Kyiv, 15 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In an effort to crack down on illegal adoptions and a thriving trade in sex slaves, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma this week signed amendments to laws making the trafficking of women and children a criminal offense.
Human rights organizations have reported that thousands of Ukrainian women have been lured abroad by offers of employment, only to be sold into forced prostitution. Few official efforts have been made to prosecute offenders, however, and until Monday (April 13), Ukraine's legal code made no reference to trafficking as a criminal offense.
"From now on, law enforcement agencies will not be able to cite the absence of corresponding legislation to deal with this problem," said Nina Karpachova, who chairs Parliament's Human Rights Committee, which drafted the legislation, which was passed by lawmakers during parliament's last sitting in March.
Under the new laws, trafficking in children and adults, aiding illegal adoptions, and the sale of organs and body parts for transplant, all carry sentences ranging from five-to-15 years. Officials who aid perpetrators, either directly or by looking the other way, can also be prosecuted on criminal charges.
Members of the anti-trafficking organization La Strada greeted the new legislation with cautious approval. "I think it's only the first step," said Oksana, a La Strada manager, who declined to give her last name for security reasons. "We would like to see a more definitive law and more defense for the girls."
Prosecuting traffickers will still be difficult, because victims are generally too frightened to testify against their captors, who often threaten to retaliate with violence against women and their families, Oksana said. She called for better protection of witnesses and financial compensation for victims.
Parliamentary deputy Karpachova acknowledged that proper enforcement would take time. In particular, she stressed that the activities of marriage-and-employment agencies, which often act as fronts for trafficking rings, must be closely monitored.
According to figures compiled from foreign consulates by La Strada, as many as 6,000 Ukrainian women have been trafficked to Turkey, 3,000 to Athens and Thessaloniki, and 1,000 to Bosnia, where, La Strada say, many girls work in brothels set up for peace-keeping forces.
The parliamentary committee's investigation into sex trafficking was an offshoot of the group's campaign to protect Ukrainian children from illegal adoption, Karpachova said.
Ukraine made world headlines in 1995, when two doctors and two regional officials in Lviv Region were arrested for aiding the illegal adoption of 50 children by foreigners, who had not gone through proper channels. Local media claimed that the defendants pressured mothers into giving up their children and charged foreign couples large amounts of money to speed-up the adoption process. Those allegations were never proved in court. The four were found guilty of abusing their positions and falsifying documents, and sentenced to prison terms of up to four years in September, but avoided jail under an amnesty decreed by President Kuchma.
Karpachova said the four could have been tried on criminal charges carrying stiffer sentences under the new laws.
Whatever deterrent the laws can provide comes too late for Vyacheslav Kisilyov, who claims his grandchild was stolen from the maternity ward of a Kyiv hospital three years ago. "I don't want to punish any doctors, I just want to find our child," he said.
Kisilyov told a gruesome story at a Kyiv press conference Monday, saying his daughter was forced to have her baby by Cesarean section, after going to the hospital for a routine check-up two weeks before her baby was due. When she woke after the surgery, hospital staff told her the baby had died and had her sign a document giving the hospital rights to handle the burial, Kisilyov said. Kisilyov said that when he asked to see the child's corpse, he was taken to another hospital and shown the body of a different baby, one which investigators later told him was seven months old.
Investigation into Kisilyov's case is proceeding. Anyone convicted will now face between five-and-ten years in prison, or up to 15 years, if their actions are proven to part of a criminal conspiracy.
Investigations into similar cases have been launched in Rivne and Donetsk, said Karpachova. In Ternopil, she said, a case has been opened, concerning the fate of more than 50 orphans who never returned from a trip to the United States in 1992. The children were allegedly adopted illegally by American families.
Lily Hyde is a Kyiv-based journalist, who specializes in feature reports on social, educational and cultural issues.