Ivan VYHIVSKYI: CRSV Crimes Clearly Qualify as War Crimes

The National Police of Ukraine is instrumental in uncovering and documenting instances of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and offering support to survivors of CRSV. Why are mainly female police officers deployed in the mobile units established for this task? What legal accountability does Ukrainian legislation impose for CRSV crimes? How is the evidence collected and secured to ensure these cases are thoroughly reviewed by court? Today, we are joined by Ivan VYHIVSKYI, Head of the National Police of Ukraine, Police General of 3rd Rank to shed light on these questions and more.

What was your initial response upon hearing about the widespread sexual violence in Bucha and other liberated settlements of Kyiv region? What did you feel, and what were your initial thoughts and assessments?

– My initial response, likely shared by many, was anger. It was evident from the start that the reported incidents were not just about violating sexual integrity; they were some of the most atrocious crimes perpetrated by Russian combatants to instill fear and suppress civilians. Their cruelty knows no limits, and these actions are intended to destroy the Ukrainian nation.

Our primary goal was to ensure accountability and justice.

Based on past experiences, we knew that Bucha, Irpin, and Makariv were likely just the tip of the iceberg.

What initial actions did you take regarding CRSV cases, and who did you agree them with?

– Shortly after the liberation of the Kyiv region, there was a significant increase in reports of CRSV, marked by its extreme brutality and heartlessness. I believe the global community was shocked by the scale and severity of the atrocities committed by Russian combatants during their brief occupation. At that time, I held the position of Chief of the Kyiv City Main Department of the National Police, not yet assumed the role of Head of the National Police, and these horrific incidents took place in the Kyiv region. However, I know that the government promptly responded, tasking us with comprehensively investigating and documenting these crimes while providing assistance to the survivors of CRSV.

Recognizing the unique nature of addressing such crimes, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Police launched a specialized mobile police unit dedicated to uncovering violations of sexual freedom and integrity perpetrated by Russian Federation military personnel. Notably, my assistant, Olha YUSKEVYCH, led the first team, initiating operations in the newly liberated Kyiv region.

The primary objective of the unit was to determine the full scope of the situation. This involved locating victims, witnesses, and bystanders, recognizing that some may have relocated, while others might have been killed or been forcibly taken out of the country.

The police have been heavily present in the liberated areas since the start of de-occupation, focusing on promptly and effectively documenting war crimes. This effort involved deploying officers from different regions as part of unified units. However, most reports received by the police primarily concerned casualties, torture incidents, shelling, and property damage, with limited information about CRSV. Many people were reluctant to discuss this sensitive issue, choosing to avoid it altogether. The silence surrounding these incidents largely stems from the severe psychological trauma experienced by the survivors, coupled with the fear of social judgment. In such instances, establishing psychological trust between the police officer and the survivors is crucial.

Was the central government of Ukraine successful in coordinated efforts among state agencies to identify, investigate, and address CRSV crimes during the initial phase of Russia’s full-scale war?

 – Certainly, it was. This was made possible by establishing an effective mechanism early on in collaboration with prosecutors from the Prosecutor General’s Office, representatives of social services, healthcare institutions, and local authorities. This mechanism facilitated the identification and documentation of numerous cases of CRSV crimesensuring that survivors received professional psychological support and legal aid at no cost.

How did civil society and international organisations assist the National Police in addressing cases of CRSV?

– The National Police immediately teamed up with various civil society organisations like the Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association “JurFem”, the ZMINA Human Rights Center, the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group, La Strada-Ukraine, etc to clarify the mission of the mobile unit and streamline the exchange of information regarding identified cases of sexual violence. This partnership proved very successful, as some survivors chose to seek support from NGOs rather than law enforcement agencies. Nonetheless, we knew that our partners would encourage survivors to report crimes and cooperate with law enforcement.

Was the National Police prepared to address cases of CRSV perpetrated by Russian aggressors? How does sexual violence in peacetime differ from CRSV?

– No one was prepared for such horrific acts, but we swiftly adjusted to this new, grim reality. There was no time for reflection; urgent action was required.

Identifying cases of sexual violence perpetrated by Russian combatants against Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war entails registering the criminal offense in the Unified Register of Pre-trial Investigations, classifying it under Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (Violation of the laws and customs of war). Under criminal law, such offences carry penalties ranging from 8 to 15 years imprisonment or life imprisonment.

