”When you shout, they stop listening to you.” Ex-ombudsman Denisova published details of the rape of children by the occupiers. Lawyer Larysa Denysenko explains why this contradicts international law and humanity

Maria Zhartovska
Tetyana Lohvynenko
”When you shout, they stop listening to you.” Ex-ombudsman Denisova published details of the rape of children by the occupiers. Lawyer Larysa Denysenko explains why this contradicts international law and humanity

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

After the start of a full-scale Russian invasion, then-Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova talked a lot about sexual crimes. In particular, on her Facebook page, she wrote about how the occupiers raped children — in detail. At the same time, she didnʼt provide materials to the prosecutorʼs office. Such communication about the victims and crimes outraged the media. On May 25, they asked Denisova to change her vocabulary and reminded her that sexual crimes during the war were family tragedies, a difficult and traumatic topic, and not a pretext for opuses in the style of a scandalous chronicle. Denisova met with some of the activists and then admitted that she was exaggerating. But she claimed that she wanted to convince the world to give Ukraine weapons and put pressure on Russia. On May 31, parliament fired Denisova, and her four-year term ended with 234 peopleʼs deputies voting in favor of her dismissal. However, the former ombudsman is going to appeal the parliamentʼs decision. Denisova spoke about the reasons for her decision in a recent interview with Babel.

Among the signatories of the public letter to Denisova was Larysa Denysenko, a human rights activist, lawyer, media worker, writer and co-founder of the YurFem, association of women lawyers. She works with women who were sexually abused during the war. Babel journalist Masha Zhartovska met with Larysa. The lawyer explains why the former ombudsmanʼs communication was harmful, talks about working with her clients, searching for "good Russians", and why the Russian army commits so many atrocities.

Lyudmyla Denisova met with the signatories of the letter about communication on sexual crimes during the war. What did you agree on?

I wasnʼt present at this meeting, although there were my colleagues, as well as Andriy Kulykov. As far as I understand, it has been agreed that the approach to such reports [of sexual violence] will change. At least communicatively. But now I see reports not on the topic of sexual violence, but about abducted persons or prisoners, and they have the same problem — details. Why is this bad? This is the wrong communication culture. There is no respect for the relatives of the survivors or the survivors themselves, who remain in conditions of limited freedom. As far as I could understand, Ms. Ludmyla wants us to shout to the whole world about the crimes. The fact is that when you shout very loudly, at some point they stop listening to you. Because it is terrible pain and terrible details. People are starting to discuss it the way serial killersʼ crimes were once discussed. But this does not affect the fact that you begin to care and help. We must be very conscientious about our people who are suffering. Try to formulate messages to the Western world so as not to offend those who survived the war. It is very important to keep this balance. It seems to me that state institutions have both the experience and the capacity to move away from bazaar creativity, which is often demonstrated in communication.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

There was a hotline for psychological assistance from the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights, to which the victims turned. Denisova had permission from them to publish such facts, do you know anything about that?

Itʼs an interesting story. There is an ombudsmanʼs hotline, a general hotline that covers both war crimes and human rights violations in general. The line you are talking about now, as far as I know, closed on May 15 and was launched and funded by UNICEF. I only know publicly about Oleksandra Kvitko, who is more of a public speaker on these cases. Since I am not a person from the sphere, I can just think of versions of this work. There are cases when people call anonymously. The psychologist tries to calm he or she down, if it concerns children or teenagers, and to give some support for the further life. But telephone therapy is ineffective, it is very strange to work like this, when you donʼt even know whether this child has a responsible adult nearby, whether he or she doesnʼt harm the child and whether it is really a child.

Oleksandra Kvitko noted that she was conducting therapy. In this case, you need permission from parents not only to publish, but also to work with a minor. There are separate protocols for recording and collecting testimonies from children. There is a separate one for psychologists who work with child sexual abuse. By the way, I donʼt know whether Oleksandra Kvitko and her colleagues are involved in this work [with child sexual abuse], because there must be a certain protocol. Natalia Pashko conducts such work, but she definitely does not work in this team. We havenʼt encountered many cases like this often the war since 2014.

