Transformations in the Prosecutor’s Office Prompted by Evolving Dynamics in Investigating Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

We are here with Yuriy BELOUSOV, Chief of the Department for Combating Crimes Committed During Armed Conflict at the Office of the Prosecutor General, and Iryna DIDENKO, Head of the Department of Procedural Guidance of Pre-trial Investigation and Support of Public Prosecution in Criminal Proceedings on Crimes of Sexual Violence to talk about the transformations in the Prosecutor’s Office and also discuss the specifics of investigating war crimes, including CRSV, protecting survivors, cooperating with the International Criminal Court, and drafting a bill on reparations.

– What led to the establishment of the Department responsible for investigating instances of sexual violence committed by Russian combatants?

Iryna DIDENKO: – The Department was created in September 2022 to investigate war crimes associated with CRSV. It stands out for its focus on addressing a highly sensitive category of crimes, requiring new approaches, primarily in working with the survivors, to support and protect them. It is important to follow the international protocols, such as the Murad Code.

– What is the Murad Code?

Iryna DIDENKO: – The Murad Code comprises guidelines for assisting survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. The Code was created by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad, who experienced conflict-related violence firsthand. It outlines fundamental approaches for working with survivors, including the Do No Harm principles, Stop! principle, informed consent, and confidentiality.

– Are these approaches innovative for the Prosecutor’s Office?

Yuriy BELOUSOV: – The newly established department has become a catalyst for change. Prosecutors typically represent the prosecution side, focusing on holding the guilty accountable. The problem is that once a person who has suffered from a crime provides information, they often lose relevance to the criminal justice system. There is now an entirely different approach, where prosecutors prioritize the interests of the victim. While holding the guilty accountable remains essential, the prosecutor remains involved as the accuser as no one else can determine guilt. However, there is an additional objective – not only to punish, but also to restore the rights of the victim to the fullest extent possible.

Later on, there was a proposal to establish a dedicated unit within the Office of the Prosecutor General to assist survivors. The Coordination Center for the Support of Victims and Witnesses of War Crimes has recently commenced its operations, with a primary focus on individuals who have experienced CRSV.

– What aspects distinguish your work, and what challenges do you face?

Iryna DIDENKO: – The first key aspect is that investigations are conducted under during the war. Secondly, individuals in this group rarely approach law enforcement or the prosecutor’s office to report crimes against them. Moreover, documentation of these crimes is mainly carried out by mobile teams working in the liberated territories, consisting of a prosecutor, investigator, medic, and therapist.

The challenge is that many survivors still live in the frontline regions, where gunfire is common, and they often have neither a home nor even means of existence, food, etc. Their primary concern is survival and safety, with giving testimony coming secondary.

Yuriy BELOUSOV: – We’re often asked why we conduct investigations during wartime. We have no other choice. When crimes occur on such a significant scale, as seen in Bucha with numerous people beaten and bodies left in the streets, we had to document every detail.

In a certain sense, Ukraine is unique. It’s facing a war of unprecedented scale since World War II, yet its judicial system remains operational during wartime. The circumstances have changed so much and forced us to adapt and learn on the go. We never questioned the need to document Russian war crimes; rather, the challenge laid in how to do so effectively. These are entirely different types of crimes that fall under international humanitarian law, with distinct investigation standards. Thus, we have been documenting while learning and refining our methods, seeking and engaging international expertise. We continue our efforts. In this regard, one advantage Ukraine possesses is its capacity to collect fresh evidence, unlike many jurisdictions where international crimes are only investigated after a decade. Certainly, their evidence base differs significantly. Ukraine has the capacity to swiftly gather evidence, which may give us an edge in documentation, although the sheer scale of work remains immense.

Iryna DIDENKO: – How could we possibly ignore documenting when someone comes forward to report a war crime? I clearly remember one of the first CRSV cases in Borodyanka district. We visited a woman, she was standing and holding a piece of paper. Despite being a CRSV survivor herself, her statement was not about that; her statement detailed how her husband was killed while protecting her from sexual violence by Russian soldiers. She pleaded with us to register the case, start an investigation, and exhum the body because she had buried him in her garden. We exhumed the body, and later, non-governmental organisations helped arrange a proper burial for him since the woman had no money as her possessions were looted by the Russians. It was only after dealing with these matters that we discussed the CRSV incident.

– What do you think drives Russians to commit CRSV?

Iryna DIDENKO: – It is not about seeking sexual pleasure. Even survivors themselves say that it is about destruction — inflicting emotional harm and destroying a person emotionally. Perpetrators view such actions as a means of affirmation: they believe that by destroying others, they elevate themselves.

