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U.S. Congress advances bills targeting war criminals, Russian oligarchs

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The exterior of the U.S. Capitol is seen at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2022. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

A pair of bills granting the U.S. Justice Department additional tools to go after Russian oligarchs and alleged war criminals appeared poised to become law, after a last-minute push by a bipartisan group of lawmakers this week.

One bill, which broadens the Justice Department’s jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday after winning Senate approval on Wednesday. It now heads to President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it into law.

Known as the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, the bill allows the Justice Department to bring war crimes charges against people in the United States, regardless of where the alleged crime occurred.

Current statute only allows for prosecution when an alleged war crime occurs in the United States or when the victim or offender is a U.S. national.

“I think that this is certainly a step in the right direction,” said Mykola Murskyj, director of government affairs at Razom, a pro-Ukraine advocacy group.

“We’re actually taking concrete steps to make sure that we’re using our justice system to further our values.”

Another bill, which will allow the Justice Department to transfer oligarchs’ forfeited assets in some situations to Ukraine, passed in the Senate as an amendment to Congress’ annual funding bill. Those assets will be first transferred to the State Department, which would disperse the funds as foreign aid, according to the bill’s text.

The entire funding bill – which includes $44.9 billion in additional wartime aid for Ukraine – is now headed to the House, where it is expected to be passed into law.

Both bills had been promoted heavily by Ukrainian advocacy groups. Their advance comes a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed Congress, telling the body he hoped they would continue to support Ukraine on a bipartisan basis.

It also comes a day after the Biden administration unveiled new curbs on technology exports to Russia’s Wagner military group.