In these stories, we must be "responsible adults" and provide informational protection. Itʼs irresponsible to put such burden on people who are obviously injured, who had no proper training werenʼt explained the consequences. And Iʼm not even talking about violating ethical norms. Information should be objective and dry, not greasy and degrading. Of course, we can imagine our audience wanting to know more because they want more punishment. A human wants to hear things like that about the occupier. I fully understand why we feel hatred and aggression. But in the first place, in spite of the interests of the state, in spite of our human pain, the interests and rights of the humans we are talking about must come first. Because this is her body, her story.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

Why did the Office of the Ombudsman choose this style of communication and can it somehow influence international courts or international partners?

In my opinion, this doesnʼt help. The style of shouting is poorly perceived by our Western partners. Why this was the choice? Because we want them to hear us. But when choosing this style, itʼs necessary to note that the materials were submitted to the prosecutorʼs office. The ombudsman and his office have the ability to record and submit data for investigation. In case of liberated territories, the local prosecutorʼs office can launch an investigation, simply track what can be done now, without postponing. Because the protocols of prosecutors and testimonies will go either to the national justice bodies, or to the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal.

If this is an anonymous message, this should also be noted: the person called and reports the following. When foreign journalists look at the court register or opened cases, make inquiries to the prosecutorʼs office or the National Police, they donʼt see documentary evidence of what Ms. Lyudmila says in public reports. If something does not match, it is worth at least explaining why this is happening. Because, in fact, the justice system cannot work fast. And when it comes to investigating sexual violence, finding the culprit is not an easy story, and now even more so. The danger of disclosing such details is that they raise the question: what does the justice system do? I would not like our work of building legal positions through such careless statements to turn into a house of cards. People are waiting for justice, and not just those who survived. You canʼt treat society like that. You canʼt captivate the audience with this style of communication and then provide nothing. This is how it works in cinema, but it doesnʼt work in life and justice.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

You mean that people just get agitated and thatʼs it?

Of course, people want a quick punishment. Plus, relatives of many of those who live in rather rear cities remain in the occupied territories and they have no connection with each other. Reading this, a person finds himself in the grip of horror, experiencing, as psychologists have explained to me, retraumatization. For example, those who have suffered violence and even experienced this trauma after reading it, return to this cycle. Because there is a trigger. It must be the principle of all public authorities and officials not to harm people and society when they communicate with us.

In April, you wrote a long post on Facebook calling for women to tell about facts of sexual abuse. Did they respond? You used to say that you worked with four women. Are there more of them now?

I currently have eight clients, and I am unlikely to work with more. I have the impression that I am working with a time capsule that is now hiding and that will be retrieved someday, or a bottle where notes are dropped, and I send them to drift waters. People are absolutely not ready to go public, even to turn to the police, but they are ready to tell a little. Many of them were evacuated abroad or to western Ukraine. Only one of my clients is now in Kyiv, and she is from Kyiv Oblast. Some want to forget about this [violence]. With all due respect to the subject of responsibility and punishment, I cannot make decisions for the people who went through this.

These crimes have no limitations period. Thatʼs why for international criminal justice itʼs important for me to maintain this contact with women and not miss the moment when they will be ready to testify. As for the national judiciary, I have, for example, one of these cases, where a person remembers and tells a lot of information. But the fact is that she is from a temporarily occupied city in southern Ukraine, where her entire family remains and from where she barely escaped in March. And the criminal knows the address, contacts, has various connections with collaborators. So the woman is afraid that if she passes information about him to investigators, he may find out about this and do something to her family: there is no way to take them out. She really wants him to bear responsibility, but she is very afraid.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

There is a book by Judith Herman "Psychological trauma and the path to recovery". It says that even researchers of violence and trauma at some point did not trust the victims because they start to get confused in the facts or episodes. Have you encountered this?

The person either falls into oblivion or tells a linear story and then begins to remember the details. Itʼs like flashes. And everyone has their own reaction to the injury. Therefore, the International Criminal Court insists that the testimonies of victims be recorded exclusively by investigators or authorized prosecutors.

