready to speak with us because they are in stress.

We all understand that for such crimes, we need to stop the war. We need to stop this situation when they are still waiting for the perpetrators. Then we as Ukrainian authorities, we should create safe conditions for these victims, and after that, we will see a huge number of victims who will be ready to speak with law enforcement agencies. We should protect these people, protect the civilian rights, and to do everything, that they should be not under stress.

Again, if we come back to our situation in 2014, it was the same situation, only less maybe scale, you know, because we had victims who were raped on their territories. Again, when we speak about a rape in the international military conflict, it is not ordinary rape. It is war crimes. War crimes don't have terms. It means that it will be very difficult for us to investigate, but we will have huge time for investigations properly and correctly, for us very important for today, people who are victims, and the conditions, the safety, the life and life of the [unclear]. That's why it's very, very sensitive sphere of investigation.

MR. IGNATIUS: Thank you for speaking about it.

I want to turn now to the horror that the world saw through photographs and video that happened in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv. You mentioned earlier that you have identified the 64th brigade of the Russian military, and I read that you have already identified 10 soldiers, 10 individual Russian soldiers from that unit and accused them of war crimes. Could you talk about the effort to prosecute those who were responsible of the killings in Bucha that the world has watched with such shock?

MS. VENEDIKTOVA: If we speak about Bucha, for today we started to prosecute 17 people, but if we speak concrete about this 64th brigade, we have these 10 soldiers who tortured people, and from other side, we started to prosecute several days ago, the person who is commander and who gave the order to kill civilians. These investigations are still in the process. We are not ready to go to the court now. That's why maybe I don't give you a lot of details. When the case will be in the court, we can speak about this more in detail, but if we speak about this last example, about this commander who gave the orders to kill, actually it's very terrible situation when he told kill and his soldiers shoot at people. For example, one injured man, injured by his soldiers, was bombed in his house after his soldiers shoot from the tank, and such terrible situation, we had a lot of examples of such situations.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, with the greatest respect for the suffering of the Ukrainian people, the terrible crimes that you're investigating, I want to ask you about what you're doing as prosecutor general about possible crimes by Ukrainian soldiers. The UN Human Rights Commission in March said it was reviewing 45 cases of ill treatment. These are not on the scale of what we're talking about in Bucha, but there are other examples. The New York Times and the BBC have confirmed a video showing the execution of a Russian prisoner by a Ukrainian soldier. My question is, what will you as prosecutor general‑‑what will Ukraine do if you find examples of conduct like this by your own forces?

MS. VENEDIKTOVA: We start to investigate. David, it's very fair and a very objective question, and I'm ready to answer them. All facts, which we hear about them, see them in the mass media, we start to investigate, and we will be ready to answer all questions when our investigations will be finished.

But, again, now we are here in Ukraine. We should do our job as investigators and prosecutors properly and professionally, but again, we're still in war. Our prosecutors are still working from bombs and shelling. Our prosecutors and investigators are still under violence from aggressor. It means that we do our job properly, but when we will be ready to go with concrete, specific results, the war should be stopped, and after that, we will answer all questions.

MR. IGNATIUS: Thank you for your answer.

We have a question from one of our viewers on Twitter, which is an important one I want to ask you. Julia asks, will Ukraine be asking the International Court‑‑the International Criminal Court, I assume that means‑‑to charge Vladimir Putin with war crimes?

MS. VENEDIKTOVA: Dear Julia, thank you very much for this question. Of course, we all understand‑‑and I saw your text. Thank you very much‑‑who the main war criminal of the 21st century, who is not responsible for Chechnya, who is not responsible for Georgia, who is not responsible for Syria, and now he took part of Ukraine in 2014, part of Donbas, Crimea, and decided that he could be immunity and he could be unvarnished all his life. Of course, Ukraine collects all evidence to start to prosecute all war criminals.

If we speak about International Criminal Court, prosecutor of International Criminal Court absolutely independent. He is now can have possibilities here on the ground, his team now in the Ukraine on the ground. In Kyiv regions, they do their job, and I, of course, can say what I prefer they to do because they're absolutely independent. And I can't give them any advice.

As the prosecutor, I respect independence of everyone, of us, but from other side, for me, very important. When we speak about war crimes, when we speak about crimes against humanity, to find the main person who is responsible, and of course, when we speak about crime of aggressive, it is competence of ICC, but unfortunately, they can't do it with our situation because now Ukraine, now there are consideration‑‑we did not ratify Rome Statute. Crime of aggression is very important to punish, for this aggression to.

And fourth crime about which we can start to speak, it is genocide. We started to investigate genocide from first days of war. Now we have two suspects in this sphere of calling to genocide, but again, we don't have access to Mariupol. We don't have access to other occupied territories, where we can find evidence of qualifications, characters of genocide; for example, deporting children, deporting children. Of course, when actually we can prove this situation, it will be genocide of Ukrainian‑‑in Ukraine against Ukrainian people.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Madam Venediktova, I want to thank you for your conversation, your very frank and painful discussion of the war crimes that your country has experienced. Thank you for coming on our program and sharing this with our readers in America and around the world. Thank you very much.

MS. VENEDIKTOVA: Thank you very much. For me, very important to speak about this because Ukrainians don't have option to lose. We should win. We should protect our Ukrainian citizens. We should protect our children who you know now we have more than 200 dead children, and we should protect all values, values of free people. Thank you that you give us possibilities to speak about this.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, again, our thanks, thanks to all of you in our audience for joining us. Please come back to Washington Post Live. We have other interviews coming up today and through the week. Go to WashingtonPostLive.com to see what might be of interest to you, and register there. Thank you for joining us today.

[End recorded session]

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