On the trail of Russian war crimes

KYIV, Ukraine – When Lyudmyla Denisova became Ukraine’s human rights commissioner four years ago, a job she believed would end a career in public service, it revived a youthful ambition. “I really wanted to be a prosecutor,” she said.

Without a hint of the horrors to come, she could hardly have imagined how well life had prepared her to face this moment, with the mind of a lawyer, the zeal of a prosecutor, the ability of a politician to communicate and organize, and personal insight into Russia works. .

She has been working on exaggeration since Russian troops invaded in February, where she identified, documented and testified about human rights violations. In parallel with the police and the prosecution, she interviews prisoners and tracks missing persons, while mobilizing teams across the country to coordinate assistance to the victims of the war.

“I was in Bucha myself and saw everything with my own eyes,” she said of the suburb of Kiev, where she said 360 illegal killings had already been recorded. “I even saw all these graves. It’s scary when you find a size 33 sneaker there” – a child size in Ukraine.

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

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

She also traces reports of sexual violence and gang rape committed by Russian soldiers, as well as the fate of 400 Ukrainians, including children, who, she says, were led against their will to a camp in Penza in central Russia. And she is pushing to bring charges of genocide against Russia’s leaders.

As a lawyer by education, she served as a Member of Parliament and Minister before taking up her current position. But it is not only work experience that has prepared her for her wartime role; her personal history gives her a visceral understanding of oppression, exile and annexation following the whims of the Kremlin.

Russian of origin, Mrs. Denisova, 61, was born in the far north of Russia, in the city of Arkhangelsk, close to the Arctic Circle. She said her grandparents were shot and that her grandparents got their home 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 before her at the same prestigious law school, but she spoke dismissively about both his academic achievements and his recruitment of the Soviet spy agency, the KGB.

Mrs Denisova speculated, as did others, that Mr Putin had been admitted to the prestigious law school thanks to connections, suggesting that he already had connections to the KGB, where he would be known by the code name “Moth”.

“Someone about whom there is nothing to say except as a moth,” she said. “Such a characterless being.”

She takes it as a pride that she was never a member of the Communist Party. “We did not have a single communist in the family,” she said.

After graduating, she went to work at the Arkhangelsk Regional Court, took cases of families who had suffered under Soviet oppression, and in the 1980s was allowed to apply for rehabilitation that would allow them to return from internment. exile and regain employment.

In 1989, she was appointed prosecutor, but declined the position to move to Crimea in Ukraine, after her husband, Oleksandr Denisov, then an investigator for Soviet military prosecutors, was posted there.

When Ukraine gained independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, they persisted and became Ukrainian citizens. The couple have since separated but remain good friends, she said close to their two daughters and four grandchildren.

She then went into public life, headed the regional departments of economics and finance in Crimea at the turn of the millennium, while also working briefly in the private sector.

In 2006, she won elections to the Ukrainian parliament and later served as Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. In 2014, she became a founding member along with Arseniy Yatsenyuk, then prime minister, of a conservative nationalist political party, the People’s Front. She describes herself as a “Ukrainian nationalist of Russian origin.”

In 2018, Ukraine’s parliament appointed her to chair the Commission on Human Rights, which was set up almost 25 years ago, where it took over a team of human rights lawyers and constitutional specialists. By the beginning of the war, her office was already working with the European Parliament and the UN, and now it sends a daily report to officials of the International Criminal Court, she said.

The cooperation with the court represents the first serious attempt to prepare a war crime case against Mr Putin. “There are two ways,” to do this, she said. “One is through a criminal process to prove the guilt of these military men and condemn them under our law, and the other is to do so under international law.”

Ms. Denisova has set up a hotline where citizens can report human rights violations, but also to field requests for help. Telephone operators, some in the basement of her Kiev office, others working remotely around the country, receiving calls in shifts and working 24/7.

The requests are incessant. During a brief, recent visit to the basement office in Kiev, operators answered calls back to back. The vast majority, more than 15,000 in the first six weeks of the war, were for missing people, but there are also requests for humanitarian aid and safe corridors out of besieged cities.

Thousands of other calls have been appeals for psychological help. These calls are being transferred to a team of professional psychologists, led by Mrs Denisova’s daughter, Oleksandra Kvitko, a trained psychologist who volunteered to set up the service.

The information from callers is entered into a database that Ms Denisova shares with officials and prosecutors. As such, it has become an invaluable first warning system for the gross human rights violations that take place in the cities under attack and in the towns and villages occupied by Russian troops.

The psychologists who took calls were already approaching burnout, she said, adding that she was looking for funding to expand the team. “We were all dealing with a military man who wanted to commit suicide after he saw what was happening in Bucha and felt guilty,” she said. “And how many are there who did not call and did not ask for help?”

Ms. Denisova has become one of the leading voices for Ukraine’s suffering and outrage, often appearing in news coverage, producing an abundant stream of social media posts.

She said she had no doubt that there was sufficient reason to raise charges against Russian leaders, not only for crimes against humanity, but also for genocide.

Two things have convinced her of that: the extent and circumstances of sexual violence, which she says have been used as weapons against Ukrainian women, and have even been described in that way by the perpetrators themselves; and forced removal of children from Ukrainian territory to Russia.

“We are now arguing that this is being recognized as a genocide crime,” she said. “It is when people in one nation are slaughtered, destroyed. Or used for that purpose, including sexual violence.”

She described cases of gang rapes and repeated assaults on incarcerated women who had left them both wounded and pregnant. A woman who tried to prevent Russian soldiers from assaulting her younger sister said they told her, “Look, this will be the case with any Nazi whore.” Russia has claimed that it is carrying out its military offensive in Ukraine to purge the country of Nazis.

“They rape them until they can not give birth or give birth to their children,” Ms. Denisova. “This indicates that they want to destroy the Ukrainian nation. And when they kill children, it also means that they do not want our nation to be in this world.”

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kiev.

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