Regardless of the victim’s gender, sexual violence covered by Article 438 may include rape, forced sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, and other forms of sexual violence that outrage upon personal dignity, including cruel and degrading treatment, as well as torture involving genital mutilation. The number of violent acts committed does not affect the classification under this article.

An essential aspect of this crime is its connection to armed conflict, even extending to situations after the conflict, such as the treatment of prisoners of war. In international armed conflict, the presence of the aggressor country’s military on temporarily occupied territory removes the possibility for individuals to give true consent to engage in sexual activities with them.

It is important to note that war crimes are not subject to any statute of limitation, enabling survivors of CRSV to report the crime to authorities at any point, regardless of when it occurred.

What does the work of the National Police mobile units involve in the liberated areas? How is the selection process for personnel carried out?

– The mobile units include representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, prevention police officers (specializing in domestic violence prevention and response), juvenile police officers, investigators, and psychologists.

Each member of the mobile unit has relevant experience in supporting victims of violence and children. During their operations, police officers and psychologists engage with local residents, identifying cases of sexual crimes and providing guidance on where to seek assistance.

To support this effort, law enforcement has created an information guide containing up-to-date support resources, which we distributed to local authorities, police, schools, shops, and directly handed to local residents during interactions.

Police officers and psychologists within the unit not only document crimes but also assist survivors in accessing comprehensive support, including psychological, medical, rehabilitative, social, and legal aid.

Two-thirds of the unit consists of female police officers to facilitate effective communication with survivors, primarily women and children, who may feel more comfortable speaking with female officers.

What are the unique aspects of documenting CRSV crimes?

– During investigative and procedural actions, including engagements with victims and witnesses, it is essential to follow the Murad Code, a global code of conduct for those collecting information about systematic and conflict-related sexual violence.

Key steps involved in collecting and verifying information include:

  • Obtaining information from local authorities, community groups, communal (healthcare facilities, district committees, homeowners’ associations) and social services about any known cases of conflict-related sexual violence and the survivors;
  • Establishing communication with community representatives to obtain specific details about cases of wartime sexual violence against civilians, including approximate timing, survivor profiles, );
  • Conducting inspections of flats, houses, or residences to collect information about known cases of conflict-related sexual violence and build trust and rapport between the community and law enforcement;
  • Circulating informational leaflets among local authorities, community groups, communal and social services, and the public to inform survivors by wartime sexual violence about their rights and available assistance;
  • Collaborating with volunteer and grassroots organisations to report known cases of conflict-related sexual violence and individuals in need of assistance to the mobile unit.

Upon reviewing the operations of the mobile units, we noticed a significant trend of CRSV crimes perpetrated by Russian Federation servicemen being vastly underreported. Victims often avoid seeking help from law enforcement due to limited awareness of their rights and available support services. Therefore, it is important to approach each survivor on an individual basis, providing psychological support and assistance.

Once cases of CRSV are uncovered, registered and documented, what steps follow thereafter? What are the potential avenues for holding the perpetrators accountable?

– Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, National Police investigators have initiated 75 criminal proceedings related to CRSV incidents involving Russian servicemen. These cases involve at least 89 victims, with 47 reported in Kherson region, 19 in Kyiv region, and 7 each in Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv regions. Additionally, 6 victims were identified in the Donetsk region, and 2 each in Luhansk, Mykolayiv, and Chernihiv regions.

Nine criminal cases have been initiated based on media reports with survivors being identified.

The age range of victims of sexual violence perpetrated by Russian servicemen spans from as young as 4 years old to as old as 82.

Eighteen cases have been handed over to the Security Service of Ukraine for further investigation.

Currently, the National Police of Ukraine is conducting investigations in 55 cases, with 4 of them suspended under Article 280, Part 1, Clause 2 of the Criminal Procedure Code of Ukraine, with the suspects being declared wanted.

Twenty-five suspects have been officially notified of charges in absentia.

In 5 cases, pre-trial investigations have been completed, resulting in the indictment of 11 individuals whose cases have been referred to court for special pre-trial proceedings.

The National Police is diligently documenting and investigating instances of CRSV. We are optimistic that, with the assistance of our international allies, all perpetrators will be held accountable for their actions.

How do you classify CRSV crimes? What evidence do you gather to support such classification?

– CRSV crimes are unequivocally classified as war crimes.

The fundamental distinction between conflict-related sexual violence (as defined in Part 1 of Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine) and isolated incidents of sexual violence (outlined in Articles 152 and 153 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine) is their connection to armed conflict, being committed in armed conflict. Any instances of CRSV are classified under Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, which pertains to violations of laws and customs of war.