Yuriy BELOUSOV: – I was struck by how different we are and the varying levels of social development. Our perceptions of Russians are often shaped by TV shows of places like Moscow and St. Petersburg, but Russia is much more multifaceted. It has its own distinct culture and history. Over time, propaganda has dehumanized Russians and cultivated a sense of superiority towards Ukrainians, whom they see as ungrateful and seeking alliances with the West. This hatred towards Ukrainians arises from a feeling of difference, which they clearly feel. I believe that many of the atrocities in Bucha were fueled by Russians witnessing a higher standard of living in Ukraine compared to their own country, leading them to direct their hatred towards Ukrainians.

It is truly disturbing to observe Russian combatants’’ wives encouraging them to rape Ukrainian women or hear their soldiers and officers speaking disrespectfully to their mothers on the phone. Such behaviour is not common in our society. While such conduct might occur in extremely dysfunctional families, the extent suggests a difference in cultural standards. Violence is deeply embedded in Russian culture. Although I have not studied this matter extensively, I believe the incidence of sexual violence in Russia is considerably higher.

– Is CRSV classified as a crime against humanity, displaying signs of genocide?

Yuriy BELOUSOV: – How are crimes against humanity different from war crimes? They are systematic and widespread. If it were isolated incidents, it would classify as individual war crimes. Given the widespread occurrence and signs of systematic behavior, we could potentially classify it as a crime against humanity.

Wartime sexual violence might exhibit signs of genocide. However, not all cases fit this description. We are currently examining each case to understand why the victim was targeted, what was said during the assault, and what the perpetrator’s intentions were. If these crimes show signs of genocide, especially when combined with other acts like murder, torture, abduction, and forced displacement of children, they could collectively amount to the crime of genocide.

The Prosecutor General mentioned that Russians employ CRSV as a weapon of war. It is not just the desire of an individual perpetrator, but a deliberate policy supported by the Russian Federation. I have not encountered any public condemnation of the conduct of their soldiers or officers from Russian sources.

– How many cases of CRSV have been identified so far??

Iryna DIDENKO: – We have documented 231 cases of CRSV so far, but we recognise that this number does not reflect the actual prevalence. It is important to consider the social stigma, as many people hesitate to disclose what they have experienced due to fear of being judged by their community. Regrettably, we often encounter such condemnation and accusation of survivors.

Regarding the scale of the issue, I am deeply troubled by a specific incident that occurred on a street in Kyiv region. Two Russian soldiers perpetrated war crimes against twelve victims, with CRSV being a factor in 8 of these instances. These inhumane individuals strolled along a brief street in a small village and inflicted considerable harm within a mere 2-hour span. They raped both the mother in front of her child and the child in front of the mother. The crime has been exposed; we have identified the perpetrators, and the criminal case is now being forwarded to court for prosecution. Regrettably, it will be a trial held in the absence of the accused.

However, I wanted to mention something else. Once the residents of this street came to realise that they were all victims, they started sharing their stories. This shared experience created a sense of unity among them. They all provided testimony and now stay connected and support each other. It is essential for all survivors to understand that they are not to blame and should seek help, especially psychological support. I often receive messages from those who have started legal proceedings, being grateful for the support and saying that they feel better. We have not encountered any negative experiences due to their involvement in legal proceedings.

– Is it possible for a victim or witness of CRSV to report a case while remaining anonymous? 

Iryna DIDENKO: – As I have mentioned, we ensure confidentiality, and we even advise survivors to take security measures. They can take a new name and surname for the case, like starting a new chapter in life, and these altered personal details are maintained throughout the legal proceedings.

We are bound to ensure that the rights of suspects are protected, even the Russian soldier implicated in this crime, within our legal proceedings. They have the right to a fair defense. To ensure the suspect is aware of the criminal charges and suspicions, we need to find a way to inform them. Since we do not have shared documentation with Russia, we resort to conducting trials in absentia. Notifications of suspicion, including all personal data, even that of the victim, must be published on the official website as required by law. To protect the victim’s privacy, we promptly change their personal information in the legal proceedings. This approach has proven effective. There have been instances where human rights activists raised concerns about potential privacy breaches upon seeing specific names of individuals who were subjected to cruel treatment on our website. They were concerned that these individuals could be located. However, I assured them that we have taken measures to protect their identities by altering the personal details accordingly.

– Do you cooperate with international partners to detect and investigate CRSV cases involving individuals who have left Ukraine?

Iryna DIDENKO: – Of course, we do. We have conducted broad awareness campaigns in neighbouring allied countries, encouraging individuals to share their experiences. It gets complicated when some survivors are now living abroad, as we do not have a means to question them remotely. This process is currently managed through international legal assistance, which is time-consuming and burdened by bureaucracy. We are committed to advocating for legislative changes to ensure individuals have access to national justice from anywhere in the world.

