Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media's midweek podcast, I'm Brooke Gladstone. In March, the International Criminal Court took the first step toward holding Vladimir Putin accountable for some of the atrocities committed by his special operation in Ukraine.
News Clip: Well, there's an arrest warrant on his head.
News Clip: In a statement, the court held Putin directly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation and the transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.
Brooke Gladstone: It's the first warrant to be levied against Putin in the course of this invasion.
News Clip: Moscow has denied the accusations, calling the arrest warrant meaningless but the ICC president says the allegations are credible.
News Clip: The ICC is doing its part of work as a court of law. The judges issued arrest warrants. Their execution depends on international cooperation.
Brooke Gladstone: Researchers at Yale's Humanitarian Research Lab have been unearthing direct evidence of these alleged war crimes for months now in partnership with the US State Department. In February, they released a report that offered evidence of more than 40 child custody centers for Ukrainian children who have been deported to Russia. In February, Deborah Amos, a veteran Middle East correspondent, reported this story for NPR about the Russian kidnapping of Ukrainian children. Deb and I will be hosting this week's big show together, and we'll be going deep into the complexities of international justice but for now, for some essential context, courtesy of NPR, here's that piece Deb reported.
Deborah Amos: Yale's Humanitarian Research Lab is deep underground. A carpeted bunker beneath the campus library, a security measure, says Nathaniel Raymond, who heads the lab.
Nathaniel Raymond: We face complex cyber threats on a daily basis.
Deborah Amos: There's a corps of 20 researchers. They scour satellite imagery, social media posts, news reports, looking for patterns and connections that otherwise might go unnoticed. This is your workspace?
Nathaniel Raymond: Yes. Hi, everybody.
Deborah Amos: Raymond is matter of fact about the daily cyber threats from government actors, he says, who want to shut down or slow down the online research.
Nathaniel Raymond: Though we may be here at Yale, in reality, we are inside the Ukrainian cyberspace that's part of this war.
Deborah Amos: You feel that. You feel like you're on the front line.
Nathaniel Raymond: The joke amongst the team here is that we go to work in Ukraine every day from New Haven.
Deborah Amos: Their latest report documents a systematic Russian program for the reeducation and adoption of Ukrainian children, one of the most explosive issues of the war. The team says they've verified at least 6,000 Ukrainian children in Russia, but believe there are many more.
Nathaniel Raymond: The age category range from infants and toddlers to 18-year-olds.
Deborah Amos: One team member, who can't be named to keep his research secure, explains how they know.
Speaker: We have very high-resolution, commercially available satellite imagery. You can see indications of both the presence of people as well as certain types of activity. There's a very large amount of material related to the patriotic education that these kids undergo while they're in camps.
Deborah Amos: The report verified at least 43 camps where some older kids get weapons training. The youngest are adopted by Russian families. All of them get a daily dose of propaganda.
Speaker: What we are seeing is the government of Russia and Russian leaders training and indoctrinating a generation of Ukrainian children.
Deborah Amos: The Yale report is the most extensive look at the program so far, says Raymond.
Nathaniel Raymond: It shows scale. It shows chain of command. It shows logistical complexity.
Deborah Amos: He adds the research shows the program is government backed.
Nathaniel Raymond: This is not one rogue camp. This is not one rogue mayor or governor. This is a ecosystem of holding facilities for children stretching from Siberia to the Black Sea.
Deborah Amos: It's a potential war crime under international treaties to remove children during a conflict or change their nationality. Russian officials don't deny Ukrainian children are in Russia, but insist the camps are part of a humanitarian program for abandoned war-traumatized kids and have publicized the program for a Russian audience. Not a surprise, says Caitlin Howarth, the operations director at the lab.
Caitlin Howarth: I think that that is actually a really important tell about this entire story because you simply cannot move this many children through this many places without their movements being noticed.
Deborah Amos: In May last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree that made it quick and easy to adopt Ukrainian children next to impossible before the war. In addition, the government provides support for Russian families who adopt the biggest financial incentive for adopting handicapped kids. The first report on social media came just about the same time as Putin's adoption announcement, says the researcher.
Speaker: I believe the first places we saw this were on Telegram and maybe VK.
Deborah Amos: That's the Russian version of Facebook?
Speaker: Correct. It quickly became clear that there was an enormous amount of information publicly available. [foreign language]
Deborah Amos: For example, the group verified this online interview with a teenage boy from Ukraine. He says, "I was told I'd be in this camp for two weeks, but it's been two months." Russian officials insist adoption is only permitted for Ukrainian orphans, although evidence shows some of the children have parents in Ukraine. A new law in Russia makes it harder for Ukrainian parents or close relatives to get their children back. The Yale report documents just 37 Ukrainian children returned to their families out of the thousands who are still in Russia and have not returned, says Raymond.
Nathaniel Raymond: It is fundamentally the unconsented custody and control of thousands of Ukrainian children. Besides the criminal aspect, there's a grave humanitarian emergency here, which is kids separated from their parents not only against the law but against common decency.
Deborah Amos: Investigating alleged war crimes is always difficult, but these open-source investigators have developed a trove of potential evidence. The Yale lab team are all young Internet sleuths who work to verify the data they dig up. It's like a cop shop, says Raymond. A cyber cop shop.
Nathaniel Raymond: The way to think about our role in this process is like the TV show Law and Order. We or the Jerry Orbach beat cop side. Our job is to collect the evidence, what is happening on the ground that's available in digital evidence. Then how that comports or does not with the law
Deborah Amos: For the first time, war crimes investigators can collect perishable evidence while war crimes are still occurring, says Raymond. It's the future of war crimes investigations happening now. Deborah Amos, NPR News, New Haven, Connecticut.
Brooke Gladstone: Thanks for listening to the Midweek podcast. On the big show, which we'll post around dinner time on Friday, Deb will have an update on the kidnappings and an in-depth accounting of the twisted history of international justice. Check it out. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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