Evidence exists that Russian commanders in several instances were aware of sexual violence perpetrated by military personnel in Ukraine “and in some cases, encouraging it or even ordering it,” as put by an international criminal lawyer assisting Kyiv’s war crimes investigations.
In some areas in the vicinity of Kyiv in the north, where the probes are most advanced, some of the sexual violence involved a level of organisation by Russian armed forces that “speaks to planning on a more systematic level,” British lawyer Wayne Jordash told Reuters, albeit would not identify specific individuals under scrutiny.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its ninth month, patterns of alleged sexual violence that are emerging with previously unreported findings about the alleged role of Russian commanders and the systematic nature of assaults in some locations seeing the light of day.
Being part of a Western-backed team that provides legal expertise to Ukraine, Mr Jordash said it was too soon to conclude how rife the practice was owning to investigations in recently-recaptured areas of the northeast and south being at a hatchling stage. Still, the patterns indicate that sexual violence “may be even more frequent” in territories that were under Russian control for longer periods, he added, without providing evidence.
More than twenty people, who worked with alleged victims – including law enforcement, doctors and lawyers – as well as an alleged rape victim and family members of another, were interviewed by Reuters.
All of the interviewees shared accounts of alleged sexual violence by Russian armed forces that took place in numerous parts of Ukraine. The acts in question, according to testimonies by the approached individuals, included cases of individual and group rape, also conducted at gunpoint, and family members being forced to watch.
Some of the circumstances – including family members witnessing rape – overlap with attacks by Russians documented by a United Nations-mandated investigation body in a report published last month, which said the age of victims ranged between four and over 80.
In March, a soldier in Russia’s 80th tank regiment in March repeatedly sexually abused a girl in northern Ukraine’s Chernihiv region and made threats to kill family members, according to a Chernihiv district court ruling.
The court this month found 31-year-old Ruslan Kuliyev and another Russian soldier that Kuliyev was superior of was found guilty of war crimes in absentia for assault on locals, the ruling said.
Under the Geneva Conventions that establish international legal standards for conduct of armed conflicts, rape can constitute a war crime. Widespread or systematic sexual violence could be classified under crimes against humanity, which are generally seen as more serious, legal specialists claimed.
But Moscow continues to deny committing war crimes or targeting civilians in Ukraine. Still, the Kremlin’s press service replied to questions from Reuters about alleged sexual violence by the Russian military in Ukraine, including those on the awareness of commanders regarding such acts and their systematic nature, denying “such allegations” and referred detailed questions to the Russian defence ministry, which, in turn, shied away from a response.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office said Moscow’s war on Ukraine “is aimed at exterminating the Ukrainian people” and that sexual violence is among Russian crimes “intended to spread a state of terror, cause suffering and fear among the civilian population of Ukraine.”
“There are indications that sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war,” Pramila Patten, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, told Reuters citing accounts of circumstances such as rape in front of family members, gang rape and forced nudity.
White rags suggest sexual violence being orchestrated
Tens of thousands of reports are being examined as part of investigations into alleged war crimes by Russian military personnel, Kyiv has said, adding that sexual violence accounted for only a modicum of those.
Being at the heart of numerous efforts, including by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, to investigate potential war crimes related to the conflict, Ukraine’s probe seeks to answer whether sexual violence was orchestrated as a war strategy.
As Kim Thuy Seelinger, an advisor to the ICC on sexual violence in conflict and a research associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, stressed, evidence that sexual violence had been planned could indicate it had been part of a systematic attack or that some level of command had been aware.
A woman, whom Reuters referred to as Viktoriia, from the village of Berestianka, vicinity of Kyiv, provided a terrifying account of how in March a Russian soldier ordered her to hang a white rag outside her house. The purpose of such remains unknown, however, the man returned that night with two other Russians. Viktoriia, a slim-built 42-year-old, said one of them, who she pegged for a commander given his age and the fact that it was how the others referred to him, told her the two other soldiers were drunk and wanted to have fun.
The woman told Reuters those two soldiers took her to a neighbouring house, where one shot dead a man when he tried to prevent them from taking his wife. Consequently, the two soldiers took both women to a nearby house, where Viktoriia said she was raped by one of them, just like the other woman. The second woman’s sister corroborated that account.
When Reuters visited the village in July, splattered blood was visible in the location where the sister and her mother said the man was shot. Viktoriia told the reporters she cried uncontrollably after her experience and remains easily frightened by loud noises.
The Ukraine prosecutor general’s office confirmed that there was an investigation into sexual violence by Russian military personnel against two women from Berestianka but refused to provide further details.
The link between rapes and marking houses with white rags is reinforced with a statement by Polish gynaecologist Agnieszka Kurczuk who said one of the Ukrainian refugees she treated – a woman hailing from the east who alleged she was raped while her nine-year-old daughter was nearby – claimed it happened in the wake of Russian soldiers telling women in the village to hang out white bedsheets or towels.
It was as early as in the first days of Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine that allegations of rape and sexual violence started surfacing in plenty coming from across the country, according to accounts Reuters gathered and the U.N. investigative body.
Polish gynaecologist Rafał Kuźlik and his trauma psychologist wife Iwona Kuźlik told Reuters they treated seven women this spring who fled Ukraine, mainly from the north and northeast, and who described being raped by Russian soldiers.
For her part, 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 has initiated dozens of criminal cases involving sexual violence by members of the Russian armed forces against women, children and men.
But given the fact that parts of the country remain under Russian occupation and victims often display reluctance to come forward, including due to fears of reprisals and distrust of authorities, Ukrainian authorities and other specialists expect the factual numbers of victims to be much higher.
In September, the U.N.’s human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine said that most of the dozens of alleged instances of sexual violence it had documented were perpetrated by members of Russian armed forces and two were by members of Ukrainian armed forces or law enforcement.
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