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CROWDSOURCING TO FIND RUSSIAN WAR CRIMINALS

Sept. 19, 2022

When Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukrainian put Stanislav Aseyev in prison in 2017, other inmates warned him to beware of the warden, Denis Kulikovsky. Mr. Kulikovsky was “a committed sadist, rapist, executioner, and alcoholic; a psychopath, who read people perfectly, manipulated them masterfully, and possessed a healthy sense of humor,” Mr. Aseyev writes in his new book about his 2½ years in the Donetsk secret prison known as Izolyatsia, or Isolation.

Mr. Kulikovsky should have been watching out for Mr. Aseyev, a Ukrainian journalist who was captured and imprisoned for reporting in Donetsk for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. After he was released in a prisoner exchange in December 2019, Mr. Aseyev began to write about the shadowy prisons run by Russians and their proxies in the occupied Donbas region. As Mr. Aseyev made inquiries, he learned Mr. Kulikovsky was free and living in Kyiv.

Mr. Aseyev, 32, said information he provided to authorities led to Mr. Kulikovsky’s arrest last November. Ukrainian authorities declined to comment on Mr. Aseyev’s claims about his role in the investigation and arrest. But Christo Grozev, executive director of the investigative journalism site Bellingcat, said he worked with Mr. Aseyev to track down Mr. Kulikovsky and that the Ukrainian journalist tipped the authorities off. Yuriy Belousov, Ukraine’s lead prosecutor for human-rights violations, said Mr. Kulikovsky now faces criminal charges for human trafficking, terrorism, war crimes, cruel treatment and illegal deprivation of liberty. If convicted he could be sentenced to some 15 years in prison. Artem Galkin, a lawyer, confirmed he was representing Mr. Kulikovsky but didn’t provide comment on behalf of his client by deadline.

The Kulikovsky case inspired Mr. Aseyev to found the Justice Initiative Fund, a nonprofit that crowdsources bounties for war criminals who have committed atrocities in Ukraine. It launched on Sunday. File this one in the annals of ideas so crazy they just might work.

The Justice Initiative Fund focuses its efforts only on war-crimes suspects officially “wanted” by Ukrainian or foreign authorities. It states that it is “against vigilantism” and doesn’t order assassinations of suspects. Instead, it seeks information it can verify and pass along to law enforcement to facilitate an arrest, as well as “previously unknown evidence of the crimes of the wanted person.”

Tipsters can provide information confidentially, and if it checks out and is useful, the Justice Initiative Fund will pay them in whatever legal way they prefer. Crowdsourced contributions will cover the cost of the bounties, as well as operational and research costs for the nonprofit.

“We expect Russians to provide information,” Mr. Aseyev said. One hangover from the Soviet era is a proclivity to rat out personal or professional adversaries, so some tips could come from within the Russian military and intelligence offices. War criminals’ wives and girlfriends are also prospective tipsters; the Justice Initiative Fund is betting that Russian soldiers who commit atrocities on the battlefield also behave violently in their own homes. The reward money adds another incentive to inform on a colleague or lover.

Initial bounty targets include soldiers wanted for murder, rape and torture in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha; officials accused by Dutch authorities of arranging and delivering the missile system used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014; and other alleged Izolyatsia jailers. Many are “ low-level soldiers,” Mr. Aseyev said. And even if the nonprofit fails to apprehend anyone, he said, it will serve as a centralized database of those identified as war criminals.

The list grows as the war drags on. In the newly liberated parts of Kharkiv oblast, authorities are learning of war crimes including enforced disappearances, tortures and killings. When Ukraine reclaims occupied territory, “the whole locality is a crime scene,” Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police of Ukraine, said earlier this summer at an interview at his Kyiv office.

In Irpin, a Kyiv suburb, Ukrainian forensic scientists helped identify a suspect from a fingerprint they lifted from a fish tank in a home, among other evidence. Law enforcement also conducts an investigation when an aerial bombardment or missile strike hits unoccupied territory. And Ukraine conducts remote probes into war crimes in occupied territories using online content and drone footage.

“There is always danger for our officers,” Mr. Klymenko said. A phone call that interrupted our interview illustrated his point: One of his officers in Sumy, near the Russian border, had just died after being hit by artillery while carrying out his work. Unexploded ordnance abounds, posing another risk to law enforcement.

They carry on despite the risks. “When we are confronted with mass graves with peaceful civilians, when we are getting these victims out of the ground—victims who were shot, burned or blown up for no reason at all—of course we can’t let off our enemy on that,” Mr. Klymenko said.

Ukrainian investigators have identified hundreds of Russians involved in war crimes, he said: “We know their faces, we know their phone numbers, we know the designations of their military units and formation, we know the commanders.”

Unfortunately, solving a case isn’t the same as resolving one. Ukrainian authorities have opened some 32,650 war-crime cases as of Sept. 15, Mr. Belousov said. Yet the majority of suspects remain beyond Ukraine’s reach.

One hope is that some may be apprehended when they travel outside Russia and the territory it controls in Ukraine. Mr. Aseyev hopes the bounty effort can help track them down. “It’s not about revenge,” he said. “It’s about justice.”