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‘Righteous fury’: A Maggie Valley man is on a quest to hold Putin accountable, and it’s not his first rodeo

David Crane holds up a copy of his book, ‘Every Living Thing: Facing Down Terrorists, Warlords, and Thugs in West Africa—A Story of Justice.’ Kyle Perrotti photo David Crane holds up a copy of his book, ‘Every Living Thing: Facing Down Terrorists, Warlords, and Thugs in West Africa—A Story of Justice.’ Kyle Perrotti photo

At the end of every dictator’s reign, every time a warlord has been held to account, its due to the work of people who seek justice without pause or fatigue.

In the quest to try Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, one of those people is David Crane. Crane, 72, spoke at a Haywood County Democratic Party event last week about his own unique history with international law, including his effort to convict Charles Taylor, the Liberian man who committed war crimes in Sierra Leone from the late 1990s to early 2000s. 

Crane explained his background in Sierra Leone to lend authority to the case he laid out before the audience to indict Putin on war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24. 

Such a large crowd gathered to see Crane that extra chairs were needed. And he didn’t disappoint. He was able to convey things in a way that elicited gasps and laughs from the audience with each high note. 

In an interview with The Smoky Mountain News the day after the event, Crane reiterated his passion for justice by describing disdain for bullies, whether on the schoolyard or at the head of a national government, including Charles Taylor, who thanks to Crane’s work currently languishes in a North England prison. 

“I was the first American since Justice Robert Jackson (at Nuremberg, 1945-46) to be at the head of a war crimes tribunal,” he said. 

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“We held Charles Taylor accountable, and that’s what’ll happen to Putin,” he added. 

Overwhelming evidence 

Just prior to Crane’s discussion, details emerged regarding the horrifying discovery of murdered civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha who’d been summarily executed.  

While Russia has denied the atrocities and claimed videos and other evidence have been fabricated, an April 4 New York Times story  discussed how that paper verified videos and satellite images that conveyed the aftermath of the Bucha massacre. 

“To confirm when the bodies appeared, and when the civilians were likely killed, the Visual Investigations team at The Times conducted a before-and-after analysis of satellite imagery,” the article notes. “The images show dark objects of similar size to a human body appearing on Yablonska Street between March 9 and March 11. The objects appear in the precise positions in which the bodies were found after Ukrainian forces reclaimed Bucha, as the footage from April 1 shows. Further analysis shows that the objects remained in those position for over three weeks.”

Just a day after Crane spoke, Russia hit a train station  in eastern Ukraine with rockets, killing dozens of civilians seeking to leave the country in the face of imminent violence. 

In the wake of widespread death and destruction, there have been calls from leaders across the globe to prosecute those war crimes. In an interview with 60 Minutes , Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made his case, noting that Ukrainian security services intercepted communications discussing the murder of civilians, claims Zelensky said were backed up by information obtained during interviews with Russian prisoners of war. 

“I think everyone who made a decision, who issued an order, who fulfilled an order, everyone who is relevant to this I believe they are all guilty,” Zelensky said. 

Although United States President Joe Biden has stopped short of calling the war crimes a genocide, he made similar statements, even calling Putin a “war criminal.”

An AP report  quoted Biden as saying, “This guy is brutal, and what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous and everyone’s seen it.”

“We do not believe that this is just a random accident, or the rogue act of a particular individual,” Biden national security advisor Jake Sullivan said in the same report. “We believe that this was part of the plan.”

Adding to the global call for the prosecution of war crimes, The New York Times Editorial Board  advocated for the collection of evidence against Russia and Putin in hopes that the United Nations Security Council could initiate prosecution, despite how unlikely that may be for a number of reasons, including Russia’s ability to veto such action. 

“Even if the process is difficult and stretches into months and years, it is important that history be left a forensic, credible, verified and judicially processed record of the specific crimes in Ukraine,” the editorial reads. “Those responsible should be named, their actions specified, and if at all possible, the guilty should be locked away.”

Making the case 

Like a prosecutor delivering closing arguments, Crane laid out the facts against Russia to the crowd, ultimately offering his opinion that Putin and dozens of others in his regime are guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression, all terms he defined and provided examples of along the way. The purpose of Crane’s speech last week was to inform residents, but it also seemed like he was honing his ability to make his case on a larger stage. 

To frame his argument, Crane discussed his time in Sierra Leone prosecuting Taylor, whose government ultimately killed 1.2 million people. 

“It’s about the victims,” Crane said. 

Crane had plenty of occasions to speak to citizens in that country, people hurt by the nation’s violent past who nonetheless remained hopeful about its future. Crane said they fervently sought justice. During one meeting, a young man in shabby attire stood up and confessed he’d been a child solider, one of 33,000 under Taylor, and that he committed heinous acts. 

“He looked at me and says, ‘I killed people; I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it,’” Crane said. “He fell into my arms weeping.”