Our international partners help us in various aspects of our work. Nearly every criminal case involves an international expert, who provides professional assistance in our investigations. This collaboration demonstrates our commitment to transparency and accountability. We conduct criminal investigations backed by evidence, we have nothing to fear, we do not fabricate cases, unlike practices observed in the Russian Federation. The Russians prohibit access to and do not disclose their legal proceedings, like in the “good old days” of the Soviet Union. A woman who was detained in Russia shared the formal accusation with us. You should see what it says! She was accused of posting on Facebook that Ukraine is an independent state, a charge that resulted in many years of imprisonment.

Another woman faced accusations simply because she owned a magnet displaying the Ukrainian flag. Subjected to torture, she was pressured into signing documents admitting guilt for all imaginable sins. How can this be considered justice? The magnet bearing the flag was sealed, packaged and marked as material evidence. Such profound cultural differences.

– In the fall of 2022, the Strategy for a Victim and Witness-Centred Approach to CRSV Case Management was presented. What does it involve?

Iryna DIDENKO: – This document is highly important for us. It signifies a commitment to revamp the system, endorsed by the Prosecutor General’s signature, indicating the agency’s backing for these reforms. It outlines our way moving forward, with the Murad Code serving as a key guiding principle.

Therefore, we have established a framework for cooperation, with the Prosecutor General’s Office overseeing CRSV crimes in the regions and providing methodological support. We are currently piloting this framework in two regions – Kharkiv and Kherson – where efforts to address these crimes are already underway. We stay in regular contact with our colleagues in these areas, discussing every step and addressing every concern they may have. We will eventually train experts in other regions, making our workload more manageable. To ensure the efficient functioning of the system, it is important that each district-level prosecutor understands how to manage the CRSV cases that have been previously transferred to Kyiv to investigate at the central level.

We are currently developing a step-by-step action plan to implement the Strategy. It will include various measures, from necessary legislative changes to offering psychological assistance to prosecutors. It will be synchronized with the government’s implementation plan, with a primary focus on pre-trial investigation, supported by the broader framework laid out in the government plan.

Yuriy BELOUSOV: – We’re at a critical point that demands transformation. I often draw parallels with the Armed Forces: at the onset of the war, our military had to change to withstand the onslaught. The same is happening now in the criminal justice system. Without change, without evolving our approaches, it will simply collapse. The investigation of international war crimes serves as a testing ground for innovative approaches. This is not because we have nothing else to do; rather, we recognise that transitioning from paper to digital is essential. Without this shift, we will not efficiently handle the vast amount of case materials or identify perpetrators. After the war, this transition will enable the criminal justice system to advance to the next level.

Even amid these challenging circumstances, we must recognise opportunities for Ukraine. One such opportunity lies in embracing change and transitioning to a higher level of development.

– How do you support victims and witnesses in CRSV cases?

Iryna DIDENKO: – We follow what I call the single entry point rule. This means that the prosecutor who initially reaches out to the victim remains engaged with them consistently. We used to formally recognise individuals as victims in court, but not anymore. Now, survivors are provided with a memo outlining their rights, which automatically makes them official victims. To improve clarity, we have crafted letters to notify individuals of their status as victims in the criminal proceedings. However, we refrain from detailing the specifics to prevent triggering their trauma again We also send letters confirming their status in the case, without going into details to avoid causing further distress. My job title already indicates which types of crimes we investigate. Finally, we give contact details for the prosecutor handling their specific case. Feel free to reach out with any questions.

We do our best to respond to all requests as much as possible. For example, if someone requires basic assistance like food supplies, we reach out to humanitarian organisations, and they provide the necessary assistance. Additionally, there are NGOs that assist people in leaving conflict-affected areas, offer free housing for a year, arrange psychological support, and cater to various needs.

We handle each request on a case-by-case basis and come up with solutions. Typically, everyone is responsive and helps out. Now, everything runs smoothly. We used to only focus on searching, but now everyone knows who is responsible for what and where to turn for assistance. The Coordination Center for the Support of Victims and Witnesses of War Crimes, as I mentioned earlier, will now manage this task.

– During a recent interview, Ms. Iryna brought up the importance of setting up a comprehensive support and aid system for witnesses and victims of CRSV that spans their entire lives. Why is this idea necessary?

