A woman holds her dog while being evacuated from her home due to Russian invasion on March 06, 2023 in Kupiansk, Ukraine.
A woman holds her dog while being evacuated from her home due to Russian invasion on March 06, 2023 in Kupiansk, Ukraine. © John Moore/Getty Images

A Victim-Centred Approach to Prosecuting Sexual Violence

Ukraine is implementing dedicated policies including safeguarding and psychological assistance.

Tuesday, 12 December, 2023

Sexual violence has been a pervasive feature of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, impacting on men and women as well as the very young and elderly people. Iryna Didenko, who heads a specialised department concerning these crimes at the Prosecutor General's Office, told IWPR’s Olga Golovina how approaches to investigating cases of conflict-related sexual violence had changed significantly to become far more victim and witness-oriented.

The specialised department was set up a year ago. What legal progress has been made over that period?

Since the beginning of the work of the department for combating crimes committed in the conditions of armed conflict, the Office of the General Prosecutor has registered 252 cases of sexual violence related to the conflict (SVRC).
The victims of this category of crimes are 157 women and 95 men, of whom 13 are minors. Forms of SVRC have been established including rape, mutilation or violence against genitals, forced exposure, threats and attempted rape and being forced to watch the sexual abuse of loved ones.

Currently, the largest number of cases of sexual violence - 77 - have been recorded in Kherson region, followed by the Kyiv, Donetsk and Kharkiv regions.

For example, on the territory of the Kherson region, prosecutors recorded war crimes committed by the Russian military, including rape, torture and gender-based violence against the mothers, wives, and sisters of the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. This in turn is potentially part of a bigger picture - other international crimes, including crimes against humanity and genocide.

Based on the facts of sexual violence discovered in the occupied territories of settlements in the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kherson, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv regions, 37 servicemen of the Russian Federation were notified of suspicions against them. Indictments against 22 people were sent to the court, while two people have been sentenced to 12 years and ten years of imprisonment.

Iryna Didenko heads a specialised department at the Prosecutor General's Office of Ukraine. © Wikimedia commons.

How have the approaches to the investigation of cases of sexual violence changed?

Approaches to investigating cases of conflict-related sexual violence have changed significantly. In particular, the Prosecutor General's Office has developed victim and witness-oriented strategic approaches for handling cases of sexual violence in armed conflict. Such approaches were included in the Prosecutor's Office development strategy for 2021-2023 dated November 25, 2022 and are used by specialised prosecutors on an ongoing basis.
On June 26, 2023, the Prosecutor General approved the strategic plan for the implementation of the powers of the prosecutor's office in the field of criminal prosecution for conflict-related sexual violence. Implementation of new approaches to protecting the interests of victims and witnesses, in particular, concerns adaptation to the personality of victims; benefits of victim safety; ensuring inclusiveness and non-discrimination; ensuring the possibility for victims to maintain control over their information and the prohibition of stigmatisation.
Currently, the mentioned approaches are used by the Prosecutor General's Office, and such work has been started in two pilot regions - Kharkiv and Kherson.

How has the work with the victims changed in terms of witness protection and the provision of legal, medical and psychological assistance?

Thanks to the coordinated cooperation of the Office of the Prosecutor General with partners, the victims are provided with medical and psychological assistance on an ongoing basis. The victims are provided with first aid, they are evacuated to shelters and safety houses, material assistance is provided. The number of victims increases with the deoccupation of new territories; as a result the need for help from public organisations, charitable foundations and other groups also increases.

The Office of the Prosecutor General has implemented permanent cooperation with stakeholders: international and domestic partners who help to obtain professional guidelines for more effective investigation of SVRC crimes, taking into account the needs of victims and witnesses. Cooperation has also been established with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in particular the Gender and Children Unit, regarding the development of specialised training for those prosecutors, investigators and psychologists who work directly with victims of SVRC and witnesses. In addition, there is constant communication with the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflicts, in cooperation with which specialised training on international standards of documentation and investigation of SVRC crimes has already been carried out.

What challenges in the work of your department remain unresolved?

Joint mobile working groups of prosecutors, investigators, international experts and psychologists systematically reveal new facts of cases of SVRC in the de-occupied territories. At the same time, the officially recorded number of cases does not reflect the scale of these crimes. Investigating crimes in the territories that are still under the control of the armed forces of the Russian Federation remains a separate challenge for the work of prosecutors and investigators.
At the same time, after the de-occupation of the territories in the east and south of the country, we are observing a systemic phenomenon — wherever the Russian military was stationed, we recorded cases of SVRC. The number of victims among male servicemen of the Armed Forces of the Armed Forces who were held captive and experienced torture, rape and genital mutilation by electric current have increased. 

It is necessary to understand the context; we are talking exclusively about the destruction of a person, about insulting this person, about trying to destroy him morally and physically. 

We are aware that the crimes were committed, if not at the behest, then with the connivance of the top management. Therefore, our key task is to collect all these crimes as a pyramid, from the perpetrators to those who organised them, to the top management. With that, we will go to the ICC.

What changes will the current criminal legislation regarding cases of sexual violence undergo?

In order to ensure the rights of victims and witnesses, drafts of amendments to the criminal procedure code of Ukraine regarding the improvement of the procedure for pre-trial investigation and trial in criminal proceedings regarding crimes related to sexual violence committed in armed conflict have been developed. There is also the law on the status of victims of sexual violence related to the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, and urgent interim reparations, the development of which was also supported by the Prosecutor General's Office.

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