A woman cries while being evacuated from her home on March 06, 2023 in Kupiansk, Ukraine. Volunteers from the European Traditions of Charity (ETOC) have been evacuating vulnerable civilians from Kupiansk due to Russian shelling of the town to the relatively safer regional capital of Kharkiv.
A woman cries while being evacuated from her home on March 06, 2023 in Kupiansk, Ukraine. Volunteers from the European Traditions of Charity (ETOC) have been evacuating vulnerable civilians from Kupiansk due to Russian shelling of the town to the relatively safer regional capital of Kharkiv. © John Moore/Getty Images

Prosecuting Sexual Violence in Ukraine

“Every mistake can be fatal for the human psyche.”

Tuesday, 14 March, 2023

Ukrainian investigators have recorded widespread sexual abuses committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, with the age of victims ranging from four to 82-years-old.

Iryna Didenko, the prosecutor in charge of sexual violence cases at the office of the prosecutor general of Ukraine, explained to IWPR’s Olga Golovina how approaches to working with victims of such crimes have changed, and discussed the challenge of investigating the expected huge influx of proceedings. 

Ukrainian investigators have documented crimes of a sexual nature in all regions where Russian troops have been, including rape, forced nudity and torture. How do mobile investigative teams work and what challenges do they have to overcome?

Iryna Didenko: It was important for us to work according to [high] standards. Let's be honest, we have just started to introduce such standards and not all of our employees are trained in how to work with this category of citizens. It is important not to make a mistake, because every mistake can be fatal for the human psyche. We involve psychologists, doctors, police officers and prosecutors who we have screened to the mobile groups.

We currently have two pilot projects in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. Prosecutors are trained in how to out together investigation plans and how to communicate. The office of the prosecutor general provides ongoing advisory support to the regional groups. It is important that they start investigating criminal proceedings themselves; we are physically unable to cope [with the volume of crimes] at the central level.

Investigators have already opened 156 cases of sexual violence, but the real number must be much higher. How many official suspicions have been raised, and why are so few cases brought to court?

There have been many sentences and we are not slow to investigate cases. We work according to international protocol standards, unlike the Russian Federation. Everything is transparent and democratic with us, just as it works in The Hague.

To date, we have six reports of suspicion, three indictments in court and one sentence in absentia of 12 years of imprisonment. There is a lot of practical work.

But in order to correctly compile the text of the suspicion itself, according to international standards, this takes two weeks. In addition, we must ensure the rights of suspects. Therefore, the suspicion must be published on the website of the prosecutor general in two languages - Ukrainian and Russian.

Also, to identify the perpetrator, the victim was earlier given a choice of four photos and the images did not contain similar people. We have a different approach - now there are 12 photos, all of them similar to each other. This is a serious procedure.

Investigators and prosecutors can now hide names and other personal information in the announced suspicions in order to make it impossible to identify the victim. How else has the approach of law enforcement agencies to the investigation of sexual crimes changed?

We apply the law on the protection of victims and witnesses – changing profile data, changing place of residence. In this way, we ensure their privacy. An interesting fact is that victims very often choose their own names. It is like an element of psychological support and help - the person themself invents a name and then associates with it.

Our new approach to prosecuting criminal cases is that we ask the injured person if they want to prosecute the person who committed the crime, because all court decisions in most cases can be made in absentia. Accordingly, the rule of informed consent applies. We explain that a person is in for a traumatic experience of giving detailed testimony both during the investigation itself and in court. And we ask - are you ready for this?

That is why there are so few criminal proceedings. Not everyone agrees. But those witnesses or victims who agree are priceless. They are more interested in the decisions of international courts than national ones.

What difficulties do victims of sexual violence face when reporting crimes?

When we come to the de-occupied territories and talk to people, we see that their first need is to survive. They have nothing to eat, they have been robbed, there is no communication.

Accordingly, we are not immediately talking about any violence. The first thing we ask is about your needs - how can we help you.

When we see that sexual violence has taken place, the first thing we suggest is to leave, because people in the frontline regions are afraid that the Russians will return. We offer relocation to shelters in western Ukraine. There are public organisations that help with departure. Addresses of shelters are not made public.

Victims have the right to six months of free accommodation. Slowly, they try to socialise and rebuild their lives.

After the victims are already safe, they receive a course of psychological assistance. Psychologists and psychiatrists from the public sector say that, according to their practice, a person is not yet ready to talk about what happened to them even at the sixth or seventh  session. Therefore, therapy is long.

It is important that not only the affected person undergoes therapy, but also the whole family, if they know. Because there are cases when the family does not know.

The biggest problem experienced by the victims, apart from the fear that [their abuser] will return, is the fear of stigmatisation. We need to work at the level of rural communities, local self-government. There are cases when the neighbours found out what happened to the victim and a terrible hatred begins. One woman even left the country because she couldn't take it anymore.

Unfortunately, there is still no comprehensive, state support for victims and witnesses at the legislative level in Ukraine. At the moment, we are working on changes in the legislation. NGOs help us a lot.

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