Former HR Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova on her dismissal, 4 years of work, Ukrainians in occupied areas
KHPG spoke to a former human rights ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova who was recently sacked with quite a scandal. Mrs Denisova says that she knows the real reason for her dismissal but prefers not to disclose it to prevent possible damage.
— Dear Lyudmyla, what do you do now and do you plan to continue protecting human rights?
— Greetings! I am very grateful for such an offer and a chance to speak on the site of such an influential NGO as Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. We were always partners, I believe, and I am very grateful to have such an opportunity. Now I continue to engage in public activities. Now we are creating an NGO with my partners and colleagues, which we will present soon. We will continue to protect our country, to protect Ukraine in this difficult hour, and when such an hour finally ends, when we definitely win. And to protect our citizens.
Therefore I continue my fight, fight for ordinary citizens, and for the country.
— What exactly does it mean, continuing to protect the rights? Who will you do it with, how, and which rights exactly?
— You know, first of all we need to protect our citizens who are now in tough conditions. Those weren’t easy in the first place, and after 24 February they took for the worse. First of all we need to have contact with citizens, for them to provide evidence of such crimes being committed. To record them and to give this information to international human rights organizations. To inform the states that now cooperate with Ukraine, in order for them to support Ukraine, to exert pressure on the Russian Federation and provide weapons.
It is certainly a wide range of rights, it is a constitutional right and it is a fundamental right — the right to life.
— You were the Commissioner for four years and almost three months, for two presidents and for two convocations of parliament. Name several things that you consider your success in this position and which seem to you a failure.
— You know, it was very important that in 2019 the independence of the institution was reaffirmed, because it is crucial to keep the independence and to assure the world that the Commissioner, it is an independent, efficient, reliable institution. We were fighting for that for almost nine months and we won, this right was reaffirmed, and the institution now has the «A» status, it is the highest accreditation. We dealt with the UN, which I used for all those four years in order to report on violations of rights in Ukraine committed by the Russian aggressor.
I think it was the first significant victory.
The second is that most of the citizens learned about the institution of the Commissioner. It is confirmed by the fact that in those four years the number of citizens’ appeals to the Commissioner increased many times. While there were over 20 thousand [appeals] in 2018, in 2021 over 67 thousand citizens appealed to us.
That also says about the awareness about the rights of the citizens, and about the institution which can be addressed and will provide both answers and explanations, and the movement to protect the rights of our citizens.
Of course, we’ve made a lot of effort to tell the world that there is Russian aggression on the territory, that there are our citizens who are taken prisoners in the Russian Federation. We have almost 130 people there, they are imprisoned or convicted and serve their punishment for over six years. Some for seven years, some receive new sentences.
We should tell that the latest exchange there took place on March 7th 2019, the Russian Federation returned 35 of our people. I believe that I carried out the negotiations back in 2019 with another president, and they were finished with president Zelensky. And it is also a success, such cooperation with the Office of the President back then. I believe so.
That if we speak about the rights, one could definitely say that our citizens became aware about the protection of the personal data and we have done a lot to cooperate, for example, with the Ministry of the Digital Transformation of Ukraine in order for the “Diya” app, which now takes the rewards around the world, to act in such a way as to protect the rights of our citizens.
Do you remember all those cases when the people were phoned day and night, when they had to be liable for relatives’ loans? Cooperation with the National Bank and the MPs gave the chance to reduce all this by regulating the legislation.
We’ve also done a lot to implement the national preventive mechanism. We increased the number of visits to the places of detention more than four or five times compared to before.
We began making monitoring visits, checking the observance of human rights in the places of detention. Those are not just penal colonies or the institutions that belong to the state: we also began checking the private institutions. It wasn’t easy.
We agreed to cooperate with law enforcement bodies, including the Prosecutor’s Office, to make them see us as an institution that can at any time check any facility, in order to perform its function of parliamentary control over the observance of rights and freedoms.