In times of armed conflict, cases of sexual violence frequently gain widespread attention, intensifying feelings of shame and humiliation. This can lead survivors to view themselves as symbols of community disgrace, while witnesses, including family and friends, may feel guilt for their inability to prevent the harm.

Evidence in such cases typically relies on survivor statements, backed by witness testimonies and further information obtained through investigative methods, criminal analysis, video scrutiny, physical evidence, forensic medical examinations, etc.

Why do you think Russian combatants resort to sexual violence?

– The widespread war crimes perpetrated by Russian occupiers and their accomplices are unprecedented, audacious, and brutal violations of human rights. Employing violence against civilians as a deliberate tactic of war reflects methods utilised in past conflicts and wars initiated by the russian federation. From my perspective, this approach serves as a means of psychological manipulation aimed at instilling fear among civilians and undermining their resolve to resist.

How do you communicate with survivors of CRSV?

– Establishing effective and proper communication with survivors is vital for building trust between the police officer and the survivor.

First, prioritising the survivor’s safety and well-being and providing clear and detailed explanations to address any concerns is paramount, as this may affect their decision to report the crime.

It is important to reassure the survivor that their actions will not be judged and that their information will remain confidential. Furthermore, providing information about the investigative process and the measures involved in the pre-trial investigation is necessary.

Police officers should be mindful that survivors may have physical, cognitive, (combination of both) or sensory impairments that could affect their ability to effectively communicate necessary information.

Given the deeply intimate and sensitive nature of sexual violence, communication between the survivor and law enforcement can be particularly challenging for both parties. Conversations about sexual violence experiences are inherently private and may trigger feelings of shame, making survivors reluctant to speak out. The trust survivors place in law enforcement often depends on their initial interactions or past encounters, whether positive or negative.

To assist police officers in handling such crimes, we provide specialised training, focusing on the peculiarities of investigating CRSV and drawing on expertise from international experts, practical psychologists, etc.

The Prosecutor General’s Office in partnership with the National Police has developed innovative victim and witness-oriented strategies for the prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence crimes. These strategies are regularly employed by specialised police investigators.

How frequently do National Police officers need to interact with a survivor upon identifying a CRSV case? What measures are taken to prevent their re-traumatization?

– In most instances, police officers, seeking to avoid re-traumatization and considering the latest survivor and witness-centered approaches, strive to conduct all required investigative and procedural actions involving the survivors as efficiently as possible.

Furthermore, during the pre-trial investigation, legal safeguards, such as ensuring data confidentiality, closed court proceedings, conducting investigative actions or hearings via videoconferencing, providing physical protection, may be implemented as needed to safeguard the survivors or witnesses.

What measures can be taken to counter CRSV in temporarily occupied territories?

– The National Police is committed to addressing every instance of CRSV, including those reported from temporarily occupied regions. Immediate actions are taken to register relevant details in the Unified Register of Pre-trial Investigations. However, when dealing with cases from these areas, precautionary measures are put in place to protect the individuals involved.

Documenting and investigating such crimes pose significant challenges due to the physical absence of survivors, witnesses, and suspects. Typically, when temporarily occupied territories are liberated, war criminals and their accomplices escape, while their extradition or return to Ukraine by the Russian Federation is impeded by the ongoing conflict.

Does the National Police have adequate resources to address the repercussions of CRSV and hold the perpetrators accountable?

– Uncovering the truth is crucial for achieving justice, addressing traumatic impacts of these crimes on individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole, and evaluating the harm inflicted on the state and its citizens. Documenting war crimes will provide the evidence required for future legal proceedings in both national and international courts.

The National Police has sufficient resources for documenting and investigating CRSV.

In the future, as we regain control of our territories from the enemy and specialized units start working with local people to document war crimes, things might change, and many more of CRSV occurrences may reveal. Anticipating such developments, we are actively training future investigators to handle the these crimes. Collaborating closely with our international partners, we are organising training sessions, workshops, conferences, and roundtables aimed at equipping investigators with the necessary skills to document and investigate war crimes in the newly liberated territories.

Volodymyr DOBROTA,

National Press Club “Ukrainian Perspective”

The material presented herein was prepared as part of the Project “RESILIENT TOGETHER: Improving the system of response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV)”. The Project is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Ukrainian Women Fund in partnership with the Civil Society Organization La Strada-Ukraine” and the Ukrainian Lawyers Association “JurFem”, as well as the Office of the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine and the Government Commissioner on Gender Equality Policy.