On the Trail of Russian War Crimes

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Kyiv, Ukraine —

When Lyudmyla Denisova became Ukraine’s human rights commissioner four years ago, a job she believed would round out a career in public service, it sparked a youthful ambition. “I really wanted to be a prosecutor,” she says.

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Without an inkling of the horrors to come, she could hardly have imagined how well life had prepared her for this moment, with the brains of a lawyer, the zeal of a prosecutor, the communication and organizational skills of a politician, and a personal insight into how things work of Russia .

Since the invasion of Russian troops in February, she has been working flat out to identify, document and testify to human rights violations. Working alongside the police and prosecutors, she interviews prisoners and tracks down missing persons, while mobilizing teams across the country to coordinate aid to war victims.

“I was in Bucha myself and saw everything with my own eyes,” she said of the Kyiv suburb, where she says 360 unlawful killings have already been recorded. “I saw all these graves myself. It’s scary when you find a size 33 sneaker there”, — a children’s size in Ukraine.

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She spread out the sheets of her daily report on a conference table and read out some of the cases that had come to her office in the last 24 hours. They included separate cases of a 45-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl who both had suicidal thoughts after being sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers in the street and who blamed themselves for what happened, she said.

“Even if a person dies in the bombing, that is also a war crime,” she said in one of two recent interviews. “The mere fact that the Russian Federation invaded and began bombing is already a war crime of aggression.”

She is also following reports of sexual violence and gang rapes by Russian soldiers and the fate of 400 Ukrainians, including children, who were taken against their will to a camp in Penza in central Russia. And she’s pushing for genocide charges to be brought against Russia’s leaders.

A jurist by training, she was a member of parliament and a cabinet minister before assuming her current position. But it’s not just her professional experience that has prepared her for her role in the war; Her personal story gives her a deep understanding of oppression, exile and annexation at the whim of the Kremlin.

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Ms. Denisova, 61, is of Russian descent and was born in the far north of Russia in the city of Arkhangelsk near the Arctic Circle. She said her great-grandparents were shot and that her grandparents were robbed of their homes and land under Stalin in 1929.

She originally trained as a kindergarten teacher, but then got the chance to study law at Leningrad State University, now St. Petersburg University. She noted that Vladimir V. Putin had studied at the same prestigious law school before her, but spoke disparagingly of both his academic achievements and his recruitment by the Soviet spy agency, the KGB

Ms Denisova, like others, speculated that Mr Putin was admitted to the prestigious law school thanks to connections, suggesting he already had ties to the KGB, where he would be known by the codename ‘Moth’.

“A person about whom there is nothing to say except as a moth,” she said. “Such a faceless creature.”

She is proud of never having been a member of the Communist Party. “We didn’t have a single communist in the family,” she said.

After graduating, she worked at the Arkhangelsk Regional Court, where she took on the cases of families who had suffered from Soviet repression and were allowed to apply for rehabilitation in the 1980s, allowing them to return from internal exile and regain positions of employment .

In 1989 she was appointed prosecutor, but declined the post to move to Crimea, Ukraine after her husband Oleksandr Denisov, then an investigator of the Soviet military prosecutors, was stationed there.

When Ukraine gained independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, they stayed there and became Ukrainian citizens. The couple have since split but remain good friends, she said, close to her two daughters and four grandchildren.

She then entered public life, headed the regional economics and finance ministries in Crimea around the turn of the millennium and worked briefly in the private sector.

In 2006 she won elections to the Ukrainian Parliament and later became Minister of Labor and Social Policy. In 2014, together with Arseniy Yatsenyuk, then Prime Minister, she became a founding member of the conservative-nationalist Popular Front Party. She describes herself as a “Ukrainian nationalist of Russian origin”.

In 2018, the Ukrainian Parliament appointed her to chair the Human Rights Commission, established nearly 25 years ago, where she took over a team of human rights lawyers and constitutional experts. At the start of the war, her office was already working with the European Parliament and the United Nations, and now it sends a daily report to the International Criminal Court officials, she said.

Cooperation with the court represents the first serious attempt to prepare a war crimes trial against Mr. Putin. “There are two ways to do that,” she said. “One is to prove the guilt of these military officials through a criminal trial and try them under our legislation, and the second is to do so under international law.”

Ms. Denisova has set up a hotline through which citizens can report human rights violations, but also ask for help. Operators, some working in the basement of their Kyiv office and others across the country, take calls in shifts and work around the clock.

The requests are unbroken. During a brief visit to the basement office in Kyiv recently, the operators answered calls one after the other. The vast majority, more than 15,000 in the first six weeks of the war, were missing persons, but requests for humanitarian assistance and safe corridors from besieged cities are also coming in.

Thousands of other calls were requests for psychological help. Those callers are transferred to a team of professional psychologists led by Ms Denisova’s daughter, Oleksandra Kvitko, a trained psychologist who has volunteered to set up the service.

Callers’ information is fed into a database that Ms. Denisova shares with government officials and prosecutors. As such, it has become an invaluable first warning system for the gross human rights abuses occurring in the towns under attack and in towns and villages occupied by Russian troops.

The psychologists who took calls were already nearing burnout, she said, adding that she was looking for funding to expand the team. “We all dealt with a military man who, after seeing what happened in Bucha and feeling guilty, wanted to commit suicide,” she said. “And how many are there who haven’t called and haven’t asked for help?”

Ms Denisova has become one of the leading voices of pain and outrage in Ukraine, appearing frequently in news coverage and producing a plethora of posts on social media.

She said she had no doubt that there were sufficient grounds to press charges against Russian leaders not only for crimes against humanity but also for genocide.

Two things convinced her: the scale and circumstances of the sexual violence, which she believes was used as a weapon against Ukrainian women and as described by the perpetrators themselves; and the forcible removal of children from Ukrainian territory to Russia.

“We are now pleading for this to be recognized as a crime of genocide,” she said. “Here the people of a nation are slaughtered, destroyed. Or used with that intent, including sexual violence.”

She detailed cases of gang rape and repeated assaults on detained women, which left her wounded and pregnant. A woman who tried to stop Russian soldiers from attacking her younger sister said they told her, “Look, it’s going to be like that with every Nazi whore.” Russia has claimed it is conducting its military offensive in Ukraine, to purge them of Nazis.

“They rape them until they can no longer give birth or give birth to their children,” Ms Denisova said. “This indicates that they want to destroy the Ukrainian nation. And if they kill children, that also means they don’t want our nation to be in this world.”

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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