Of course, it is a grave hour in the state now, there is also the non-observance of the rights of citizens by the state authorities. But we have focused our work in those four months first of all on the accessibility of our Office for the citizens, for them to be able to report in the restricted conditions. We have increased the number of operators in order for people to be able to phone the hotline any time on any day, even on weekends. The institution worked 24/7.
Between March 4th, when the hotline began working, and June 1st, more than 50 thousand people called us. They reported, among other, the war crimes committed against them or their relatives. And for this period of time, the full-scale invasion, I defined such a task for myself to increase the citizens’ chance to address the Commissioner.
The second [task] is recording the war crimes and assessing those war crimes through international humanitarian law and observance of Geneva conventions, because the Commissioner does not perform the investigations, but only records and provides assessment through international humanitarian law.
Cooperation with other human rights ombudsmans. Some documents and declarations were adopted to support the Commissioner, in order to hear the information about the crimes to the states, in which those ombudsmans are working, To influence the leaders of these states, and the leaders to influence the politicians and the governments for the decisions needed for Ukraine to be taken. It is the pressure on the Russian Federation and provision of weapons.
— And what about the failures or the things that you believe you did not succeed with in this position?
— I believe this may concern our wider cooperation with the state authorities.
In 2019 the cooperation with the Office of the President and the President directly was fine and there were good intentions. But still, later I was unable to establish that cooperation with the main players in the state.
But we worked very fruitfully with the Ministries, the Cabinet of Ministers, with the parliament. I believe that I had to work with them some more. But it depends on more than one side, it is a movement towards one another. That’s why what happened happened here.
— What went wrong in the relationship with the Office of the President? When did it happen?
— I believe that the tension grew, but later it was my independent position. My positions on all the issues. Starting with the expressions of some state officials concerning, for example, LGBTI. I always provided my assessment of such statements, and filed the applications for them to be removed.
And that's why there was such tension not only in this issue, but in the fact that I had my own opinion, and expressed it, and I believe that’s how a Commissioner should act.
But such a point in the relationship was already made when I addressed the Chairman of Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, Mr. Razumkov, concerning my position on the draft law of the so-called oligarchs. And offered to apply to the Venice Commission.
I think some «envoys» came to me then from the Office of the President, saying, «remove this,» or else. Of course, I did not remove it, because I believe that my position was right, it was supported by the Venice Commission.
But then, they wanted to create a special investigation commission concerning an individual, for the first time in the 30 years of our state, against one individual who filed complaints concerning all state bodies and demanded a certain information owned by the state bodies for his business interests.
This initiative did not end in anything, the commission was not created. But it was a signal for me that I have to remember that at any time they will dismiss me.
— Let me clarify, so the Office of the President did not like your position concerning the LGBT people?
— No, they didn’t like it.
— You mentioned the people who are not doing well now, in particular those who are now in the areas occupied by Russia. I believe that you know what happens there now, because the information is rather scarce. What do you know about the conditions they live in and what we can do to help those people? In particular, people in Mariupol who stayed in the city that is now completely ruined.
— Yes, there is information, including the information from partner human rights organizations, we did not break contact, we continue to cooperate. And the information that I receive, it is hard.
We know that people are being kidnapped, children are kidnapped from their parents, there are more than a hundred of such people who are kidnapped and held captive. Those are only civilians.
We know all those camps created for filtration. There are two kinds of filtration camps.
The first kind is for the people who are later forcibly transported to Russia, they are filtered by their attitude towards the «special military operation» on the territory of Ukraine, their phones are checked, they are undressed, their tattoos are checked, their relation to our guys fighting on the frontlines.
If the individual passed the filtration, and those are only older people and women with children, they are transported by bus most often to the Rostov Region of Russia, and later by train throughout the Russian Federation.
Now we know that there are over 500 points of temporal detention governed by the Russian Federation, 2,100,000 people are forcibly relocated there already, including 340,000 children. The count starts on 18th February.
The information provided by the UN is a bit different, but they only have the information starting from 24th February, And they already have information that some of our residents fled.
— We will return to those numbers and to the people who were taken out. As for the people in the occupied territories, what can we do in order to help them now?