Crane laid the groundwork for his accusations against Putin by first discussing international law, referencing the Geneva Conventions , International Declaration of Human Rights , Rome Statute  and the last century’s worth of tribunals. 

“The fundamental principle is every human being on the earth has a legal right to exist,” he said. 

Crane theorized that after the genocides of 1990s in the likes of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the world was eager to hold those leaders accountable. 

But things changed. 

Crane said that in 2015, a global paradigm shift toward populism and nationalism led to the rise of numerous authoritarian regimes, including Putin’s. Although Putin had been in power on and off since 2000, he became emboldened in the last decade, notoriously capturing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 with little serious resistance from the international community. 

Crane cited other examples of war crimes he intends to prosecute, including the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs — a Muslim minority in China — by that country’s president, Xi Jinping. He noted that holding Putin accountable is crucial, as it will send a message to other opportunistic leaders that they won’t get away with war crimes or crimes against humanity. 

“The rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun,” he said. That was a phrase he’d repeat several times that evening. 

Crane discussed Russian attacks against Ukrainian civilians, including the bombing of 300 hospitals, and how they’re in violation of international humanitarian law, ultimately wrapping up his discussion by outlining how those attacks meet the statutory requirements to prosecute. 

Following Crane’s 40-minute speech, people had a chance to write questions on note cards, questions that varied greatly but showed how seriously they’d been thinking about the issue. 

While some questions dealt with semantics, jurisdictions and even the threat of nuclear war, another elicited a strong audience reaction by asking whether President George W. Bush committed a war crime when the United States invaded Iraq in 2004. To the surprise of some, Crane was frank when admitting that Bush did commit a crime of aggression. 

“Technically speaking, he could be arrested,” Crane said, adding that the war in Afghanistan was difference since it was a legitimate NATO operation. 

One question addressed the shooting of Russian prisoners of war by Ukrainian soldiers  — a claim that’s been verified by numerous media outlets. 

“If they find that did happen, those soldiers will be prosecuted for murder, and they should … no one is above the law,” he said. 

After more discussion, Crane delivered his final address for the audience, promising that there is an international will — and perhaps more importantly, a means — to prosecute Russian officials for their heinous acts and orders. 

“We will see in the next year Vladimir Putin indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression,” he said. 


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David Crane offers opening statements during the prosecution of warlord Charles Taylor. Donated photo


The ‘white paper’

During last week’s event, Crane referenced a “white paper” — a term referring to a government report on a specific subject meant to argue for a specific policy — that his group, The Global Accountability Network, published. The 276-page report featured numerous footnotes, graphics and appendices. 

“We just started cranking out and doing our business,” Crane told SMN, adding that the process was “intensified” to be as expeditious as possible. 

However, Crane was also quick to point out that all claims were “double and triple verified” to ensure accuracy. 

“We didn’t just throw something in because we thought it happened,” he said. 

One appendix contains a draft indictment against Putin, while another has biographies, pictures and specific allegations against Putin and his top brass. Another appendix includes a “crime narrative” that lists specific incidents and how they are violations of international law. The perpetrator listed for each incident is Russia, except for some marked “unknown” and one that blames Belarus, Russia’s ally that shares its southern border with Ukraine. 

Crane wrote the white paper’s opening statement. 

“Since the first day of invasion, Russia has continued its attacks on not just Ukrainian military, but its civilian population as well, forcing approximately 3.5 million Ukrainians to leave Kyiv. Furthermore, there have been reports of war crimes by Russian government through its acts of shelling an orphanage, maternity hospital, children’s hospital,” it reads. 

Crane also uses the opening statement as a rallying cry. 

“The people of Ukraine are not in this fight alone, and the international system of justice must step up and fulfill its role as a mechanism of accountability,” it reads. “Without it, the painful and brutal history of Ukrainian occupation will continue unabated, leaving democracy and justice around the world in peril.”

The paper establishes the historical context surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, from the 1930s up to the more recent aggression in Crimea and the Donbas region. Like Crane’s speech, the white paper cites international law to make its case. To prosecute, three elements must be proven: the perpetrator — Putin in this case — is either a political or military leader; that leader was involved in planning, preparation or execution of the state’s act of aggression; and, the crime of aggression must be in violation of the UN Charter. 

Next, it draws on specific incidents that violate those laws, including the murder of civilians and journalists, attacking humanitarian routes, the use of cluster munitions and the bombing of hospitals and other protected facilities. 

“In Mariupol, on March 16, 2022, the Russian military bombed a theatre being used to shelter civilians, unlawfully killing at least 300 civilians and injuring an unknown number of civilians,” it reads. 

The white paper discussed a few avenues by which Putin’s crimes may be prosecuted. Many were tenuous, but it did specifically lay out the most likely path through the United Nations General Assembly. 

