ICC seeks arrest of 3 suspects linked to Russia-Georgia war

FILE - The exterior view of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, March 31, 2021. International Criminal Court judges have issued arrest warrants for three men wanted on suspicion of committing war crimes during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the court announced Thursday, June 30, 2022. The Hague-based court opened an investigation into the conflict, which killed hundreds and left thousands of civilians displaced, in 2016. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File) (Peter Dejong, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

THE HAGUE – International Criminal Court judges have issued arrest warrants for three men wanted on suspicion of committing war crimes during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the court announced Thursday.

The Hague-based court opened an investigation in 2016 into the conflict, which killed hundreds and left thousands of civilians displaced. Russia invaded Georgia after violence broke out between separatist groups and Georgian forces. In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that “grave human rights abuses” occurred on Russian-held territory.

The three wanted men — Lt.-Gen. Mikhail Mindzaev, Gamlet Guchmazov and David Sanakoev — served in the government of the Russian-backed self-declared republic of South Ossetia.

In a June 24 ruling released Thursday, a panel of judges concluded there was “reasonable grounds to believe that each of these three suspects bears responsibility for war crimes.”

Human Rights Watch welcomed the warrants.

“The 2008 conflict over South Ossetia took a terrible toll on civilians, many of whom continue to pay the price,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the rights group’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “The ICC warrants are an important step, which has been a long time coming, to hold individuals implicated in the campaign of violence that forced nearly 20,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes to account.”

Mindzaev and Guchmazov held the top positions at the Ministry of Internal Affairs of South Ossetia, while Sanakoev served as the breakaway region's presidential representative for human rights.

Mindzaev and Guchmazov face charges of unlawful confinement, torture and inhuman treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, hostage-taking, and the unlawful transfer of civilians. The alleged crimes took place Aug. 8-27, 2008, the court said.

Sanakoev's arrest warrant includes charges of hostage-taking and unlawful transfer of civilians.

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that civilians perceived to be ethnically Georgian were arrested in the South Ossetian part of Georgia, and subsequently detained, mistreated, and kept in harsh detention conditions,” the court said in a statement.

Judges estimated that about 170 people, including women and the elderly, were rounded up and confined at the detention center known as “the Isolator.”

The prisoners were later “used as a bargaining tool by Russia and the South Ossetian de facto authorities, and used for an exchange of prisoners and detainees. As a result of the exchange, the detainees were forced to leave South Ossetia,” the International Criminal Court judges said.

The ICC is a court of last resort that takes on cases when national authorities are unwilling or unable to launch prosecutions. ICC prosecutors are currently investigating alleged crimes in several countries, including in the ongoing war in Ukraine.