Yuriy BELOUSOV: – Many victims of CRSV have experienced deep psychological traumas that will have lasting effects on them. However, with timely intervention, they can still lead fulfilling lives despite the traumas. In my past work investigating torture, I witnessed situations where victims had no support or rehabilitation available. Now, with so many war crimes happening, we have to reassess our approaches. Some may even realise they could have been victims themselves. That’s why we cannot stand idly by. It is crucial to consider creating a strong support system.

Our task is to identify the victim and coordinate an entire network of governmental and non-government organizations around them. This approach is both compassionate and practical. If we do not help survivors, we risk losing them. Many end up withdrawing from life, losing interest in work, family, and personal growth. This often results in increased crime rates, drug abuse, and heightened suicidal tendencies. The Prosecutor’s Office is among the first to address this issue. Fortunately, social services and the education and healthcare systems are also aware of this.

We are already thinking about the difficulties we’ll encounter after the war, understanding that finding solutions won’t be easy. We will face many obstacles along the way. In the past, there was discussion about the Vietnam syndrome and the Afghanistan syndrome, and we’ll need to deal with similar issues. It is easier when soldiers fight abroad and then come back home, but it is much more complicated when the entire country is the site of criminal activity. And with tens of millions of victims, the scale of the challenge is immense.

I don’t think anyone in the world has ever had a rehabilitation and support system like this before. We are piloting completely new methods, and there are no guidelines to follow.

– How does the Prosecutor General’s Office collaborate with international and civil society organizations in Ukraine on matters related to CRSV?

Iryna DIDENKO: – Our collaborative efforts are evolving and take various forms. For instance, the Office of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, headed by Pramila Patten, has been guiding since the start. They help us apply principles correctly, conduct investigations, follow international protocols, and uphold international humanitarian law. Many international experts and organisations also offer us their expertise and training. Moreover, they supply us with necessary equipment, particularly because we work in frontline regions. They have provided us with excellent protective gear, which we use in our work.

We are also discussing providing direct aid to survivors, usually through international organisations. Plans are underway to create a reparations system in the near future. It is important to note that interim reparations will not be provided by the aggressor country, as we still need to resolve issues with them. The global community is aiding Ukraine in addressing these losses.

Yuriy BELOUSOV: – International organizations quickly stepped in to support Ukraine as it faced the challenge of addressing war crimes. Despite dealing with these issues since 2014, our focus was narrow, and we lacked expertise in this field. However, with a surge in such crimes, our international partners, who have experience investigating similar crimes in African countries, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere, have been incredibly helpful. We have formed an advisory group consisting of experts from the US, UK, and EU to investigate the most serious crimes, and they have been collaborating with us for the past two years. Their expertise and technical support have greatly aided our efforts.

Non-governmental organisations play a vital role as well. We all share the same global aim: to ensure justice and document all events occurring here. NGOs often serve as essential sources of information for us, being among the first responders to incidents, the first to identify affected individuals, and assisting in locating individuals we may have overlooked. This teamwork, this cooperation, strengthens our efforts.

– Could you share your thoughts on the legislative changes needed to conduct effective investigations into CRSV cases?

Iryna DIDENKO: – Amending current legislation is part of the action plan that is underway. First, immediate changes are necessary and should be implemented quickly. MP Maryna Bardina has already submitted an ‘urgent bill’ No. 9351 to the Verkhovna Rada, addressing essential issues. One significant aspect is allowing closed court hearings. While proceedings are currently public under Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (Violation of the laws and customs of war), it is important to allow for closed hearings to accommodate victims who may not feel comfortable testifying publicly.

All laws should be aligned to revise the procedure for issuing suspicions, allowing the option to conceal the actual names of survivors in CRSV cases if they choose not to change them, in order to protect these individuals.
In broad terms, we are thoroughly reviewing all legislation, suggesting amendments, and drafting new laws, including one specifically for reparations, which is currently underway. We are advocating for legislative support to ensure that investigations involve not only the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) but also the National Police. We firmly support the rule of a single entry point. If someone seeks assistance from, for example, the National Police, they should not be sent to the SBU or vice versa. Why shuffle people around? Once trust is established, individuals should receive direct assistance.

Informed consent should be a legal requirement. This involves fully informing individuals participating in the criminal process about all procedures and their rights. It goes beyond merely providing a document with legal provisions; it entails directly explaining various aspects, like how long interrogations may last, when mandatory breaks should be taken and the option to decline if they find it difficult or uncomfortable. We also take into account their preferred location for these conversations, often choosing neutral ground, particularly when families are unaware of the survivor’s circumstances. There are many other things we consider. While we are already implementing this principle in CRSV investigations, we have decided that it should be extended and applied across all types of crimes.

