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Attorney General Merrick Garland attends war crimes conference in Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Attorney General Merrick Garland has made a surprise visit to Ukraine today to attend a war crimes conference and to pledge his support.

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MERRICK GARLAND: I'm here because the battles that Ukrainians are fighting in Ukraine are not only for Ukraine. They are for all democracies and everybody who loves freedom. And we stand with you.

CHANG: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been traveling with the attorney general, and she is on the line from Ukraine now to talk about the day. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So the attorney general's presence there, I mean, it underlines the fact that he wants to show that he's standing with Ukraine in this war that Russia started. Can you talk about what Garland has been doing so far on this visit?

JOHNSON: Yeah. He met with Ukraine's president and its prosecutor general and with other foreign counterparts from Europe. Merrick Garland has signed a deal to share information with all of them about atrocities that Russia's committed in Ukraine - everything from bombing maternity hospitals and abducting Ukrainian children to targeting civilians. Here's more of what the attorney general said today.

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GARLAND: We are here today in Ukraine to speak clearly and with one voice. The perpetrators of those crimes will not get away with them.

CHANG: Wait. But, Carrie, isn't it notoriously difficult to prosecute war crimes? Like, why does Garland think this time is any different?

JOHNSON: It is really difficult. You know, today, Ukraine's prosecutor general says they've documented something like 70,000 war crimes in just one year of this conflict. But there is lots of evidence, and Ukrainian officials are doing the dangerous work of sifting through the rubble right now. They're getting help from their partners in Europe, and they've signed a new deal to share more information. Attorney General Garland says the Justice Department has already zeroed in on several suspects they believe committed war crimes in Ukraine, but he didn't say how many people or how far along those investigations might be.

CHANG: Well, how soon might we begin to see these investigations actually bear some fruit?

JOHNSON: You know, Ukraine has already prosecuted a rather low-level member of the Russian military. But any cases against people who ordered or directed this aggression, this violence against civilians, are going to take longer. The attorney general called back to history. He said 30 years ago, this Justice Department partnered with Ukraine to bring to justice some Nazis from World War II, many of them living in the U.S. And U.S. authorities ultimately were able to bring deportation proceedings against about 130 of those people. Merrick Garland has put Eli Rosenbaum, who led that effort, in charge of this war crimes team now.

CHANG: That's right. Well, I'm just curious, Carrie, as you've been accompanying Garland on various stops throughout this visit, has there been a moment so far that stayed with you?

JOHNSON: You know, one thing we heard from President Zelenskyy today - of Ukraine and the prosecutor general in Ukraine and from Merrick Garland, too, is that these victims deserve a voice, and the surviving family members need to know what happened to their loved ones. They need a sense of justice and closure. The attorney general told the story from his own family about how one of - a couple of his family members escaped before the Holocaust, but others died there. And the family still doesn't know how they died, where or when. And it really has a long-standing emotional effect on him to this day.

CHANG: That is NPR's Carrie Johnson traveling in Ukraine with Attorney General Merrick Garland. Thank you so much, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.