By Mark Trevelyan
(Reuters) -Russia’s top investigative body said on Monday it had opened a criminal case against the International Criminal Court prosecutor and judges who issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin on war crimes charges.
The move was a symbolic gesture of defiance, three days after the ICC accused Putin and his children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova of the war crime of deporting children from Ukraine to Russia.
The state Investigative Committee said there were no grounds for criminal liability on Putin’s part, and heads of state enjoyed absolute immunity under a 1973 U.N. convention.
The ICC prosecutor’s actions showed signs of being crimes under Russian law, the committee said, including knowingly accusing an innocent person of a crime.
The prosecutor and judges were also suspected of “preparing an attack on a representative of a foreign state enjoying international protection, in order to complicate international relations”.
The Kremlin has called the issuing of the warrant outrageous but legally void, as Russia is not a signatory to the treaty that created the ICC. On Monday it said the court’s move was a sign of the “clear hostility” that exists against Russia and against Putin personally.
The ICC officials targeted in the Russian investigation are prosecutor Karim Khan and judges Tomoko Akane, Rosario Salvatore Aitala and Sergio Gerardo Ugalde Godinez.
“The criminal prosecution is obviously illegal, since there are no grounds for criminal liability,” the Russian statement said.
The ICC’s move obliges the court’s 123 member states to arrest Putin and transfer him to The Hague for trial if he sets foot on their territory.
Putin is unlikely to take that risk and Russia does not extradite its citizens, but the rare move against a serving president was an important symbolic step to pin responsibility on him for the consequences of his invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine says more than 16,000 children have been illegally transferred to Russia or Russian-occupied territories since the war started nearly 13 months ago.
Russia has publicly said it has brought thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia in what it presents as a humanitarian campaign to protect orphans and abandoned children in the conflict zone.
(Reporting by Reuters; writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)