— Yes, as for those occupied territories there is another kind of filtration camps, essentially concentration camps. Сitizens of Mariupol, for example, are brought to the concentration camps, in which they are supposed to be held for 36 days, by the rules. But nobody knows how many days an individual would spend there. We only know that the conditions are horrible. For example, there is Olenivka colony. There are 850 places there, but its population is almost 5,000, You can imagine this overload.
People essentially have to sleep while standing. They are given a bottle of water for 30 people for one day. They cannot perform hygiene procedures, they aren’t even let out to use the toilet, they are let out one-three times a day. And that’s it.
They aren’t provided with medical treatment. Back when I was the Commissioner, there were recorded cases of tuberculosis, and then people died of cardio-vascular conditions and nobody called the ambulance.
And the people held in those camps are used for digging through ruins after the shelling in Mariupol. They dig through all this, they find the bodies and either bury or burn them.
Yesterday I received the reports about the people who are not held in concentration camps, but feel like they are. Mariupol is turning into a concentration camp because people don’t have food anymore, don’t have clean water because all those facilities for sewage filtering are destroyed. They drink this water and I believe that some diseases are bound to occur.
Yesterday I received reports that people began making pigeon traps. That means that they don’t have food and will eat what they catch.
You know, it is a very interesting question, how we can help them. And I would really like to support you, that the information should be distributed, when this information reaches the people who make such decisions on the pressure and weapons, they react to it. And thus we strengthen Ukraine’s position, the position of our state and influence the decisions that we require. I am really grateful to the media working in this direction to distribute those facts.
When I was a Commissioner we used to make such an information note twice a day, at 10 am and at 5 pm. We recorded all those crimes, for example, how many children were killed with criminal cases opened after that, how many were wounded, about the bombardment, how the Russian Federation used the weapons prohibited by Geneva conventions. And we recorded it all and sent it to the international human rights organizations, starting with Ms. Bachilet, who is the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, and ending with the European institutions. We were proving it, they used all this information for making resolutions. And many resolutions were adopted by the UN, PACE and the European Parliament, concerning exactly such cases.
We have to discuss Mariupol. We have to discuss AZOV battalion fighters. Where are they now? They were brought out. Some of them are now in Olenivka, some are already in the Russian Federation, and we have to ask. Why did it happen? I wanted to ask exactly this question, where are the people from the Azovstal plant now? Who is holding the negotiations and how are they held?
You know, I was among the participants of the negotiations concerning the sailors. I understand that it is very difficult. It’s very difficult to do. It is a very responsible job and sometimes we say nothing. On 21 May 2019, the acting President, Volodymyr Zelensky learned from me about negotiations that were held concerning the sailors. It was his first day in the position after he took the oath in Verkhovna Rada.
But society needs to know. I am often applied to by the relatives of those AZOV fighters, the marines and civilians who were taken prisoner. And we don’t know how to answer such a question.
Of course, I have the information on how the negotiations started, how they are held now, but I cannot disclose it without causing harm. Harming our state, our negotiators.
— I have to say that if you wish, you can move to the shelter now, because the air raid alert is sounding.
— Let’s think that everything is fine. But I am in an unsafe place.
— Unsafe or safe?
— Unsafe, because it is the Government district.
— I just want to say that you are free to go, I cannot hold you in such a situation or continue the interview.
— As they say, when the war comes, you address God and a soldier. We will pray to God and trust our Armed Forces.
— Okay. What about the prisoners of war in general? You mentioned that colony in Olenivka, which is actually located in another settlement, not Olenivka. It is colony No. 120, former Volnovakha colony. There is the information that the prisoners of war are held there with civilians. You said there were 5, 000 people… We discussed that during our internal meetings of the KHPG and we cannot fully understand how such a number of people can be held. We believe there must be other places, where the prisoners of war are detained, as well as civilians suspected of something. The question is about the prisoners of war. Do you know anything about other places of detention in the occupied territories, and where they are held in Russia?
