Editor's Note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence. The names of the teenagers who figure in the case are not mentioned as Ukrainian law does not allow them to be made publicly available.
On a summer day in 2021, three teenage boys sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl, filmed it on camera, and posted the video online.
Their prison sentence? None.
In March, 1.5 years after the assault, a local court in western Ukraine sentenced the trio to two years of probation and a fine.
The case caused a public outcry and a nationwide scandal. Television channels rushed to interview the girl and her family, and lawyers offered to take her case pro bono and fight for a stricter verdict.
The scandal highlighted a striking flaw in the Ukrainian justice system: tolerance of sexual violence.
According to Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets, the local court in the western Zakarpattia Oblast initially sentenced the boys to five years in prison but released them from punishment, placing all three on probation for two years.
The official reason for the soft sentence was that the crime was rendered as sexual violence, not rape. These are covered by two different articles of the Ukrainian Criminal Code. Rape comes with a more severe punishment.
According to the Criminal Code, rape committed by a group of people or rape of a minor is punished by 7-12 years of imprisonment, while sexual violence against a minor or committed by a group, is 5-7 years behind bars. The only difference between them is that rape implies the act of penetration into the victim's body, which, according to the statement published by the Volovetskyi District Court, did not take place.
As stated by the court, the girl was hit in the stomach and bent over with her head squeezed between one of the boys' legs. Then, they took off her clothes and underwear and "committed acts of a sexual nature, not related to penetrating the body," causing her physical pain, the document reads.
"The idea that rape is horrendous and sexual violence is not — is wrong," attorney Anna Kalynchuk told the Kyiv Independent. "Pain, humiliation, and severe stress are the same for rape and sexual violence," she said.
And two years of probation is an unfair punishment for such a serious crime, according to Kalynchuk, who is among the attorneys who stepped in to help the girl and her relatives fight for justice following the scandal. They are now preparing to appeal, Kalynchuk says without disclosing further details.
According to Kalynchuk, there is a culture of tolerance of sexual violence that thrives in Ukraine due to the lack of sexual education programs and the courts' systematic failure to punish such crimes and, therefore, prevent other crimes of the kind.
"What outrages me the most is that when we talk about the punishment (for sexual violence crimes), people start saying, 'Why should we ruin (the offenders) lives by sending them to prison," Kalynchuk says.
"At the same time, no one talks about how victims can overcome what was done to them. No one thinks about how their lives are broken already," she adds.
According to a 2021 report by the Ukrainian research agency Fama, 23% of respondents reported being victims of sexual violence or sexual harassment as children, while 4% of respondents were victims of rape.
On Aug. 24, 2021, Ukraine's Independence Day, a 14-year-old girl from the village of Verkhni Vorota in Zakarpattia Oblast was invited to the house yard of a local teenager from her school. His two friends joined, and the group went to the basement.
According to the court's statement, the girl said she was "on friendly terms with the boys and came to the basement voluntarily, not knowing what they were planning to do."
In the basement, they hit and undressed the girl. Then, each of them "committed acts of sexual nature," allegedly without penetrating her body.
"She did not tell anyone about the event, feeling fear and shame," reads the court’s statement.
However, the assault became widely known after the teenagers posted a video of them sexually assaulting the girl online.
Kalynchuk says it was the police who contacted the girl's relatives at first. After that, the relatives reported the crime. Around Sept. 14, nearly three weeks after the assault, the boys were detained, says Kalynchuk.
It is unknown whether they interacted with the girl before their detention.
Kalynchuk says that since Verkhni Vorota is a relatively small village with around 2,000 residents, the victim and her offenders are "practically neighbors" and that she "can see their house from her yard."
According to the attorney, the teenagers were not classmates, as often stated in Ukrainian media: The girl was in the ninth grade, and the boys were in the 10th at the time the crime was committed.
Even almost two years after that terrible event, the girl can not discuss it freely, says Kalynchuk.
"It caused her so much stress," she explains.
"In the end, she did not even see that justice has been done because these people hadn't been punished."
What did the court rule and why?
During the trial, "due to the lack of evidence," the Zakarpattia Oblast Prosecutor's Office changed the allegation from rape to sexual violence, reads the court's statement. According to the court’s verdict, medical expertise concluded that there was no penetration.
However, Kalynchuk says that the first medical expertise was conducted in mid-September, about three weeks after the incident. According to the lawyer, the fact of penetration or its absence could not be established at that stage since “time passed and the biological samples washed away.”
