Pierre Zakrzewski was 55 years old. On March 14, this Franco-Irish cameraman, accustomed to the terrains of war he had covered for more than thirty years, was killed in Ukraine while accompanying a journalist from the American channel FoxNews. Two days after his death, an investigation was opened by the National Anti-Terrorist Prosecutor’s Office (Pnat). In France, it is the magistrates of the “crimes against humanity, war crimes and offences” division, attached to the Pnat, who are responsible for these cases.
How are these investigations going as the conflict continues to rage between Russia and Ukraine? What links do judges have with international judicial institutions? In an interview with 20 minutes, Aurélie Belliot, deputy prosecutor at the head of this specialized unit, discusses the specificities of these investigations and the difficulties encountered in these complex cases.
How many investigations in connection with the Ukrainian conflict have been opened by the Pnat to date?
To date, we have four preliminary investigations opened by our unit since the start of the Ukrainian conflict. The first, opened on March 16, is linked to the death of the Franco-Irish journalist, Pierre Zakrzewski. The other three investigations also concern French victims but who are not deceased. In detail, our investigations are aimed in particular at acts of “deliberate attacks on the life and physical or mental integrity of a person protected by international humanitarian law” or even “deliberate attacks against the civilian population”. More concretely, it can be a bombardment of an apartment building, for example.
Why does French justice investigate crimes committed outside its borders?
French justice is competent to prosecute perpetrators of international crimes such as war crimes, torture – within the meaning of the 1984 New York Convention – enforced disappearances, crimes against humanity or genocide. We can seize these facts in several cases: when the victim is of French nationality, when the perpetrator is French or – depending on the offenses – when a suspected perpetrator of these facts usually resides or is on our territory. The identification of French victims requires a legal response.
Since the start of the conflict, everyone has been talking about the International Criminal Court (ICC) – and rightly so because it is doing monumental and essential work – but the ICC is not intended to try all the perpetrators and accomplices of crimes international. There is a principle of complementarity with national jurisdictions. Everyone can and must play their part in the fight against impunity for international crimes. Moreover, France is not the only one to act in this way, investigations have been opened in Sweden or Germany. Finally, by ratifying the Rome Statute, France has integrated these offenses into its national law. We simply apply French law.
How are these facts brought to your attention?
We have various sources of information to obtain elements both on the facts committed on the spot and on the possibility that there are nationals involved. We have known since the beginning of the conflict that French people are on the spot, some spoke in the media. This is one of the elements that we cross-check to determine whether or not to open an investigation.
Several political leaders have, in recent weeks, used the word “genocide” to qualify certain acts committed in Ukraine as in Boutcha. Could an investigation for this type of facts be opened in your opinion?
The legal analysis is constructed throughout the procedure. We can rely on the work of the ICC and the qualifications adopted at the opening of an investigation can evolve according to the elements that are brought to us. Genocide is “the crime of crimes”. It is part of the crimes against humanity in France but its specificity is the intention to totally or partially destroy a population group.
War crimes are violations of international humanitarian law. Not every offense committed in time of war is necessarily a war crime or an offence. It must have been committed during an armed conflict, these acts must be related to this conflict and in violation of the laws of war, against property and protected persons, i.e. civilians .
How do the teams from the division work on these investigations and what difficulties, specific to the Ukrainian conflict, do they encounter?
We work on Ukrainian investigations in the same way as we work on other cases. Their common specificity is that they concern acts committed outside our borders. This distance therefore requires many actions of cooperation and mutual legal assistance. Due to the complexity of these investigations, the delays of our procedures are also longer than in ordinary law investigations. The specificity of investigations related to Ukraine is that the conflict is ongoing and unfolding before our eyes. The situation is very fluid and obliges us to follow the evolution of the conflict practically in real time. It also means increased difficulties in accessing the evidence ground.
A trip to Ukraine can only take place within the framework of a request for international criminal assistance and if the investigations can be carried out on the spot. The French gendarmes and experts recently sent to Ukraine were sent within the framework of bilateral cooperation with the local authorities but not within the framework of our investigations.
How do you work with ICC investigators and with the Ukrainian authorities?
We work in a complementary way. We can address requests for international criminal assistance to the ICC prosecutor’s office to support our own investigations and, in return, the ICC can address its requests to us. There is a whole constellation of partners and without this constant dialogue with them, we would have great difficulty in carrying out our investigations.
And we also work bilaterally with the judicial authorities of a country through requests for mutual legal assistance. These exchanges are really very important for us to collect evidence. Finally, we exchange with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which have advocacy actions but which can also represent victims of war crimes and document abuses in very detailed reports which can be, for us, a starting point. .
Are these investigations intended to be judged in France?
It is too early to tell. The opening of these four preliminary investigations remains very recent and the conflict is still ongoing. It is premature to imagine the purpose of these procedures, but nothing is excluded because the final objective is the fight against impunity.
How many cases do your teams currently manage?
There are approximately 80 ongoing investigations and nearly 75 preliminary investigations. The team in charge of these files is made up of five magistrates and three specialized assistants. On the headquarters side, four investigating judges are responsible for this litigation. In addition to these investigations, our teams will also be very mobilized in the coming months on major trials.
On May 9, the Paris Assize Court is due to try a former Rwandan prefect, Laurent Bucyibaruta, for ten weeks. He was appearing for genocide, crimes against humanity and complicity in these crimes. We are talking about massacres that have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. This is a particularly important trial for us since two magistrates and a specialized assistant from our center will be fully mobilized during this hearing. And unlike terrorist trials, the accused is tried by a popular jury. For us, holding a trial like this is the culmination of several years of investigations.