— Yes, we received the information when I was the Commissioner. We had that Telegram chat bot “Stop Russian aggression” and we received reports through it from caring Russians, who simply wanted to report what they saw and where our guys were held. They sent us the photographs of those colonies in the Rostov Region, Belgorod Region, where our people are held. It was later confirmed when we made interviews with our military who were returned from captivity. They confirmed that they were in the Russian Federation. There are several penal colonies where all other Russian prisoners were relocated to free the space for the prisoners of war. There was a colony in the Rostov Region, which held the prisoners of war, and one building was vacated for the employees of the Federal Security Service (FSB). For those who interrogated our captured soldiers. It was later confirmed in the interviews with our soldiers: the soldiers are brought to the Russian Federation, they are interrogated there, then brought before exchange to Sevastopol to provide them with some aid (so they look less distressed). But all our interviewed people reported about torture, ill-treatment, and about rape. We sent all the information reports that we conducted to the relevant bodies, to let them know. There are urban centers in the Russian Federation where our people are imprisoned.
— Do you know how many soldiers are imprisoned in Russia?
— The International Red Cross did not have this number. At least back when I worked as the Commissioner. The state authorities did not have the number either. Maybe someone knows it. Back then there were numbers under 3, 000, but nobody could tell the exact number. There is the information that our captured soldiers are, for example, in Moscow. In Lefortovo.
— And as for the people who were taken to Russia by force, you mentioned two million people. You suggest that it includes the people who were relocated since 18 February, before the start of the war. But don’t you think that this number is too big? What is the source of your information?
— This information was distributed by the Russian media. It can certainly be questioned but the documents that I received, the insider information, almost confirms that they relocated as many of our citizens. For example, here I have a report on the state of the operational situation in Russia and abroad as of 6 am on 5 May. And it says that since 18 February 2022 the work on providing assistance is organized. So the people have been relocated back then. They say how many people are relocated, how much help is provided. These numbers that they distribute sort of correspond to the documents I am holding — the documents on the plans of relocation of people, how many places were prepared in the temporary accommodation centers as of 21 February. When I spoke to Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees just a month ago, the UN confirmed it was under a million. Our figures were over one million 200 thousand people. Those numbers are practically the same: some people have already left the Russian Federation for other states, including the European Union, therefore real figures are lower. But the Russian Federation may yet add something. And 30% of places that were prepared — according to the data that I have — were not filled when there were over one million 300 thousand people. So I believe that our number may be relevant.
It should be noted that there are temporary accommodation centers to which the people are brought. But of course, some of the people are not relocated forcibly, but even come voluntarily to the Rostov Region because they have to save their lives and the lives of their relatives. We also had the confirmation of such cases. And all are counted.
For example, in Cheboksary they kept 1, 000 people. One responsible individual turned to us, saying that they were a thousand people and asking to relocate them. Help them.
What is the problem? Once our citizens are forcibly relocated, their ID papers are essentially seized, their Ukrainian IDs. They leave without documents. Then they are relocated (I have a confirmation) to Yamalo-Nenets Okrug. There is a curious note, a typical instruction for an officer on duty for their Ministry of Emergency and Yamalo-Nenets government. It clearly defines what to do with the people who have arrived to pass the events and plan to return, what they do while in Russia, appeal for the temporary asylum, what such an individual should do relocating the relatives from the neighboring territories of Ukraine.
Yes, some arrived to visit their relatives. But first of all there is the forcible deportation. As for the number of such people we can use the numbers provided by UN, or by the Russian Federation. Second, there are our people who exit through RF and move along to the European Union, to save their lives, because they cannot leave, for example, to the controlled territory of Ukraine and get to the territories of the European Union in such a way. And third, our people who get there through the filtration camps without the IDs. They need help.
The second thing that needed to be done — we need to sign a treaty or another document with embassies of other states located on the territory of RF, for the provision of consular services to our citizens, for them to have the certificates for their return, to be able to leave to other countries with such document. For example, it could be the embassy of Georgia or the Baltic states. I know that there is such a commission in the Cabinet of Ministers, headed by Mrs. Stefanyshyna. When I was still the Commissioner, my employees were involved in such a meeting, but no decisions were taken then. Some decision may be taken now, I don’t know.