“The General Assembly members need to meet the required two-thirds majority vote in order to pass resolutions or answers to ‘important questions’ regarding international peace and security,” it reads. 

Driven to harm’s way 

During his interview with SMN, Crane, who was also a Syracuse law professor until 2018, went deeper into his background while also discussing in more detail his quest to bring Putin to justice. Crane’s academic demeanor belies the fact that he spent 25 years in the Army. His time as an officer included a stint as a platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam era. 

Crane continued to serve in the Army in the legal field, eventually transitioning into the civilian world, where he was initially general counsel of the Defense Intelligence Agency. In 2002, he retired but was appointed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to act as founding chief prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal in West Africa, which led him to spend years in Sierra Leone. 

Ultimately, Crane said his time abroad has brought him to “cheat death almost too many times,” but noted that it’s been an honor to serve the United States as so many others had before him, regardless of violence encountered and bouts with malaria, yellow fever and parasites. 

Even though he’s been called “Professor Crane” for quite some time now, he also said he’s been in harm’s way for the better part of four decades. Crane’s exciting history may make him appear to some like the Indiana Jones of foreign affairs, but he sees himself more as another popular character. 

“I’m kind of like Forrest Gump,” he said. “I’ve been around the world and involved in key things, whether in the background or up front.”

When asked whether the intellectual pursuit of holding dictators accountable is part of the joy he derives from the job, he said yes. 

“But there’s nothing wrong with getting the adrenaline going either,” he said, adding that he feels fueled by a sort of “righteous fury.”

Considering Crane is 72, it would be understandable if he wanted to spend his days playing golf and relaxing at his Maggie Valley home. But that’s not for him, and it may never be. 

“I’m still working on compiling dossiers on several dictators,” he said. 

While Crane is well-versed in the language of international justice, there’s also a performative aspect to his work. When he addresses a crowd, although his presentation is polished and convicted, there seems to be a need to persuade anyone who’ll listen. 

“To be at the level that I am, you have to be as much of a diplomat and politician,” he said. “These political considerations are important. 

Next steps 

Like the New York Times editorial, the white paper notes that it will be tough to hold Putin and other Russian Oligarchs accountable, but it doesn’t shy away from conveying the necessity of following through. 

“We have done this once before and we can do it again with the International Criminal Court prosecuting the alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity and a United Nations backed Special Court for Ukraine, the world’s second hybrid international war crimes tribunal,” it reads. “Its mandate to prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility for the aggression against Ukraine must include President Vladimir Putin.”

But even during his Waynesville event, someone posed the obvious question: If Putin is indicted, can he even be arrested? 

“Once we indict him, he can’t travel out of Russia,” Crane said while admitting that it’d be all but impossible to apprehend him in his own country. 

Crane told SMN the possibility that Putin may still be able to travel to some countries that would be unlikely to arrest him or report his presence, such as Belarus and China but added that his options would still be limited. 

A crucial element of securing the indictment is continuously stoking the political will of elected leaders, something Crane pursued last month when testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the Capitol. He said he was well received, especially considering many of the people he spoke in front of were familiar faces going all the way back to his time prosecuting Taylor. 

“You could say we’ve been through the fire together,” he said. 

“In the House and Senate, a lot of this stuff is largely bipartisan,” he added while also condemning the existence of a small “pro-Putin” caucus. 

In the meantime, while Crane marveled at how poorly the Russian offensive has gone, he also noted that international sanctions have helped hobble that country’s economy. He said he believes President Joe Biden has done a good job of “slowly ratcheting up” pressure, and that’s in addition to weapons the United States previously provided, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, which are easy to use but can stall a whole column of enemy tanks. 

“Can we do anything about them? Hell yes,” Crane said. “We are, and we started the day the invasion took place.”

However, Crane lamented the fact that the public can be fickle and frivolous when it comes to international affairs, even something as stark as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although he said modern digital technology has proven a handy tool in maintaining people’s attention. 

“The public is very feckless on these things … but social media has helped brining pressure on international politicians,” he said. 

Crane said that in international matters, unlike state or federal court, the chief prosecutor has more discretion on who, how and when they indict. The prosecutor will present the indictment to a review judge. If the judge agrees there’s probable cause, that’s all that’s needed — no grand jury like in a United States court. 

If Putin were indicted, an international criminal court would have jurisdiction over the war crimes and crimes against humanity, while the UN would need to create a special court for the crime of aggression. 

If Putin is somehow eventually brought to the Hague for a trial, despite a ton of security, it would be open to the public, meaning the whole world would get to see and hear the evidence against him. Whether that happens may be uncertain, but Crane wanted to assure folks of one fact: things are getting tougher for Putin, and no matter what, the end result of his increased aggression won’t be pretty. 

“Vladimir Putin is done for politically, militarily and legally,” Crane said. “I know of no dictator or tyrant who has retired peacefully.” 

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