WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval on Thursday to a bill that would expand the power of the U.S. government to prosecute international war crimes suspects who are in the United States, allowing them to be tried in federal court. regardless of the nationality of the victim or perpetrator, or where the crime was committed.
Experts say the legislation, led by a bipartisan group of lawmakers amid reports that Russian forces are committing war crimes in Ukraine’s brutal conflict, brings the US legal code into line with international law and prevents states States to be seen as a potential haven for war criminals.
The bill, called the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, now goes to President Biden. He made his way through the Senate and then the House in the hours surrounding a Wednesday night speech to Congress by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who condemned President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia for targeting civilians and urged the United States to United to continue sending financial and military aid amid winter onslaught.
“By passing this vital legislation, we are sending a clear message to Vladimir Putin that perpetrators of unspeakable war crimes, such as those unfolding before our eyes in Ukraine, must be held to account,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin. , Democrat of Illinois. , said Thursday in a statement. Mr. Durbin, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, helped spearhead the legislation with Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican of the bunch.
Currently, federal law only allows for war crimes prosecutions if the offense was committed in the United States or if the victim or perpetrator is a US national or military member. Non-Americans who commit war crimes against other non-Americans abroad but then enter the United States are generally beyond the reach of the law.
David J. Scheffer, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Justice Department has limited options when it discovers a foreign national suspected of a war crime living in the United States. In one case, a Bosnian man accused of killing Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 was only charged with visa fraud when US authorities learned he was living in Massachusetts in 2004 and had to be extradited to face further charges.
Similarly, the United States was only able to bring naturalization fraud charges against two former Guatemalan soldiers suspected of massacring villagers in Dos Erres in 1982, during the country’s civil war, after they were discovered alive. in the USA.
The new legislation means the United States will no longer be a sanctuary for war criminals, Scheffer said, adding that it is also a timely deterrent for all Russians, top generals level to infantrymen, who could commit war crimes in Ukraine and then try to enter the United States, even years in the future.
“A lot of countries are looking to the United States to see whether or not we’re keeping our house in order,” he said. “Are we enacting a national criminal law that gives us the power to prosecute genocide, to prosecute crimes against humanity, to prosecute war crimes?
Emily Cochrane contributed report.