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Ukraine brings first charges for deporting dozens of orphans from Kherson

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Ukrainian prosecutors on Friday charged a Russian politician and two suspected Ukrainian collaborators with war crimes over the alleged deportation of dozens of orphans from the formerly-occupied southern city of Kherson, some of them as young as one.

They are the first suspects to be charged by Ukraine, which says more than 19,000 children have been illegally transferred to Russia or Russian-held territory, officials told Reuters.

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The charges brought by Ukraine’s prosecutors follow a wider investigation carried out in cooperation with the Hague-based International Criminal Court, the chief prosecutor of which visited the Kherson Children’s Home.

On Friday, the charges were filed in Ukraine, a pre-trial stage when prosecutors determine there is sufficient evidence to suspect a person of committing a criminal offense.

The ICC, the world’s permanent war crimes tribunal, issued an arrest warrant in March against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, accusing them of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from orphanages and children’s homes in Russian-occupied Ukraine.

The Kremlin on Wednesday again dismissed allegations that Russia had violated children’s rights in Ukraine and said that, on the contrary, its armed forces were rescuing children from conflict zones.

Prosecution documents seen by Reuters allege 48 orphans were taken from the Kherson Regional Children’s Home in September and October and re-located to Moscow and Russian-occupied Crimea.

If proven, this is a violation of the laws and customs of war under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and punishable by up 12 years in prison under Ukrainian law, the document seen by Reuters said.

The current whereabouts of the orphans, ranging from one to four years old, is uncertain, prosecutors said.

“It was not a one-day event. 48 children who were in the Kherson Region Children’s Home were forcibly displaced, deported,” Yuliia Usenko, head of the department for the protection of children’s interests in Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office told Reuters. “We don’t know how these children are, in what conditions they are kept, or what their fate is.”

They may have been illegally adopted by Russian citizens, or taken to Russian institutions, she said.

The public documents redact the names of the suspects, who are believed by prosecutors to be either in occupied Crimea, or Russia. Unlike at the ICC, trials in Ukraine can be held in absentia.

The bulk of the orphans were taken on October 21, 2022 under the supervision of the lead, Russian suspect. They were loaded onto white Russian Ministry of Health vehicles and taken to Russian-occupied Crimea, the charges said.

Usenko said Friday’s move against the first three suspects was just the beginning. “We want to hold accountable all the war criminals, all the people that committed horrible international crimes against our Ukrainian children.”

Ukrainian prosecutors shared a video allegedly showing one of the suspects helping to load the children onto a bus marked with the pro-Russian symbol “Z.”

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