THE HAGUE — The International Criminal Court announced Friday that it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abduction of children from Ukraine.
Although world leaders have been indicted before, it was the first time that the ICC issued a warrant against the leader of one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The court said in a statement that Putin is “allegedly responsible for the war crime of illegal deportation (of children) and illegal transfer (of children) from the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
It also issued an arrest warrant on Friday for Maria Alekseevna Lvova-Belova, the commissioner for children’s rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, on similar charges.
Moscow immediately rejected that move, and Ukraine hailed it as a big step forward. However, its practical implications could be limited, at least in the short term.
Still, the moral condemnation will probably taint him for the rest of his life.
“Vladimir Putin will forever be marked as a pariah on a global level. He has lost all his political credibility worldwide. Any world leader who stands with him will also be disgraced,” David Crane, a former international prosecutor, told The Associated Press.
Court President Piotr Hofmanski said in a video statement that while ICC judges have issued orders, it is up to the international community to enforce them. The court does not have its own police force to do this.
“Judges issued arrest warrants. “Execution depends on international cooperation,” he said.
The court can impose a maximum sentence of life in prison “when justified by the exceptional gravity of the crime and the individual circumstances of the convicted person,” according to the founding treaty known as the Rome Statute.
However, the chances of any Russian being tried at the ICC remain extremely slim, as Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction – a position it vehemently reaffirmed on Friday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that Russia does not recognize the ICC and considers its decisions “legally invalid.” He added that Russia considers the court’s move “outrageous and unacceptable”.
Peskov declined to comment on whether Putin would avoid traveling to countries where he could be arrested by the ICC.
Ukraine’s head of human rights, Dmytro Lubinets, said that 16,226 children were deported based on data from the country’s National Information Bureau. Ukraine managed to return 308 children.
Lvova-Belova, who was also involved in the order, reacted with sarcasm. “It’s great that the international community appreciated the work to help the children of our country, that we don’t leave them in war zones, that we take them out, create good conditions for them, that we surround them with love, caring people.”
Ukrainian officials were delighted with the move.
“The world has changed,” said presidential adviser Mihail Podoljak. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that “the wheels of justice are turning” and added that “international criminals will be held accountable for child theft and other international crimes.”
Olga Lopatkina, a Ukrainian mother who has fought for months to reclaim her adopted children who were deported to an institution run by Russian loyalists, welcomed news of the arrest warrant. “Good news!” she said in a text message to The Associated Press. “Everyone must be punished for their crimes.”
Although Ukraine is also not a member of the international court, it has granted it jurisdiction over its territory, and ICC prosecutor Karim Khan has visited it four times since the investigation opened a year ago.
Apart from Russia and Ukraine, the United States and China are not members of the 123-member global court.
The ICC said its pre-trial panel found “reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of the population and illegal transfer of the population from the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, to the detriment of Ukrainian children.”
The court’s statement said that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility” for the child abductions “because he committed the acts directly, together with others and/or through others” and for failing to “adequately carry out control over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts.”
After his last visit earlier this month, ICC prosecutor Khan said he visited a children’s home 2 kilometers (just over a mile) from the front lines in southern Ukraine.
“The drawings hung on the wall … spoke of the context of love and support that once existed,” he said in a statement. “But this home was empty, due to the alleged deportation of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation or their illegal transfer to other parts of the temporarily occupied territories.”
“As I noted to the United Nations Security Council last September, my office is investigating these alleged actions as a matter of priority. Children cannot be treated as spoils of war,” Khan said.
And while Russia dismissed the charges and court orders as null and void, others said the ICC’s action would have an important impact.
“The ICC has made Putin a wanted man and taken its first step to end the impunity that has for too long emboldened perpetrators of Russia’s war against Ukraine,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate director of international law at Human Rights Watch. “The warrants send a clear message that issuing orders to commit or tolerate serious crimes against civilians can lead to a prison cell in The Hague.”
Crane, who 20 years ago accused Liberian President Charles Taylor of crimes in Sierra Leone, said dictators and tyrants around the world “are now on notice that those who commit international crimes will be held accountable, including heads of state.”
Taylor was eventually taken into custody and put on trial in a special court in the Netherlands. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
“This is an important day for justice and the citizens of Ukraine,” Crane said in written comments to the AP.
On Thursday, a UN-backed investigation cited Russian attacks on civilians in Ukraine, including systematic torture and killing in occupied regions, among potential issues of war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity.
The extensive investigation also revealed crimes committed against Ukrainians on Russian territory, including deported Ukrainian children who were prevented from reuniting with their families, a “filtration” system aimed at singling out Ukrainians for detention, and torture and inhumane detention conditions.
But on Friday, the ICC put Putin’s face on the child abduction charges.
By MIKE CORDER and RAF CASERT, Associated Press. Casert reported from Brussels.