The people needed help and I provided it — when such citizens or the residents of RF turned to me and reported that, for example, there are 450 our people in Penza region, including 132 children, lacking food and clothes, without documents, in a very stressful situation, we asked such citizens of RF, they gathered money, provided aid.
They interviewed the citizens of Ukraine who wanted to relocate. Then they gave us the lists of the citizens who wished to leave. We checked whether they really were citizens of Ukraine and had the documents, and that’s it. We received confirmations from the Migration Service of Ukraine and the Border Service, and we sent the lists to Narva. There, the caring citizens of RF bought tickets for our citizens and they went to Narva, where they met both consulates and the Ukrainian diaspora, in order to receive the chance to leave.
There weren’t many such citizens, over 200. But we need to launch such a procedure on the state level. To make it mandatory.
I spoke with Mrs. Bachiletand and Mr. Grundy concerning this issue. And thanks to our distributed information and proofs, a point was added to the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council to allow the international representatives to visit RF, to provide them safe conditions to visit the centers of temporary accommodation and provide the chances to leave for our citizens who want to leave.
I discussed this with the International Red Cross, for their representatives to promote this in RF and for UNHCR to facilitate this.
But now the number of people is increasing. The number of children is increasing. The situation is dangerous, we have documents, the brochure “Historical truth” for the ages of five to eight. They try to teach Ukrainian children in Russia. It is the history narrated by Putin before the start of the all-out invasion.
— You are right that there are many Ukrainians in Russia, they often have no documents, they cannot leave. For example, Georgia broke diplomatic relations with Russia in 2008, after the start of aggression, in that case the consular services were provided by the embassy of Switzerland.
— It won’t work like that in case of Ukraine. Switzerland hold the middle ground. I discussed this issue with the ambassador of Switzerland. Asked for them to provide such services. I heard about it, that it may be the embassy of Georgia, but how would they do it if they also have difficult positions, so I met the ambassador of Switzerland on this matter. He said they were a mediator. And we had to find some other state that would provide consular services.
But when I discussed it with fellow Ombudsmen of the Baltic countries, they all wanted to participate in the work group, in order to directly provide Ukrainians with a chance to leave through their countries or remain in their countries where it is more comfortable for them to be.
— Does it mean that the Estonian embassy in Russia can provide services to the Ukrainians?
— Those are the powers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we need to use every chance! Our people are transported throughout the Russian Federation, 59 federal districts receive our citizens. I mentioned before Yamalo-Nenets Okrug, Oleg Sentsov served his punishment there in Labytnangi. It is there, in Khardia village in Labytnangi, in Primorsky Kray, for example, Vrangel village. 300 people ended up there. And a citizen of RF messaged me on Facebook about it. We sent all those reports from the citizens of Ukraine and Russia about the places where our citizens are held to the law-enforcement bodies. But unfortunately, I have not received an answer.
— You mentioned the fact that Russia tried to teach Ukrainian children. But if we look more generally at the issue of children relocated to RF, what happens and what may happen to them?
— The estimated number of kids who were brought to RF is 40 thousand now (according to russian reports). Russians had those brochures back in April, made by the Ministry of Education of RF, on what to do with those children. There are the brochures for the regional department of education, for teachers and for parents of those children, everything is strict: an individual has to bring their child to school or to a kindergarten. There are tables of their grades from the certificates for example, what 10 or 12 points mean. Everything is developed, everything is prepared.
They want to teach our children in Russian, to teach them Russian, to change their opinions concerning the history of Ukrainian people, and thus to destroy their national identity. This is the genocide of the Ukrainian people because of what is happening to children.
Another problem concerns children who left without their parents or caretakers. According to the data, confirmed by the authorities, orphans and children whose parents are deprived of parental rights are prepared for adoption in Russia. Some of them have already been adopted.
