Former separatist leader brags of executions, challenges Hague court

A former Russian-backed separatist commander has publicly boasted about ordering executions in eastern Ukraine and defiantly claimed he will never be tried in an international court.

Igor Girkin, otherwise known as Igor Strelkov, led separatist forces in Donetsk during some of the most intense fighting in the conflict. He gained a reputation for ruthlessness among even his own men, and he has been accused of involvement in the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014.

Rather than being shamed into silence, however, Girkin bragged about ordering executions in an interview with Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda radio station last week – inadvertently providing his first confession to possible war crimes – and a very public one at that.

“We had a military court, and legislation from 1941 was introduced, legislation by Stalin,” Strelkov said.

“On the basis of that legislation, we tried (people), held tribunals and carried out executions … In total, four people were executed during my time in Sloviansk,” Strelkov said.

News of the executions first surfaced in early July 2014, after Strelkov and his men surrendered Slovyansk to Ukrainian forces. Documents detailing the executions were found at that time and published by the Mashable news agency, though Girkin has never before commented on them. One of the men sentenced to death had merely stolen some clothing from an abandoned neighbor’s home, according to the Mashable report.

Soon after those documents came to light, Ukrainian authorities uncovered a mass grave in the area, suggesting Strelkov may have been responsible for more than just four executions.

Girkin is not the slightest bit concerned about being dragged to The Hague, however.

“International law absolutely does not worry me, because that is an instrument in the hands of the victors. If we are defeated, well, that means they will use the law against me.”

Asked whether he was prepared to stand trial in The Hague for war crimes, Strelkov said simply: “I’m deeply certain that I won’t end up there.”

“I know too much, as they say in a famous film. And second, I will try to do all that I can to ensure that doesn’t happen, on my part,” he said.

But Jan Pieklo, the director of the Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation, who helped to prepare a recent report detailing war crimes committed in eastern Ukraine in the hopes of getting justice, said Girkin shouldn’t be so certain.

Noting that Girkin believes he is “untouchable” because he is in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Pieklo said that he had previously worked as a war correspondent during the war in Yugoslavia and seen firsthand as Serb leaders displayed the same attitude as Girkin.

The feeling at that time, he said, was that “never ever would Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic be brought to justice.”

“But it happened, and Slobodan Milosevic himself was transported to The Hague, and he died in prison,” he said.

“Maybe one day we could even see Vladimir Putin facing justice,” Pieklo said. “It may be a long way off, it may take a long time, but it could happen.”

The Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch said “Russia can and should investigate this,” noting that the International Criminal Court was currently considering whether a formal investigation into crimes committed in eastern Ukraine was warranted under the Rome statute.

Scott Horton of the DLA Piper Global Law Firm declined to comment specifically on Girkin, but said those commanding Girkin could end up facing prosecution for his actions.

“A nation-state that fields an army, and that attracts and directs irregular forces of any sort, has responsibility for enforcement of the law of armed conflict over those forces. Non-enforcement of the laws of armed conflict has possible consequences up the chain of command under the so-called doctrine of command responsibility. If a command authority fails to apply the law of armed conflict by prosecuting and punishing offenders, and if it fails to do this systematically, then responsibility for the wrongdoing can be viewed as transposed from the original offender to the command authority,” Horton told the Kyiv Post.

“The cases turn heavily on the amount of evidence prosecutors are able to build about the command relationship,” he said.

Girkin has identified himself as a colonel of Russia’s Federal Security Service in numerous interviews, and a group of hackers released a tranche of emails purporting to back up that claim in late 2014. Ukrainian authorities have said Girkin is an officer of Russia’s GRU, the external military intelligence directorate.

Girkin is arguably the most notorious of the separatist commanders, having alienated even many of his own men during his time in Donetsk. Alexander Zakharchenko, the current leader of separatist forces in Donetsk, accused Girkin of recklessness in interviews with Russian media in late 2014, complaining that Girkin had been prepared to obliterate entire residential housing blocks for no reason whatsoever.

Shortly after the MH17 catastrophe in July 2014, Girkin was dismissed from his post as commander “at his own request,” according to separatist leadership. Many believed the Kremlin saw him as too much of a liability and asked him to leave, however.

He quickly relocated to Moscow, claiming in interviews with the Russian media that he was fulfilling a duty to protect Putin from enemies and traitors.

Human rights activists in Moscow had warned early on in the conflict that the war in Ukraine was not Girkin’s first time committing war crimes. In June 2014, the Memorial human rights group identified Girkin as the same man who had been known for committing forced disappearances and presumed executions of Chechens during the Second Chechen War in 2001-2002. Like many other crimes from the Second Chechen War, however, those murders were never solved.

Girkin’s press secretary did not respond to an inquiry on why the notorious separatist leader decided to confess to war crimes now, nor on whether he was concerned that although he “knows too much” to face trial, he might simply be killed for that very same reason.

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