Initially, our plan was to amend Article 438 by creating a separate type of criminal offence for CRSV. However, we realised this would not be feasible since we’d have to do the same for every type of crime. Hence, after consulting with experts, our inter-departmental team, lawyers, and judges, we have determined that Article 438 does not impose any limitations on us. It refers to international treaties, and we are simply leveraging the full force of the Geneva Convention. Our hands are not tied. If we choose to be more explicit, it could actually narrow our possibilities.

– What motivates Ukraine to pursue cases of CRSV in the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other international institutions?

Yuriy BELOUSOV: – In my opinion, at the start of Russia’s direct invasion of Ukraine, there was a widespread misunderstanding regarding the role of international judicial institutions. We often lacked confidence in our ability to handle the situation and looked to external parties to solve our problems. However, our courts will manage the prosecution of 99.9% of criminals. Nevertheless, we need the International Criminal Court, as it plays a vital role in dealing with matters that individual countries are unable to handle on their own. The ICC does not investigate individual cases of sexual violence or prosecute individual combatants; instead, it focuses on holding high-ranking military and political leaders accountable for the policies and significant large-scale crimes committed by Russia. Therefore, evidence of widespread CRSV can contribute to supporting this aspect of the policy.

The International Criminal Court is globally recognized as a fair judge, following the highest standards of the rule of law and justice. Once it identifies violations, they are unquestionably accepted worldwide, except maybe by the Russians.

However, it is not just the ICC involved in this effort. Ukraine is pioneering a new model that has not been tried before. We aim to encourage other nations to investigate Russian war crimes in Ukraine through their own national courts. Currently, over 24 countries have initiated their own investigations, including the UK, US, Scandinavian and Baltic countries, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, etc. They have expressed readiness to support us, and in return, we are offering all the evidence we have if they choose to pursue justice through their national legal systems. This collaborative effort will strengthen global trust in the events unfolding here, earning the trust of the entire world. Remember initial doubts and uncertainties expressed: “It’s not entirely straightforward”, “We don’t know what happened there” … Russia invests heavily in propaganda, but the actions of Western nations will undermine its impact because they are widely trusted. Greater involvement from Western countries, along with the ICC, the tribunal Ukraine aims to establish, and the European Court of Human Rights, will collectively increase pressure on Russia and help us achieve justice by holding the aggressor accountable. These critical decisions should discourage other aggressors and restore global stability, which is currently being disrupted by Russia’s destabilizing actions.

– Why did discussions about CRSV only begin after the full-scale invasion, even though the first cases were reported when Russian forces started occupying Ukrainian Donbas?

Iryna DIDENKO: – Public concern about the issue grew after the full invasion, although we have been investigating CRSV cases since 2014. It is important to understand that comprehensive investigations will take place after all Ukrainian territories are liberated. This is when we will uncover the full extent of the crimes, which may vary significantly in scale.

– What motivates you to investigate such difficult crimes as CRSV, and how do you manage the inevitable stress during your work?

Iryna DIDENKO: – Two days ago, we conducted a very tough interview with a man who had experienced torture and sexual assault, leaving him severely traumatised. We quickly brought in psychologists to help him and paused any further investigation. Honestly, this job can be quite challenging.

The motivation is simple. I previously worked on cases involving domestic and gender-based violence, which made it easier for me to transition to addressing CRSV compared to those colleagues who used to deal with economic crimes. So our actions were straightforward: after the territories were liberated, we traveled to various regions and started collecting information and fact-checking.

When I hear the stories, I find it difficult to completely separate myself from such emotions; it doesn’t work like that. But this is our job.

Yuriy BELOUSOV: – I found my purpose when I took charge of this department. Before that I wanted to join the military and serve, and now I am serving on the legal front. This is what personally drives me. In this role, I have the opportunity to document all the atrocities that occurred, ensuring we do not lose any testimony and evidence. We are building valuable experience for a decade, or maybe even a century, which is incredibly rewarding!

Regarding support, we are collaborating with partners to develop various initiatives to build emotional resilience in prosecutors. These initiatives include self-diagnostic tools, self-assessment methods, stress management techniques, and the establishment of support groups to address professional burnout. This is crucial as some individuals might find it difficult to cope, leading them to pursue different career paths.

A highly empathetic prosecutor might only last a year, perhaps two at most. If you take on the suffering of every victim yourself, it becomes overwhelming – with over 104,000 war crimes in Ukraine already. Your job is to identify the case and refer the victim to specialists at the Coordination Center. However, finding a balance is crucial: being completely detached won’t make you helpful either. You need to learn to protect yourself, develop the right skills, and set up support systems, which were lacking before. But we are determined to accomplish all this, and it will have positive effects in other aspects as well.

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.