Not so long ago, in May, the Decree of the President of RF came into force. And it stipulates how to provide citizenship to the children of Ukrainian origin. The simplified procedure of adoption of Ukrainian children by the Russian citizens was prepared: nothing is needed to adopt a child except for the willingness and the ID data. If such a procedure takes place, it will be very hard to return those children to their Motherland.
As for children and their rights in the temporarily occupied territories, the same thing is happening there. The educational institutions fully implement the curriculum of RF. It means that they will study and will continue studying in Russian. All the books are prepared according to the Russian curriculum. In eight years the entire new generation of children already appeared, which studied by that curriculum.
Now the number of such children is increasing drastically because over 20% of our territory is occupied.
— So essentially, regardless of whether the children are brought to Russia or remain in the territories occupied by RF, they lose their roots and they can forget that they are Ukrainians and even forget their parents if they were adopted.
— Yes, it is genocide of Ukrainian people. Without the children the state has no future. It should be emphasized, this information should be distributed, that this situation with children is dangerous. Two children out of three are relocated. Two children out of three are taken from their homes! They either left with their parents or were relocated. Or they have moved from their homes to another part of Ukraine, but they all suffer from the actions of RF. Therefore it should be discussed.
— Let us still discuss your dismissal. The “Ukrainska Pravda” (Ukrainian Truth) published the material on what they believe are the real reasons for your dismissal. Among them, referring to their source, the edition names the lack of transparency of the work of the hot line in your office, in particular, your daughter Oleksandra Kvytko. Here is a quote: “At the same time, the employees of the Office of Ombudsman knew nothing of the work of Oleksandra Kvytko, who calls her and how often, are those calls documented, and what help is provided to the victims. Other psychologists who worked with Kvytko remained unknown as well. Did they even exist? Such questions often arise in the Office, despite the fact that Denysova calls them the psychologists from UNICEF, officially those were regular operators, it was confirmed by the Foundation itself”. How can you comment on that? Were the people who worked in the hot line psychologists or regular operators, and how did the line function?
— The Commissioner has the hot line. The number is 0800501720. It worked around the clock, from 4 March until 1 June,. Since 1 June I was already dismissed from my position. Until then over 50 thousand people turned to us, there are proofs if they were not deleted.
Now let’s talk about the hot line, which was organized according to the UNICEF project. UNICEF organized such a hotline at our request after the urban centers in Kyiv Region were liberated, and the citizens began calling our hotline reporting the need for psychological help.
UNICEF implemented this hot line, UNICEF signed contracts through a civil organization with the psychologists who worked on that hotline. They included my daughter, she used to work with UNICEF in the past. Later, when it all ended, that report on the UNICEF project was sent to the Office of the Commissioner. I saw how many reports there were. For example, it contained tables with the information on the day and time of the calls. But it is confidential information, so there were no names of the people who called. For example, an adult woman was raped, she was provided with help and it was told that she had to turn to law-enforcement bodies. And such a report was sent and contained it all. There were both adults and minors, suicidal intents.
— Can you recall the number of such applications?
— I cannot recall how many, but I can find some of my notes…
— It is important, because Ukrainska Pravda states, referring to their sources, that according to your daughter, the hotline received around 1, 040 calls, including 450 calls about rape of children. However, when the prosecutor took the official statement, it turned out that only 92 calls were received on the phone during that time.
— First of all, why did the prosecutor disclose the secrets of the investigation? It is a question for the Prosecutor General’s Office. Second — there was not a single special phone number in this project open for the phone calls. We placed an additional number on the Commissioner’s site after the request of UNICEF. People also called other phones that were in that project. Therefore the things said by the prosecutor or that journalist are not true. It is one phone number of several that received phone calls. Therefore I have a question concerning this text. I haven’t read it. I only saw the title and the end. It’s clear that the journalist is an advocate for RF and those who ordered it are also advocates of RF. Therefore I have a question for the law-enforcement bodies. If I signed a document for non-disclosure of information, and for keeping the investigation secret, why do our law enforcement bodies act like that? And is this information true?
— Again, in order to finish dealing with this article, it states that the stories of crimes that you publicly disclosed with your daughter, were not sent to the law-enforcement bodies, same as the contacts of the victims. Have you sent them to the law-enforcement bodies, and how many of them?