"If she had been examined immediately that day or the next, this could have been established," Kalynchuk says.
Even charged with sexual violence, the teenagers who had committed the crime were expected to get a sentence of up to seven years, not probation.
However, some conditions mitigate a crime's punishment, one of which is that the crime was committed by minors, says Kalynchuk.
Another one is that the local probation center concluded that correcting the behavior of accused teenagers' is possible even without imprisonment and "does not pose a serious danger to society."
"How they reached this conclusion is one part of the issue, but it played an important role (for the court)," says Kalynchuk.
The three of them also together paid Hr 60,000 ($1,640) in compensation to the victim during the early stages of the trial, which is considered to be a condition that mitigates the punishment since it shows that they "understand what they did and are trying to fix it," according to the attorney.
However, Kalynchuk says the girl initially asked for a total of Hr 450,000 ($12,300), but the court did not satisfy her request, ordering the offenders to each pay Hr 60,000 more (which makes a total compensation of Hr 240,000 or $6,560).
"They also admitted their guilt," says Kalynchuk.
All these mitigating circumstances combined do not allow sentencing offenders more than two-thirds of the maximum term implied in the article they are charged with, Kalynchuk says.
So in the end, the judge could sentence them to a maximum of 4.6 years, Kalynchuk says. That allowed the offenders to apply for a probation term, since to be able to do so, they have to be facing a term of no more than 5 years.
"And this is what happened in this case," she says.
Changing the system
While the court's decision " was made within the norms of Ukraine's Criminal Code," it is far from fair, according to Kalynchuk.
"It was committed by a group of people. It was filmed and posted online," she says.
"It will remain on the Internet and, in addition to what she's already been through, the girl will potentially be harmed by the fact that it's available to everyone," Kalynchuk adds.
The teenagers who committed the crime spent around three months in a pre-trial detention center, which Kalynchuk says was the only "actual" punishment they got.
Kalynchuk says stealing over Hr 200 ($5) is considered a "serious crime" in Ukraine, just like sexual violence.
"If we analyze the register of court decisions, there are many more actual terms for theft of about Hr 1,000 ($27) than for sexual violence," Kalynchuk says.
"So for stealing someone's phone, one would go to jail, but for committing sexual violence, one gets probation," she goes on.
"But when we talk about the threat to society, what could potentially harm a person more – the fact that their phone got stolen or that they were sexually abused?"
Kalynchuk, who is also working on other cases of sexual violence and rape, says the victims — primarily women — often do not believe that justice would prevail and do not even report to the police.
"And this needs to be changed," she says.
"There should be real imprisonment for such crimes, and there should be a feeling of inevitability of the punishment," Kalynchuk adds.
"Then, people will know that if they commit such a crime, they will go to jail, and it will help to prevent such cases in the future."
Was there corruption?
Since the case hearing was closed, the name of the judge was not publicly available.
However, Ukrainian TV presenter and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Goodwill Ambassador Masha Efrosinina claimed that the judge behind the court’s verdict was Oksana Sofilkanych.
Soon after that, local media outlet in Zakarpattia Oblast, Mukachevo.net, reported that it wasn’t the first “scandalous” ruling of this judge.
According to the media, Sofilkanych ruled to acquit local official Mykhailo Popelych, who was accused of bribery in 2020.
Popelych, then-newly-elected head of the Volovets territorial community with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, was detained when “receiving money from corruption schemes from restoring the road and transport infrastructure of the region,” Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) reported in November 2020.
The alleged verdict, published by the local media, shows that the court acquitted Popelych and his accomplice due to “the failure to prove that he committed a criminal offense.” It was signed by Sofilkanych, according to the media.
Following the public outrage regarding the verdict in the teenage sexual violence case, Ombudsman Lubinets wrote on Telegram that his team will “carefully” analyze the actions of the judge and local Prosecutor’s Office. Lubinets also said he “doubts the professionalism of the actions of the regional authorities,” since the event took place almost two years ago but the “court has only passed a verdict on the case now.”
“The case is under my control. A violation of the child's right to protection and a fair trial was recorded,” Lubinets wrote.
“The rights of the underage girl must be restored,” he added.
Note from the author:
Hi, Daria Shulzhenko here. I wrote this piece for you. Since the first day of Russia's all-out war, I have been working almost non-stop to tell the stories of those affected by Russia’s brutal aggression. I have also been telling other stories of human suffering in Ukraine. By becoming the Kyiv Independent's patron, you can help us continue giving voice to those who need to be heard the most.