You canʼt rely on memory. Now, when I talk to my clients, it is a problem for them to describe the appearance [of those who raped them]. Vigilance of investigators and prosecutors is important, there are instructions and protocols for interrogation of victims and witnesses — questions, clarifications, stops. Like, letʼs stop, help me, what do you think was the time of day, or what were your movements, what you saw. And so it is gradually mentioned. But we all need to be aware that the psyche is either in a total stupor, or a person on adrenaline throws away everything he or she remembers, and then freezes and does not want to mention it. In any case, international criminal justice allows the case to be built only on the testimony of a survivor when it comes to sexual violence as a war crime. But the Prosecutor Generalʼs Office follows the traditional practice: they look for other circumstantial evidence, witnesses, conduct medical examinations, attach the opinions of psychotherapists and psychologists.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

Do you document what the victims say in order to bring this evidence to justice?

In order for me to start documenting — in particular, to make continuous video recording — consent must be obtained. In particular, the final question of the transcript of the interrogation is whether you are ready for your testimony to be used in the International Criminal Court and the tribunal. But until now none of the victims felt calm enough for this. Itʼs not about courage, because they are very brave people — they tell what happened to them. But thereʼs still no calmness to move forward. We also talk to the girls about the fact that we may not find a rapist, one of the ways of punishment is to make their commanders responsible.

Have you encountered cases of bad investigations or lost evidence? For example, if the client has already talked to law enforcement.

No, I was approached by people for whom I was the first point of contact. Honestly, law enforcement officers in Kyiv Oblast are very tired. Thir clothes is not to be watched — itʼs to be thrown away. You just smell of dead bodies... Iʼve been there twice, and itʼs psychologically very upsetting, and they are involved not only in sexual violence, but in everything. But everyone [of them] works. On the positive side, I see that, for example, the Office of the Attorney General, for the first time, allowed me, as a lawyer and a psychologist, to work out the methods of investigation and to instruct on the sample of the interrogation report. Because investigators donʼt know psychological modeling, they werenʼt taught when to think about victims, when to give them a sense of control, and so on. Often they just objectify a person as if they were talking to a fingerprint. But the key point there is to establish trust.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

Have you tried to understand why the Russians are doing this, or to make a generalized portrait of the rapist?

One of the true versions is that Russia has decriminalized domestic violence. This is not a criminal offense [in Russia]. And if itʼs not a crime, it is equal to an acceptable norm of social behavior. There are several types of domestic violence — physical, psychological, economic, sexual. And if this is a family norm, then why shouldnʼt it be the norm in the army? They have a proverb: "Beat your own [people], so that others are afraid [of you]", and you can do anything with these others.

Ukraine describes the actions of the Russians as genocide. More and more countries are recognizing this. However, discussions are still ongoing. What indicates that the actions of the occupiers in Ukraine are genocide?

There are several factors. Deportation, including the deportation of mothers and children, and children in the territories where they are deported are in fact forcibly Russified. They [the occupiers] erase their identity. Another sign is compulsory certification, because without a document you are nobody. And in fact this is a problem, because without it you canʼt get anywhere — our consulates do not work, and I wonʼt even comment on the Red Cross effectiveness. And imagine a woman with a child who finds herself in such conditions: itʼs virtually nowhere to appeal to. What rights does she have?

Plus the circle of violence, especially among minors. This works so that the person no longer wants any sexual intercourse and does not think about having children. And returning to the information published by Denisova. Too many young women in relative safety now think: "I donʼt want to have a baby." In fact, the deeper thought is "I donʼt want to [give birth], because I canʼt protect [the child], and I donʼt want that [horrors] to happen." This is a very deep fear. Now think about how many people will work with psychologists? Very few.

Stas Kozlyuk / «Babel'»

In one of your interviews, you said that until now we havenʼt encountered such a level and scale of atrocities and violence. How do you personally deal with this?

I am now in a state where you squeeze your pain and confusion with a much stronger pain. But Iʼm talking to a psychotherapist. He has experience working with people who work with traumas. There is one thing I would not like to have in myself — the tendency to dehumanization. I tried to self-heal, to watch interviews with "good Russians", but for some reason I always find only bad ones. I discovered a bunch of Russian media personalities, about the existence of which I didnʼt know earlier. I watched Yuriy Dud for the first time. I knew who it was, but didnʼt watch [his show before]. And itʼs bad for my profession, because when you are an attorney, you just have to see human in everyone. Otherwise you wonʼt be able to work. Anger can help work better, but hatred canʼt. In addition, it is human, the Russian occupier, not the mythological orc or absolute evil, who must be held accountable and punished.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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