Ukraine app captures thousands of videos that could help prosecute Putin

A war crimes prosecutor near buildings destroyed by Russian shelling in Borodyanka, Kyiv region. The app could provide crucial evidence to investigators. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

War crimes

Mon 25 Jul 2022 12.44 BST

More than 13,000 pieces of footage from the Ukraine conflict have been captured by an app, which could help to prosecute Vladimir Putin and other Russian political or military leaders at the international criminal court.

The eyeWitness to Atrocities app enables people to take pictures or video with the time, date and location recorded to prove their authenticity. They are then stored encrypted so they cannot be edited, enhancing their evidential value.

The amount of content submitted to the app, which launched in 2015, has risen exponentially this year.

Wendy Betts, the director of the UK-based charity eyeWitness, said the footage from Ukraine was equivalent to about three years’ worth of content globally that they have seen in the past.

With the international criminal court (ICC) investigating possible war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine, the evidence could prove crucial.

“That’s certainly the hope,” said Betts. “Of the 13,000 pieces that we have, the indicia of them is that they’re prime facie potentially criminal conduct. There are civilian objects and things that have had been destroyed and other types of potential war crimes. And so the job now is to marry that up with the lines of inquiry that each of these investigative mechanisms are going to take and combine it with what other evidence that they have and then hope that that will corroborate and help strengthen those cases.”

Betts said eyeWitness has had contact with ICC investigators for years and this was continuing regarding the conflict in Ukraine.

The app was developed by the International Bar Association and the legal data firm LexisNexis in response to the proliferation of citizen journalists and footage recorded on smartphones and the challenge of verification.

It increases the likelihood of footage being admissible as evidence by ensuring it cannot be altered from the point it is taken – no uploads to the app are permitted – until it is used.

A roster of 40 lawyers from big London law firms working pro bono write a description of the footage to make it word-searchable.

Evidence gathered using eyeWitness was used for the first time to secure convictions at a military tribunal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018, relating to a 2012 massacre.

Photos of the aftermath captured at the time were difficult to verify and so their evidential weight was limited, but five years later eyeWitness technology captured verifiable photos and videos, including of mass graves and injuries of surviving victims, that helped corroborate the historical photos and witness testimony.

To date, eyeWitness has submitted 28 dossiers to investigative bodies around the world, including material relating to Ukraine, Palestine and Nigeria. International investigations can progress slowly but Betts hopes the app can help change that.

“One of the ideas behind this was always can we help accelerate the time to investigation and trial because you have a more immediately available body of evidence,” she said. “I do think that these technological advances that are being brought to bear in Ukraine really are helping that process.”

While historically eyeWitness has tended to work with civil society groups – as in Ukraine where it has been working with organisations in the Donbas since 2017 – when the conflict began it pushed out the app to the general public, which has helped boost submissions.

“I think what we’re seeing in Ukraine is the original ideas behind eyeWitness kind of coming to fruition,” said Betts.

Read More

Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent