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Amnesty International’s Ukraine chief resigns after report criticizes Kyiv

Amnesty International's office in Hong Kong in 2021. (Vincent Yu/AP)

The head of Amnesty International in Ukraine said she was quitting her job after the human rights organization issued a report that criticized Ukraine’s military, sparking backlash among Ukrainian officials who said it was unfairly blaming the victim in Russia’s war.

Oksana Pokalchuk, who had led the organization’s efforts in Ukraine, said in a Facebook post announcing her resignation that it was “another loss that the war has cost me.”

She said that although she was proud of the work that Amnesty International did to highlight Russian war crimes, the report issued last week — which alleged that “Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians” — became a point of conflict between the staff in the Ukrainian office and the larger organization.

Pokalchuk said that the organization’s employees in Ukraine had pushed Amnesty International to allow the Ukrainian Defense Ministry to respond to the report’s findings before it was published, but that the organization gave Ukrainian officials “very little time to respond.”

“As a result of this, although unwillingly, the organization created material that sounded like support of Russian narratives,” she said. “Seeking to protect civilians, this study instead has become a tool of Russian propaganda.”

What are war crimes, and is Russia committing them in Ukraine?

Amnesty International had said that “Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals.”

The organization said it had “found evidence of Ukrainian forces launching strikes from within populated residential areas as well as basing themselves in civilian buildings in 19 towns and villages in the regions.” The report also said the violations “in no way justify Russia’s indiscriminate attacks.”

“Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law,” Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement accompanying the report. Callamard has previously said Russia was “breaching the sovereignty of Ukraine and challenging the global security architecture,” calling the invasion “the worst such catastrophe in recent European history.”

The report sparked a sharp backlash from Ukrainian officials. President Volodymyr Zelensky, in remarks Saturday evening, criticized the “very eloquent silence” from Amnesty International on alleged Russian attacks on a nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Zelensky said it “once again indicates the manipulative selectivity of this organization.”

Responding to Pokalchuk’s resignation in a statement, Callamard praised her “significant human rights successes,” adding: “We are sorry to hear that she is leaving the organization, but we respect her decision and wish her well.”

In a separate statement issued Sunday, Amnesty International said it “deeply regrets the distress and anger” that its statements about Ukraine’s tactics had caused, adding that “we fully standing by our findings.” It said it had written to the Ukrainian government about its findings on July 29.

“We must be very clear: Nothing we documented Ukrainian forces doing in any way justifies Russian violations," the organization said. “Russia alone is responsible for the violations it has committed against Ukrainian civilians.”

Callamard tweeted Friday in response to the criticism, calling out “Ukrainian and Russian social media mobs and trolls” for attacking Amnesty’s investigations. “This is called war propaganda, disinformation, misinformation,” she wrote, saying the criticism wouldn’t “dent our impartiality” or “change the facts.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded, objecting to the “mobs and trolls” comment and saying that the report “distorts reality, draws false moral equivalence between the aggressor and the victim, and boosts Russia’s disinformation efforts.”

On Thursday, after the report was issued, Zelensky said Amnesty International was trying “to amnesty the terrorist state and shift the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim.”

Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter that “people’s lives are the priority for Ukraine, that is why we are evacuating residents of front-line cities.” Regional and federal Ukrainian officials have throughout the war pushed for civilians to evacuate from cities where heavy fighting was occurring or expected to occur.

Podolyak said Russia was trying to discredit the Ukrainian military to Western audiences. “It is a shame,” he wrote, that an organization like Amnesty International “is participating in this disinformation and propaganda campaign.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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