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Ukraine's prosecutor general is determined to hold Russia accountable for atrocities

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Another mass grave was discovered outside of Mariupol yesterday, this one just north of the city. Ukrainian officials say it's the latest example of Russia trying to hide evidence of war crimes. And Ukraine's prosecutor general is determined to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable.

Iryna Venediktova is leading Ukraine's investigations into war crimes. NPR's Franco Ordoñez recently sat down with her to discuss the cases, and he joins us now. And a warning - this story contains descriptions that may be upsetting. Hello, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello, Rob.

SCHMITZ: So what can you tell us about Venediktova?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, she's 43. She's a former member of Parliament and a former law professor. She's also the first woman to hold the job. She's been in it for two years, but the war has really totally reshaped her focus. She says she spends most of her time now in the field, working directly with her 8,000 prosecutors and meeting with victims. And now she's really attentive on trying to punish Putin and his military leaders. And she speaks about this very forcefully with this matter-of-fact tenacity of a prosecutor.

SCHMITZ: Wow, 8,000 prosecutors - that sounds pretty...

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah.

SCHMITZ: ...Impressive. How is she going about investigating these cases?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, she has opened more than 8,100 investigations into alleged war crimes and identified hundreds of suspects. She says a lot of those cases are concentrated around Kyiv and villages like Bucha that Russians abandoned after a month of occupation. But she says it's far from complete because they haven't had access to areas like Mariupol, where they've discovered mass graves holding hundreds of bodies. And she says the real number is much higher.

IRYNA VENEDIKTOVA: No one knows - doubled or in three time or in five time (ph). Nobody can say about it. It is a full-scale invasion to our country - very aggressive, very brutal.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, but she says that she and her investigators have already been taking testimonials from refugees who have escaped Mariupol. And she also cited Russian airstrikes on the maternity hospital in Mariupol and other attacks on critical infrastructure.

SCHMITZ: So it's still early in the investigation, but what kinds of things is she finding?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Rob, everyone has seen some of these horrific images, but she's poring over them, and she's looking for patterns, you know, trying to decipher what was target, what was indiscriminate. And she acknowledges they've had an impact a bit personally.

VENEDIKTOVA: I do everything as a prosecutor. And even now you see that I try to be not emotional. But from other side, of course, I am a Ukrainian citizen. I see everything every day from morning till night that my country is bloodied, actually (ph).

ORDOÑEZ: And she - you know, while sitting there, she asked her assistant to give her a picture of a teenage boy, which, again, I just want to note is graphic and upsetting. And the boy - he's on a hospital table.

VENEDIKTOVA: Natashka (ph), please show Rostlav. The picture was Rostlav, this boy. You just - now you just imagine what I see here. This is chest of the boy and the piece of projectile inside this boy, this chest.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, Rob, you can see a greenish-gold shell lodged inside his chest. You know, that boy's name was Rostlav. He was just 14. You know, Venediktova asked me - she said, how was she supposed to feel after seeing something like this? You know, was she supposed to forgive? And she said, just, no.

SCHMITZ: That is an awful image. And as awful as it is, still, these kinds of cases have historically been very hard to win, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, building a case that goes all the way to the top to hold Putin and other top leaders accountable will be tough. As one of her advisers told me, modern leaders just do not write down orders to kill and rape innocent people.

SCHMITZ: Right.

ORDOÑEZ: But it doesn't mean that they're not responsible. Now, that adviser told me it's still very worthwhile just to document these crimes for history even if Putin isn't actually locked up. But Venediktova, she said that's not enough, and she said that she won't quit until Putin and his military leaders are convicted.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Rob. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.