— All the applications, which come directly to the Commissioner, and contain the name and last name of the individuals if they are willing to disclose them, were sent to the relevant bodies, for the human rights to be restored.
For example, on 8 April I received an appeal from a citizen (he added an audio recording) on the fact that 40 children are in Poland. He named the location, and he said that those kids were raped and molested and requested Ukraine to perform the necessary investigative actions and protect the children. It was immediately sent to the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the juvenile police. On the day of my questioning on 30 May, the prosecutor’s office didn't report anything.
During the questioning I again gave the documents and said that they had to be reviewed. It is an example of the fact that they almost never answered us. Yesterday I clarified with the employees of the Office — there was no reaction to that case.
As for the reports received by the psychologists on the hotline and people who wanted me to disclose the information, it is confidential information, meaning that there are no names. We suggested everyone turn to law-enforcement bodies. The Commissioner sends the application only when it has the name of a citizen. If you read the Mandate of the Commissioner, it clearly states that the Commissioner informs about such cases, directly as the individual wants. Those cases were recorded, and I was supported by the special representative of the UN Secretary General concerning what to do and how to disclose it. She made such a report on 6 June at a meeting of UN Human Rights Council and said that 124 individuals turned to them, concerning rape and violence, 49 of them were children, seven boys. And she said it was just the tip of an iceberg, and people will still turn to law-enforcement bodies. When I met Pramila Patten, still holding the position, we made an agreement and she expressed a request for such trust groups to be created on the basis of the Commissioner’s Office and the regional representatives to teach the psychologists and lawyers to speak to victims properly — to avoid causing the same trauma again.
And I should add that on 19 May the European Parliament adopted a resolution which contains clearly in para.19, that rape and other forms of sexual abuse committed by RF on the territory of Ukraine are war tactics. And that paragraph emphasizes that the commission,was independently created by UN Human Rights Council on 4 March, the International Criminal Court needs to work more actively, monitor the internet, social networks and the media in order to find the particular victims and conduct the necessary investigative actions.
The independent international commission that arrived to us also confirmed that the people did not turn to the law-enforcement bodies. Although it should be noted that, as Pramila Patten said, the Prosecutor General received the reports about the rape even before 12 April, including the group rape with subsequent pregnancy.
It is all confirmed by various bodies. But the investigative actions are conducted by law enforcement bodies, and if an individual does not want to turn to them, their data cannot be transferred to law-enforcement bodies. It is that individual’s decision.
— You have been criticized a lot concerning the public reports about rape. Subsequently you admitted that some of those reports were exaggerated. But were those reports the real cause of your dismissal?
— No, I believe there is another reason.
— Do you know about it?
— I do.
— Can you discuss it publicly?
— I cannot discuss it publicly now, I think I will be able to do it later. I don’t want to harm the process that can take place if I keep silent now.
— Okay. As for your dismissal or what happened after it, my colleague Oleksandr Pavlichenko wrote in Facebook that after your resignation all the activities of the Office of the Commissioner began to close in a few days, all the managers resigned without forgetting to receive their severance pay emptying the budget of the institution. Did the institution really cease functioning? And would you be able to continue the activities being deprived of the mandate?
— I talked to Mr. Oleksandr after I read this. It is his opinion, I have another one, the lawyers have yet another one, and yet another opinion belongs to Verkhovna Rada. When I received the decision on 1 June that was already signed by the Chairman . It was clearly defined there: mistrust that entails dismissal. We discussed, which law is the main one in this situation, if the dismissal was on the basis of an Article, which, in my opinion, could not be used for my dismissal. Because there are legal norms of martial law, Art. 10. According to them, the work of the Commissioner cannot be stopped at any time under any circumstances. But another Article was adopted, meaning that a violation of Art. 55 of the Constitution took place, the one that guarantees everybody the right to turn to the Commissioner. Due to the dismissal we asked a question to the Verkhovna Rada, to its employees and to those who distributed its opinion if it was final and if I should resign. I dismissed myself with my own order, what does it mean? I stopped my powers due to the resolution of Verkhovna Rada.
