Kyiv, Nov 23 (Reuters) – There is evidence that in several cases of sexual violence by military personnel in Ukraine, Russian commanders “were aware, and in some cases encouraged or even ordered it,” according to an international criminal lawyer representing Kiev War Assisted Criminal Investigations.
British lawyer Wayne Jordash told Reuters that in some areas around the capital Kyiv in the north, where investigations are most advanced, some of the sexual violence took place at a level of organization by the Russian armed forces that “suggests more systematic planning.” He did not identify any specific individuals being investigated.
The previously unreported findings by investigators on the alleged role of commanders and the systematic nature of attacks in some locations are part of patterns of alleged sexual violence that are emerging as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its ninth month.
Jordash, who is part of a Western-backed team providing legal expertise to Ukraine, said it was too early to say how widespread the practice was as investigations in the recently retaken areas of the north-east deepened and South were at an earlier stage. However, the patterns suggested that sexual violence was “perhaps even more common” in areas that had been occupied longer, he added, without presenting any evidence.
Reuters has interviewed more than twenty people who have worked with alleged victims – including law enforcement, doctors and lawyers – as well as one alleged rape victim and family members of another.
They exchanged reports of alleged sexual violence by Russian forces taking place in different parts of Ukraine: many included allegations that family members were forced to watch, or that multiple soldiers participated, or that acts were carried out at gunpoint.
Reuters could not independently confirm the accounts. Some of the circumstances – including family members who witnessed a rape – appear in alleged attacks by Russians, which were documented by a United Nations-commissioned investigative body in a report released last month, which said the victims were between four and over 80 years old.
In March, in the Chernihiv region of northern Ukraine, a soldier from Russia’s 80th tank regiment repeatedly sexually abused a girl and threatened to kill family members, according to a ruling by the Chernihiv District Court. The court this month found 31-year-old Ruslan Kuliyev and another Russian soldier Kuliyev a war crimes officer in absentia guilty of assault, the verdict said.
Kuliyev, who the court said was a first lieutenant, and the other soldier could not be reached for comment.
Rape can constitute a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, which establish international legal norms for the conduct of armed conflict. Widespread or systematic sexual violence could constitute crimes against humanity that are generally considered more serious, legal experts said.
Moscow, which has said it is conducting a “military special operation” in Ukraine, has denied committing war crimes or targeting civilians.
In response to Reuters questions about alleged sexual violence by the Russian military in Ukraine, including whether commanders were aware of it and whether it was systematic, the Kremlin press service said it denied “such allegations.” It referred detailed questions to the Russian Defense Ministry, which did not respond.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said Moscow’s war against Ukraine “is aimed at exterminating the Ukrainian people” and that sexual violence is among Russian crimes “designed to spread a state of terror, suffering and fear among the civilian population of the country”. to cause Ukraine”.
“There is evidence that sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war,” Pramila Patten, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, told Reuters, citing reports of circumstances including rape in front of family members, gang rape and forced nudity.
Kyiv has said it is reviewing tens of thousands of reports from its investigation into alleged war crimes by Russian military personnel; sexual violence is only a small part of it. Ukraine’s probe is at the center of numerous efforts to investigate possible war crimes linked to the conflict, including by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
Evidence that sexual violence was planned could indicate that it was part of a systematic attack or that some level of leadership was aware of it, said Kim Thuy Seelinger, ICC adviser on sexual violence in conflict and research fellow at Washington University in St .Ludwig.
A woman from the village of Berestianka, near Kyiv, told Reuters that shortly after Russian troops arrived in March, a soldier ordered her to hang a white rag outside her house. He returned that night with two other Russians, according to the woman, who asked to be identified by only her first name, Viktoriia.
She said one of them, whom she mistook for a commander because he appeared to be much older and because the others called him that, told her the other two soldiers were drunk and wanted to have fun.
According to Viktoriia, a slim-built 42-year-old, these two soldiers took her to a neighboring house, where one shot a man while trying to stop her from picking up his wife. The two soldiers then took both women to a nearby house, where Viktoriia said she was raped by one of them. The other woman was also raped, according to this woman’s sister and Viktoriia. Reuters could not reach the second woman, whose family allegedly left Ukraine.
When Reuters visited the village in July, blood spattered where the sister and her mother said the man had been shot, could be seen. Viktoriia said she cried uncontrollably after her experience and was easily startled by loud noises.
Asked about the allegations of rape against women, which were also reported by other news media, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said there were investigations into sexual violence by Russian military personnel against two women from Berestianka, but declined to comment further.
Polish gynecologist Agnieszka Kurczuk said one of the Ukrainian refugees she treated – an eastern woman who claimed she was raped while her nine-year-old daughter was nearby – said it happened after Russian soldiers attacked the women in the village had ordered to hang up white sheets or towels.
Reuters could not determine whether there was a direct link between the alleged attacks and the marking of the houses.
Allegations of rape and sexual violence emerged shortly after Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine and came from across the country, according to reports collected by Reuters and the UN investigative body.
Polish gynecologist Rafal Kuzlik and his trauma psychologist Iwona Kuzlik told Reuters they treated seven women who fled Ukraine this spring, mostly from the north and north-east, and who described being raped by Russian soldiers.
Ukrainian lawyer Larysa Denysenko said she was representing nine alleged rape victims, and all but two allege multiple Russian soldiers were involved, and some clients also described being beaten or raped in front of a family member.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said it had opened dozens of criminal cases alleging sexual violence by members of the Russian armed forces against women, children and men.
Ukrainian authorities and other specialists say the number of casualties is likely to be much larger because parts of the country remain occupied and victims are often reluctant to come forward, partly out of fear of reprisals and distrust of authorities.
The UN human rights monitoring mission to Ukraine said in a September report that most of the dozens of alleged sexual violence cases it had documented were committed by members of the Russian armed forces and two were committed by members of the Ukrainian armed forces or law enforcement agencies.
Reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Stefaniia Bern in Kyiv and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam. Additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague, Christian Lowe in Paris and Dan Peleschuk, Oleh Papushenko and Natalie Thomas in Kyiv. Edited by Cassell Bryan-Low
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