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Ukrainian victims of war with Russia deserve justice, Garland says

Claire Harbage/NPR
Attorney General Merrick Garland attends the United for Justice International Conference in Lviv, Ukraine on Friday.

On his way to Ukraine for an unannounced visit last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland spoke about upholding the rule of law inside the U.S. and overseas in an exclusive interview with NPR.

Garland, who traveled to Ukraine for a conference focused on justice and human rights, said he is supporting an effort to hold Russia accountable for war crimes. While in Lviv, Ukraine, he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and signed an agreement to promote information sharing about Russian atrocities that have targeted maternity hospitals, schools, and other civilian dwellings since the start of the unprovoked conflict one year ago.

"It's very important that people whose loved ones are killed or disappeared have some way of finding out what happened to them," he told NPR.

In the interview he also spoke about the special counsels investigating former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden — and about his upcoming two-year anniversary as attorney general.

Interview Highlights

On Garland's personal motivations for focusing on war crimes Russia is committing against Ukraine

With respect to my own family, my grandmother comes from a town in Belarus, not very far from Lviv, where we're going to be. She's one of five children. She and two of her siblings made it to the United States long before the Nazis invaded. Two did not. We know that they were killed in the Holocaust. My father was named for one of them. But we don't know really exactly what happened to them. It's important for families and descendants to know what happened when there's been a period of atrocities in their home country.

On the U.S.'s multipart strategy

From the rule of law side, it's very important that we do everything we can to deter this kind of aggression from ever happening again. One, we assist the Ukrainians in investigating and prosecuting the war crimes, which will, we hope, both deter others in future conflicts, but also the Russians in this particular war. And second, we prosecute sanctions if we have sanctions evaders. We impose sanctions for those who are enabling the Russian war machine to continue. And then when they break those sanctions, we grab their assets and where possible, we grab them and prosecute them so that others, particularly I'm thinking of the oligarchs here, do not continue to facilitate this war.

On declarations he, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have made regarding Russia having committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine

Many countries have provisions in their own codes against crimes against humanity. The ICC, the International Criminal Court, has a similar provision, and there is an effort now which the United States is supporting to look into the possibility of setting up a center for the investigation of war crimes, which would include the crimes against humanity and also the crime of aggression. The United States has provisions also for investigating and prosecuting war crimes. And I can tell you that we have actually identified suspects who we would have jurisdiction over for committing war crimes. I'm afraid I've disclosed as much as I'm capable of disclosing at this point. As we get further along, we may be able to talk more.

On the prospect of bringing war crimes suspects to justice

So we look both in the short term, there may be people in Ukraine or in areas that the Ukrainians liberate that the Russians have occupied. There may be people in other parts of the world that we can extradite. And the United States has a very long memory and it took a very long time for some of the Nazi war criminals to be found. But eventually they were. Both in the short term, the medium term and the long term. But one thing we want to ensure is that the United States not be a place where any war criminal can hide. And so anyone who does should know that we will get them and prosecute them in a court of law in the United States.

On Justice Department efforts to support investigations in Ukraine

As part of the War Crimes Accountability Team, we have people in Ukraine ... assisting in forensic analysis of crime scenes and training Ukrainian prosecutors and investigators in how to investigate crime scenes. We are also making use of the learning we've had in large, complex crimes in the United States to establish a very sophisticated database for keeping track of the information they learn in their war crimes investigations.

On oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, whom Garland called a "war criminal" in a recent Senate hearing

Yeah, so his principal company is called Wagner. It's a company of mercenaries, essentially, which has now expanded to prisoners taken from Russian jails and shoved into the front lines now after a Russian war in the Donbas [region] against the Ukrainians. Wagner is also active in North Africa and is causing considerable trouble there as well. And Mr. Prigozhin is an extremely bad actor. And I suppose that accounts for the way in which I spoke about him at the hearing.

On reaching the people who ordered and directed war crimes

I don't think there's any doubt that the Ukrainians are looking both at the people they have in front of them, who they are able to capture in Ukraine or in occupied areas, but are also looking very hard at developing evidence against those who are directing the war and against those who are directing the atrocities that are occurring in Ukraine. Those are not just individual one-offs. It's quite clear. I'm taking a look at what happened in Bucha, in Mariupol. These are planned killings of civilians in significant numbers that the effort to forcibly deport children, Ukrainian children from occupied areas into Russia are preplanned. And the Ukrainians and our prosecutors and the members of the JIT, the joint investigative team, that will be entering into an [agreement] with are all trying to find the people who to identify, build evidence against the people who are directing this.

On how often he meets with the special counsels investigating former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden

So there is no daily supervision by anyone in the Justice Department of the special counsels, but special counsel regulations do provide for reports from time to time. And those have taken place. But not on a daily or weekly basis. Not on a daily or weekly basis.

On the investigations potentially clashing with the political calendar and the first GOP debate scheduled for August

The investigations are under the controls of the special counsels. And even if I knew their timetables, which I don't, Justice Department policy would bar me from making any comment.

On his upcoming two-year anniversary as attorney general

Look, this is a job that enables me to pursue the rule of law, to support the incredible career lawyers and agents and staff at the Justice Department in doing their work and to ensure that they can do their work free of any kind of improper or partisan interference. It's my job to run interference for them, so that they can do their jobs in the right way, and I'm honored to be able to have had the opportunity to do that. ... No, I'm not on my way out the door.

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