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Eli Rosenbaum on how prosecuting war crimes in Ukraine compares to hunting Nazis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Eli Rosenbaum is best known for leading the Justice Department unit that tracked down Nazis in hiding long after World War II. Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland tapped Rosenbaum to lead a team investigating more recent atrocities - war crimes in Ukraine.

ELI ROSENBAUM: There are surprising and distressing overlaps between World War II Nazi crimes and what's happening now.

SHAPIRO: When I spoke to Rosenbaum today, he told me about a man named Borys Romanchenko who, until recently, was living in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

ROSENBAUM: He was a prisoner of the Nazis during World War II, was held at four different Nazi concentration camps. Miraculously, Mr. Romanchenko survived the torments of his Nazi captivity, and he returned home to Kharkiv. During the war, Russians and Ukrainians fought together and died together. In Mr. Romanchenko's case, his survival fortunately occurred, at least until this past March, when a Russian missile struck his apartment building in Kharkiv, and he was killed at the age of 96.

SHAPIRO: The law only allows Rosenbaum's team to investigate the relatively few cases of war crimes involving U.S. nationals in Ukraine. But he told me his team will be sharing information with war crimes investigators from dozens of other countries.

ROSENBAUM: These are challenging investigations, but we are used to challenging investigations and prosecutions. What we probably won't have very much of is the kind of evidence that we had in the Nazi cases, which was primarily captured Nazi documents, mostly because not much is reduced to paper writing anymore. On the other hand, there are electronic communications, and the various governments have advanced capabilities to intercept and analyze such communications. So we will have good cases. I'm convinced about it.

SHAPIRO: Just to give us a specific idea of how this works, you take a place like Bucha, where Ukrainians returned after the Russian retreat to find what appeared to be horrific crimes committed against civilians. What would your team do in that context to try to gather evidence for a war crimes prosecution?

ROSENBAUM: Well, if we were investigating that scenario, of course, you'd want to speak with witnesses. You'd want to see what communications might have been intercepted. You would want to establish the order of battle for that time and place - what units on the Russian side were present, whom they reported to. And of course, there would be forensic analysis of the remains and crime scene reconstruction, potentially.

SHAPIRO: When you were gathering evidence to prosecute Nazis, you were looking at crimes that had been committed decades ago. These are crimes that have been committed in a place that is still an active war zone. How much more difficult is it to gather evidence and prosecute these cases while the war is still being fought?

ROSENBAUM: The fact that the war is still underway obviously brings new challenges to the work, but it doesn't prevent us from doing capable investigations. So unlike the cases that I've worked on in the past, the offenses are ongoing, and the crime scenes, in some instances, are going to be difficult to reach or even, for some time, impossible. Also in the World War II cases, the Nazi government of Germany was succeeded by a responsible German government that acknowledged Germany's responsibility for wartime crimes, including the genocide of European Jews. That postwar government provided our agency with invaluable investigative assistance. Will the Russian government provide assistance to investigations anytime soon? The question virtually answers itself.

SHAPIRO: If the perpetrators in these cases are often Russian troops who have returned to Russia, what is the chance of anyone actually being held accountable, of victims getting any real justice?

ROSENBAUM: I'm optimistic that justice will be obtained. It doesn't always happen right away. There are many, many instances of perpetrators of atrocity crimes, even the leading figures in a government, like Milosevic, being brought to the bar of justice. It takes time - same with Charles Taylor and others. But I am optimistic that what Attorney General Garland said when we were together with DOJ colleagues and State Department colleagues in Ukraine last month is to be reality in these cases. And he said, quote, "there is no hiding place for war criminals."

SHAPIRO: What are the special challenges to prosecuting war crimes as opposed to a typical criminal trial?

ROSENBAUM: Well, commonly, the war crimes are committed in a manner intended to physically eliminate those people who, had they survived, would normally have been inclined to cooperate with a government investigation. Witnesses on the victim's side are hard to find. Some people simply cannot bear to reopen those psychological wounds. We've had that experience in the World War II cases. Not every Holocaust survivor is prepared to talk about their victimization publicly. That leaves you sometimes with cohort witnesses, comrades, so to speak, of the perpetrators as your best witnesses. And they, of course, are reluctant in the extreme to testify, lest they incriminate themselves.

SHAPIRO: As somebody who spent much of your career prosecuting Nazi war crimes, what is your reaction when you hear Vladimir Putin say this invasion of Ukraine is an effort to de-Nazify that country?

ROSENBAUM: When I hear that, for me, it's like fingernails on a chalkboard times a thousand. It's cruel. It's false. This is not a Nazi government by any stretch of the imagination. I think after almost 40 years of investigating and prosecuting Nazi perpetrators, I know a Nazi when I see one. This is yet another outrage from the Kremlin.

SHAPIRO: Eli Rosenbaum is the counselor for War Crimes Accountability at the U.S. Department of Justice. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROSENBAUM: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.