Ukraine tracking thousands of war crimes despite judicial system woes: chief justice

OTTAWA — Violence in Ukraine has crippled the country's judicial system, the chief justice of its Supreme Court says, and left it struggling to handle tens of thousands of criminal reports arising from the war.

In a presentation given to an Ottawa conference on Monday, Justice Vsevolod Kniaziev said that more than a tenth of Ukrainian courthouses have been damaged or destroyed since Russia's invasion of the country began earlier this year, and judges are facing threats from Russian occupiers.

But he said the system is doing its best to adapt in an attempt to fill institutional gaps and hold offenders accountable for war crimes.

"Our lives have changed a lot. It is now divided into before and after the outbreak of war," Kniaziev told a gathering of the International Organization for Judicial Training.

"We wake up early and read the news quickly. We do not go to sleep without reading the latest news from the general staff," he said, referring to the Ukrainian military.

He pointed to the latest statistics from Ukraine's prosecutor general's office, which show that more than 42,000 war crimes perpetrated by Russian actors have been registered in the country's criminal justice system since the war began, along with some 80,000 crimes related to national security.

As the system tries to keep up with the surge in reports, it has suffered major losses, Kniaziev said.

Missiles and bombs have left 11 per cent of court premises damaged or completely destroyed, he said, and judges in occupied territories are being threatened by Russian authorities.

"Ukrainian judges cannot leave occupied territories," said Kniaziev. "They hide from Russian military forces."

He said that some judges have reportedly been arrested and tortured in order to intimidate other judges and try to prevent them from considering cases against Russian soldiers.

Others have taken to destroying documentation that proves their status as members of the judiciary, he added.

More than 400 new and existing judges have since been transferred across the country to fill the biggest gaps, he said. But he noted that there was already a shortage of some 2,000 judges prior to the war.

Still, Kniaziev says Ukraine will continue to document all crimes in order to eventually prosecute those responsible.

Earlier on Monday, Kniaziev met with Canada's Supreme Court chief justice, Richard Wagner, to discuss how Canada can continue to support Ukraine.

"We are doing everything to not limit access to justice for our citizens," said Kniaziev.

Supreme Court judges in the embattled country are donating 60 per cent of their salaries to the military, but Kniaziev said more financial support is needed to make lasting institutional changes.

Wagner said Canada will continue to be an ally to Ukraine and offer advice when needed. In the past, he said, Canada has provided guidance to improve transparency, including through the process of appointing judges.

"What the judiciary can do is to continue to provide advice and support and continue our co-operation. We will be there for Ukraine when needed," said Wagner.

But guidance and financial support are only a part of what Kniaziev is calling for. Russia's ongoing invasion has sparked conversation among leaders about what the consequences should be when the war ends.

"I think that this (is a) test of international justice, and it is the test of the whole system of international security," said Kniaziev.

Judges from around the world are gathering over four days as part of the International Organization for Judicial Training. The conference is focused on helping judges to better understand vulnerable populations they interact with in the courtroom.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Cindy Tran, The Canadian Press