On the trail of Russian war crimes

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With no idea of ​​the horrors to come, she could hardly have imagined how well life had prepared her to face this moment, with the spirit of a lawyer, the zeal of a prosecutor, the skill of a politician. to communicate and organize, and his personal insight into the workings of Russia. .

She has been working at full speed since the invasion of Russian troops in February, identifying, documenting and testifying to human rights violations. Alongside the police and prosecutors, it interrogates prisoners and searches for missing persons, while mobilizing teams across the country to coordinate assistance to war victims.

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

On a conference table, she spread out her daily report papers and read some of the cases that had come to her desk in the past 24 hours. They included separate cases of a 45-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl, both suicidal after being sexually assaulted in the street by Russian soldiers and blaming themselves for what happened, it said. she declared.

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

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

A lawyer by training, she was an MP and cabinet minister before taking up her current position. But it wasn’t just professional experience that prepared her for her wartime role. His personal story gives him a visceral understanding of repression, exile and annexation at the whim of the Kremlin.

Of Russian origin, Denisova, 61, 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 her grandparents dispossessed of their homes and lands under Josef Stalin in 1929.

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

Denisova speculated, as others have, that Putin gained admission to the prestigious law school through connections, suggesting he already had ties to the KGB, where he would be known under the code name “Moth”.

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

She considers it a source of pride to have never been a member of the Communist Party. “We didn’t have a single communist in the family,” she says.

After graduating, she went to work at the Arkhangelsk Regional Court, taking on the cases of families who had suffered from Soviet repression and, in the 1980s, were allowed to apply for a pardon that would allow them to return. of internal exile and to find jobs.

In 1989, she was appointed as a prosecutor but turned down the job 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 breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, they remained 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 entered public life, heading the regional directorates of economy and finance in Crimea at the turn of the millennium, while working briefly in the private sector.

In 2006, she was elected to the Ukrainian parliament and later served as Minister of Labor and Social Policy. In 2014, she became a founding member with Arseny Yatseniuk, then Prime Minister, of a conservative nationalist political party, the Popular Front. She describes herself as a “Ukrainian nationalist of Russian origin”.

In 2018, the Ukrainian parliament appointed her to head the Human Rights Commission, created almost 25 years ago, where she took over a team of human rights lawyers and constitutionalists. . 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 officials at the International Criminal Court, she said.

The collaboration with the tribunal represents the first serious attempt to prepare a war crimes case against Putin.

“There are two ways” to do it, she said. “The first is to prove the guilt of these soldiers and convict them in accordance with our laws, and the second is to do so in accordance with international law.”

Denisova has set up a hotline allowing citizens to report human rights violations but also to respond to requests for help. Telephone operators, some in the basement of his office in Kyiv, others working remotely across the country, take calls on a rotating basis, working 24/7.

The requests are incessant. On a brief recent visit to the basement office in Kyiv, operators were answering calls as a result. The vast majority, more than 15,000 in the first six weeks of the war, were for missing persons, but there are also calls for humanitarian aid and safe passages out of besieged towns.

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

Caller information is fed into a database that Denisova shares with government officials and prosecutors. As such, it has become an invaluable early warning system for gross human rights violations occurring in cities under attack and in towns and villages occupied by Russian troops.

Psychologists fielding calls were already approaching burnout, she said, adding that she was looking for funds to expand the team.

“We have all dealt with a soldier who wanted to commit suicide after seeing what had happened in Bucha and feeling guilty,” she said. “And how many have not called and asked for help?”

Denisova has become one of Ukraine’s leading voices of suffering and outrage, appearing frequently in news reports and producing a heavy stream of social media posts.

She said she has no doubt that there are sufficient grounds to bring charges against the Russian leadership not only for crimes against humanity, but also for genocide.

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

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

She detailed instances of gang rapes and repeated assaults on imprisoned women that left them both injured and pregnant. A woman who tried to stop Russian soldiers from assaulting her younger sister said they told her: “Listen, it will be like that with all the Nazi whores. Russia claimed it was carrying out its military offensive in Ukraine to cleanse it of Nazis.

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

©2022 The New York Times Company

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