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Attorney General Garland pledges support for war crimes investigations against Russia


Justice ministers from across the world made unannounced visits to Ukraine this week. One of them was Attorney General Merrick Garland, who gave NPR's Carrie Johnson an exclusive glimpse at his journey into a country at war.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The attorney general's visit followed an invitation from Ukraine's prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin.


ANDRIY KOSTIN: Let me start this meeting with expression of my sincere gratitude for your presence in Ukraine and participations in United For Justice Conference.

JOHNSON: Kostin says the group represents a united front for accountability - a legal response to alleged crimes Russia has committed in the course of this war. Merrick Garland describes some of them.


MERRICK GARLAND: We have witnessed shocking attacks on innocent civilians, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, the forced deportation of Ukrainian children and other blatant violations of international law.

JOHNSON: Ukrainian investigators are risking their lives sifting through rubble, examining human remains - all to help investigate war crimes cases.


GARLAND: The Ukrainian people have shown the world what courage looks like.

JOHNSON: One of those courageous civilians is Natalya, a 43-year-old florist from Dnipro in Ukraine, where Russians bombed an apartment building and killed dozens of civilians this year.


JOHNSON: I met her on the train headed back into her country. She fled with her young son when the war began a year ago.

NATALYA: And the trip was horrible because full of trains, of people. People stay on trains on floor, and we very cold. So it was horrible trip.

JOHNSON: Natalya is returning now to go back to work for a few weeks since her floral business has got lots of orders to fill. But she told her boy it was not safe for him to come home with her.

NATALYA: I'm hope - I very hope everybody wish that this war soon finish. And we can stay and have normal life in Ukraine.

JOHNSON: Legal authorities across Europe say that people like Natalya's friends who died in Dnipro deserve a measure of justice.


KARIM KHAN: Unfortunately, Ukraine is a crime scene.

JOHNSON: That's Karim Khan. He's chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. Khan mentioned an old Ukrainian saying that he says applies today.


KHAN: But the truth doesn't drown in water, and it does not burn in fire.

JOHNSON: At the conference in Lviv, international officials signed agreements to share more tips and intelligence about war crime suspects. Again, Merrick Garland.


GARLAND: The perpetrators of those crimes will not get away with them.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department is providing advice and training to people inside Ukraine. American-born forensic investigators are on the ground in the country, and Garland plans to send a prosecutor to work inside Ukraine too.


GARLAND: Together, American and Ukrainian prosecutors have zeroed in on specific crimes committed by Russian forces, including attacks on civilian targets. We are working to identify not only the individuals who carried out these attacks but those who ordered the attacks.

JOHNSON: Those efforts could take years to bear fruit, but Garland says his Justice Department is in it for the long haul. He says Americans ultimately deported 130 Nazi war criminals from inside the U.S. in the decades after World War II. Another DOJ team is building cases against oligarchs who are helping finance the conflict. U.S. prosecutors also have jurisdiction over people who kill Americans abroad, like volunteer medic Pete Reed, who died last month in Ukraine as he was treating an injured woman.


GARLAND: The United States has also opened criminal investigations into war crimes in Ukraine that may violate U.S. law. Although we are still building our cases, interviewing witnesses and collecting evidence, we have already identified several specific suspects.

JOHNSON: Congress recently gave the Justice Department authority to bring cases against Russian war criminals who may try to hide inside the U.S. in the years ahead. The issue is a personal one for Garland. Some of his family members who could not escape Europe died in World War II. How and where remains a painful mystery to this day. He described it to me in an interview on his airplane.

GARLAND: We know that they were killed in the Holocaust. My father was named for one of them. But we don't know really exactly what happened to them. And it's important for families and descendants to know what happened when there's been a period of atrocities.

JOHNSON: The Ukrainian people deserve answers, Garland says, just as his family did so long ago. Carrie Johnson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.