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US laws hamper efforts to prosecute war criminals, warns top Nazi hunter

Eli Rosenbaum tells Senate Judiciary Committee that Russian war criminals should not be able to find safe refuge in America, as many Nazi offenders did

Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy and counselor for War Crimes Accountability at the US Department of Justice, testifies about the war in Ukraine during a Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 28, 2022. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)
Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy and counselor for War Crimes Accountability at the US Department of Justice, testifies about the war in Ukraine during a Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 28, 2022. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

WASHINGTON — A legendary US Nazi hunter tapped by the Justice Department to investigate Russian war crimes in Ukraine said Wednesday that federal laws hamper efforts to bring abusers worldwide to justice.

Eli Rosenbaum, a 36-year veteran of the department, heads its new War Crimes Accountability Team, announced by Attorney General Merrick Garland during a trip to Ukraine in June.

The prosecutor, who has spent much of his career deporting Nazi war criminals, told a hearing in the US Senate the federal criminal code was not up to the task of pursuing war criminals living in the United States.

“Given the shocking crimes being perpetrated by Russia during its unprovoked war against Ukraine, this hearing could not possibly be held at a more appropriate, urgent, or, frankly, terrifying time,” Rosenbaum told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But Rosenbaum said federal law does not cover the “vast majority” of war criminals who have come to the United States — unless the victim or perpetrator are American.

He added that federal statutes don’t help American victims of torture abroad unless the torturer is an American or living in the United States.

There is also no law covering crimes against humanity often committed outside of war, such as enslavement, he said.

Rosenbaum worked on 100 cases that led to deportations of accused Nazis and other sanctions.

‘Deep frustration’

His targets included a former concentration camp guard in Tennessee, who was kicked out of the United States last year — 75 years after his crimes were committed.

Rosenbaum has also prosecuted war criminals over atrocities committed in Bosnia, Guatemala and Rwanda.

Volunteers load on a truck corpses of civilians killed in Bucha to be taken to a morgue for investigation, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 12, 2022. (/Rodrigo Abd/AP)

“Having prosecuted World War II Nazi cases for nearly four decades, I can attest to the deep frustration we experienced because statutory limitations… made it impossible to criminally prosecute any of the many Nazi criminals we found here,” he said.

“Instead, we could bring only civil actions against them. Russian and other war criminals who come here should not be able similarly to escape criminal justice or even find safe haven here.”

Rosenbaum told senators the federal departments primarily responsible for addressing war crimes — defense, homeland security, state and justice — had already agreed on “technical solutions” to close the gaps in legislation.

United Nations investigators accused Russia last week of committing war crimes on a massive scale in Ukraine, listing bombings, executions, torture and sexual violence, although they said it was too soon to prove crimes against humanity.

Speaking before the UN Human Rights Council, the head of a high-level investigative team listed numerous serious violations committed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seven months ago.

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