MainPublications -

"Tell another hundred times what happened to you": how Ukrainian justice re-traumatises victims of violence

August 2008, Washington, USA. 18-year-old Marie from a foster family tells the police about how she was raped by an unknown man. She first shared her harrowing account with the officers who documented the crime report, then with the dedicated detectives assigned to investigate her case, and once more during the subsequent physical examination at the hospital and collection of evidence. However, due to overwhelming anxiety and the trauma she had endured, the girl struggled to piece her memories together, leading to confusion. Regrettably, the parents and detectives involved came to the misguided conclusion that she was merely seeking attention and had fabricated the story of her assault. It was only after a few years, in 2011, her abuser was arrested after he raped several more women. The story came to light in 2015 - it was uncovered by journalists from the American NGOs "The Marshall Project" and "ProPublica". Their Pulitzer Prize-winning article, titled "An Unbelievable Story of Rape", served as the foundation for the powerful Netflix series "Unbelievable," which shed light on this injustice for the wider public.


This story effectively illustrates how secondary victimisation works and what it leads to. Human rights defenders define this term as the repeated re-traumatisation of an individual's psyche due to multiple interactions with justice authorities or encounters with suspects/accused individuals, such as during court proceedings. However, the issue extends beyond the victim having to recount their traumatic experience to the authorities multiple times. Throughout this process, various individuals continue to question the victim's account, prodding for details over an extended period, which can erode the victim's trust in the pursuit of justice. The primary focus of investigators lies in conducting an effective investigation, while prosecutors are tasked with preparing an indictment for court proceedings. Unfortunately, they do not always consider how their words or actions might be perceived by the victims, neglecting the potential impact on their well-being.

Meanwhile, within the Ukrainian information sphere, ongoing discussions persist regarding a disturbing case of sexual violence perpetrated against a 14-year-old girl in Transcarpathia. The majority of Ukrainians express outrage at the recent ruling made by the Volovetsky District Court. Unfortunately, this case has shed light on the systemic inadequacies within our legal system when it comes to handling sensitive cases, particularly those involving sexual violence where both the perpetrators and victims are minors. 

Now, there is a glimmer of hope for a different outcome in this case: the General Prosecutor's Office has expressed its intent to appeal the verdict, and human rights defenders have offered their assistance to the victim's family in their defence. However, there remains a significant hurdle to overcome. It is probable that the girl will be subjected to various distressing stages of the judicial investigation once again.

Draft laws No. 5617 and No. 5618 "On child-friendly justice," propose systemic changes to protect children's rights in criminal proceedings. These laws aim to minimise trauma for minor victims and witnesses. Since they were initiated by the government and have undergone thorough discussion, their adoption should face minimal resistance due to the non-political nature of protecting children's rights.


Unfortunately, these initiatives have remained stagnant for nearly two years despite the Parliamentary Legal Committee\'s obligation to review the draft laws within 30 days.


Recently, it was revealed that the Legal Committee, headed by Denys Maslov of the "Servant of the People" party, has decided to return it to the government for further revision. It turned out that the position of a single MP can potentially delay crucial changes for years, disregarding the pressing need highlighted by recent cases of violence against minors. In the following explanation, we will outline the significance of these two draft laws and how they would help not only in Transcarpathian rape cases but also in hundreds of similar cases throughout Ukraine.

Child-friendly justice

Child-friendly justice standards, although established globally for some time, are relatively new to the Ukrainian legal system. The Council of Europe has been promoting these standards since 2010. Draft laws No. 5617 and No. 5618 align with European practices and were developed by the Interdepartmental Coordination Council on Juvenile Justice Issues. This council consisted of government officials, representatives from law enforcement agencies, judges, and international and Ukrainian NGOs specialising in child rights protection. Unfortunately, these draft laws are currently stalled at the parliamentary committee level. What are Ukrainian children deprived of as a result of the procrastination of the MPs?

Firstly, the draft laws introduce new interview methods for child victims and witnesses of crimes, taking into account their individual and psychological characteristics. Specifically, questions would be posed through a psychologist who selects appropriate wording and determines the child's readiness to respond at that moment. These methods, known as "Green Room", "Barnachus", or similar, allow justice authorities to communicate indirectly with the child through a specialist.

Barnachus children's centre in Chernivtsi
Barnachus children's centre in Chernivtsi

Secondly, the draft laws aim to minimize re-traumatization by reducing the number of direct interrogations of the child. Instead of repeatedly summoning and questioning victims during court sessions, video recordings of the pre-trial investigation interrogations would be used.

Thirdly, the draft laws "On child-friendly justice" mandate training for all specialists working with children in contact with or in conflict with the law. This extensive list includes police officers, investigators, prosecutors, social workers, mediators, and probation officers. The specialised training will enhance their understanding of children's psyche and equip them with the skills to effectively work with vulnerable groups, such as victims of sexual violence.

Not for the first and the last time

Amidst the ongoing controversy, another distressing incident involving a crime against a minor has come to light. A 12-year-old girl, upon learning about the sexual violence in Transcarpathia, reached out to law enforcement authorities herself. However, before this story can conclude with the punishment of her abusers and her hopeful psychological rehabilitation, the girl must endure a series of interrogations during the pre-trial investigation and in court. She will be required to recount the harrowing details of her sexual assault multiple times. This unfortunate situation serves as a stark reminder that cases of assault in Transcarpathia represent just a fraction of the larger issue of violent crimes against children. The minimum action that can be taken now is the adoption of draft laws № 5617 and № 5618 in order to halt further traumatisation and prevent harm to victims seeking justice. The Legal Committee must reconsider its decision unless it is willing to bear responsibility for the damage inflicted upon a significant number of child victims of violence across Ukraine.


Maksym Sereda, Lawyer, DEJURE Foundation
Samira Abbasova, Communications Manager, DEJURE Foundation
Read news on social networks Facebook, Twitter and Telegram