The Law on the Commissioner clearly states, that the Commissioner receives and considers the applications, the Commissioner implements the national preventive mechanism, and for that purpose, the secretariat is created when there is a Commissioner. That means that I have representatives that are not the state officials, they work as representatives of the Commissioner, when there is one. And the Chairman of the secretariat is responsible for the work of the legal body of the secretariat. So the Commissioner could not work any longer. And the secretariat with the representatives, with some of them working in the central body, did not receive mail any more, meaning that they were not subordinates to the employees of the secretariat anymore.
There is no Commissioner and no representatives. I did not ask anyone to resign.
As for them emptying the budget, no, they didn’t. They went on leave which they are entitled to, and only took what was envisaged as the money for sick leave. Some already used it. There were no other payments. No one received anything for social welfare or anything else.
Now the secretariat works, as well as its chairman. Yes, there are representatives that continue to work, but they work in undefined conditions (the interview was taken before the new Commissioner started work). Because the secretariat works and that’s it. The collision was not created by Denysova. The collision was created by Verkhovna Rada by removing the Commissioner and not appointing a new one. So they dismissed me, fine. But they had to appoint a new Commissioner, because this institution is uninterruptible and now it is ruined. Because the secretariat now works in its current form, they answer the citizens, due to absence of a Commissioner: we cannot now receive and consider the applications, please treat this with understanding.
— I see many people who did not protect you or even criticized you, in particular, those are people who turned to the Commissioner and remained dissatisfied or people who believe that the state did not care enough for their rights. So, a question: what can be done for the Office of the Commissioner to gain popularity and support of the Ukrainians, and can it be done at all, for Ukrainians to defend this institution?
— You see, there are two causes. The first one is a low awareness of our citizens about their rights. And the second is the powers of the Commissioner. The Commissioner is not a court. Not an investigator or a law-enforcement body, he only acts within his mandate. And that's why when an ordinary person writes that we cannot renew their water supply, those are dissatisfied individuals. Or, for example, the low pension amount. It is also a dissatisfaction, but here the Commissioner can only act indirectly. And there are many such people.
But we pay the most attention to the right to address and the right to information — a third of all applications were like this. It was very difficult to work, considering that the authorities had to be taught, too, because they did not observe the people’s right to address them and the right to information. We have to raise the awareness of both groups. And I would say that I succeeded in raising the awareness of the citizens and increasing their trust. Because the number of their applications grew three times. it says not only of the violations of their rights, but also of the increase of their awareness. Sometimes people address the Commissioner as the last instance. So we have to raise the awareness of both the authorities and citizens.
— Here I have to clarify that we are talking about contesting the requests for access to public information and appeals of the citizens, and the Office of the Commissioner is charged with contesting the replies to the requests. I know that your Office receives a lot of applications and it may be overloaded with them, and don’t you think that there is the need to create a separate institution to develop such applications, or should it be left to the Office of the Commissioner?
— You know, we tried to do so. And we participated in the work group which is now a part of the Human Rights Committee, regarding changes to the Law on Citizen Appeals. It is a weird situation: the Commissioners in other countries do not consider applications, under the Law on Citizens’ Appeals. The institution, first of all, is not for the consideration of appeals but for the parliamentary control over compliance with rights. Yes, including the survey of the citizens’ opinions, but it is such an overload, you see! 67 thousand appeals, divide it by the work days! It is an overload for both the Commissioner and the Office, the secretariat and the employees. Of course, there are some mistakes, each case should be considered. It is a great task, and it is necessary for the Commissioner to be exempt from the Law on the Citizens’ Appeals, another procedure is necessary. And we suggested that with the participation of the KHPG to develop the mechanisms and improve the work of the Commissioner. It is better for the Commissioner to be able to address the law-enforcement bodies, the investigators — for example, if the Commissioner believes there are circumstances in which an individual is sentenced to life imprisonment and cannot clear his name. There are many other mechanisms, but they have to be developed.