Veteran 'Nazi hunter' says US law limits ability to hold war criminals accountable

Justice Department official says Russians found guilty of war crimes should not be allowed to escape prosecution

A mass grave site uncovered by Ukrainian authorities after Russia's occupation in Izium. UN investigators accused Russia last week of committing war crimes in Ukraine. AFP
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A Department of Justice official who built a career identifying and deporting Nazi war criminals told US legislators on Wednesday that the country's federal law limits officials' ability to bring war criminals to justice.

Eli Rosenbaum, a 36-year veteran of the department, was tapped to head the department's War Crimes Accountability Team to investigate allegations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the initiative during a trip to Ukraine in June.

"Given the shocking crimes being perpetrated by Russia during its unprovoked war against Ukraine, this hearing could not possibly be held at a more appropriate, urgent, or, frankly, terrifying time," Mr Rosenbaum said in his opening remarks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The prosecutor, who has spent much of his career deporting Nazi war criminals, told a hearing before congressional leaders that the federal criminal code was not up to the task of pursuing war criminals living in the US and does not cover the "vast majority" who enter or will enter the country.

"Having prosecuted World War II Nazi cases for nearly four decades, I can attest to the deep frustration we experienced because statutory limitations like those made it impossible to criminally prosecute any of the many Nazi criminals we found here," Mr Rosenbaum said.

"Instead, we could bring only civil actions against them. Russian and other war criminals who come here should not be able similarly to escape criminal justice or even find safe haven here."

Mr Rosenbaum said the federal torture statute does not allow the US to help people tortured abroad unless the victim or the torturer are American.

Another significant gap, Mr Rosenbaum said, is that the US does not have a statute criminalising "crimes against humanity" committed outside of war, such as enslavement or mass murder.

"War crimes and genocide statutes alone simply are not sufficient to address the full and tragic array of large-scale atrocity crimes that continue to beset the world," he said.

Mr Roseunbaum worked on 100 cases resulting in the deportations of accused Nazis and other sanctions. One of his targets included a former concentration camp guard living in Tennessee. The accused criminal was kicked out of the US last year — 75 years after his crimes were committed.

UN investigators accused Russia last week of committing war crimes in Ukraine that included bombings, executions, torture and sexual violence. But they said it was too soon to prove crimes against humanity.

Karim Khan, lead prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, also published a guide for nations to build efficient cases against war criminals

Agence-France presse contributed to this report

Updated: September 28, 2022, 8:24 PM