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Hunt for activists

In recent months, it seems like a real hunt has been launched in Ukraine for civic activists. Some receive verbal threats, some get beaten up, stabbed, and lately even attacked with acid and killed.

Photo from UNIAN

On Tuesday, July 31, two attacks on civic activists were reported in two regions of Ukraine - Zaporizhia and Kherson. In Kherson, official of the city's executive committee, a well-known activist Kateryna Handziuk, became a victim of an acid attack. As reported by journalist Serhiy Nikitenko, an unknown perpetrator was waiting for the girl at her apartment building's entrance. "She sustained serious burns. Now she is in the hospital, no details yet. Please don't spread unchecked information," he wrote.

The attacked poured acid on the woman's face, a preliminary police report says.  

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Nearly 30% of the activist's body was affected by acid burns as the liquid was spilled on her head (eyes), flowing down her neck, back, and hand.

"She's in a heavy condition, stable, and conscious. Anti-shock measures are being carried out. Against the background of the shock, there are other problems, including with kidneys, which is typical for all types of burns," said Ihor Ravelev, an anesthesiologist at the Kherson Regional Hospital.

At the moment, the police are on hunt for the attacker (a man wearing a dark T-shirt, dark cap, and brown shorts). At the same time, law enforcers initially qualified the attack as "hooliganism."

Later the same day, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko personally took over control in the case. The crime has been re-qualified for "inflicting intentional heavy bodily harm committed with the aim of intimidating the victim," and later - to an "attempt on life."

Impunity gives rise to permissiveness

Ukrainian office of Transparency International has already expressed outrage over the incident. "The use of an acid against a public figure in broad daylight near her own home is a new challenge for Ukraine's law enforcement system. In the past year, we have already witnessed the arson of media offices, beatings of the civic investigators, liquids being poured on activists. The society is systematically receiving signals about the dangers of taking an active civic stance. It is unacceptable. Finally, it's time for the National Police to give a clear signal that any attempts to use force against activists will be exposed, and those who commit attacks are brought to justice," the organization said.

"We warn the Kherson police against the temptation to put the investigation on brakes. After all, Kateryna Handziuk was and remains a critic of local law enforcement agencies for their not always consistent position in protecting the sovereignty of Ukraine and the rule of law in the city. We are waiting for the results of the investigation and establishing those who ordered this crime and their motives," Transparency International added.

Such warnings against local law enforcement bodies do not look superfluous, given that some experts believe that the law enforcers themselves are involved in the attack on Kateryna. "Handziuk for several years has been a nightmare for local law enforcers, disclosing their corrupt schemes. And I don't rule out that the police could be behind the attack," said Olha Reshetilova, coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights.

In her opinion, the police choose a lighter article [hooliganism], since in this case law enforcement will be asked less questions about why the case is not being investigated properly. "I think that such cases cannot be investigated by local police, as they, as a rule, themselves put pressure on activists. There are already dozens of cases of attacks on journalists and activists, in which the police are absolutely inactive. This is a consequence of the unreformed police, which for the most part considers activists, not criminals or separatists, their main enemy. We even can't ensure effective investigations of crimes, let alone the protection of activists. In the police reform, we did not achieve the main thing - breaking the connection between the criminals and the police. I do not rule out that we'll see similar cases in the future if the previous resonant cases are not being investigated," she said.

From threats to murder

Unfortunately, taking an active civic stance is getting not only scary, but also deadly dangerous. On the same day, when in Kherson Kateryna Handziuk was crippled with acid, in Berdyansk (Zaporizhia region), a 43-year-old activist of Berdyansk self-defense community and a local Automaidan, Donbas war veteran Vitaly Oleshko (call sign "Sarmat") was shot and killed.

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"In broad daylight, a murderer with a hunting rifle came in a backyard of a small hotel, built by Vitaly, and shot "Sarmat" in the back. Next to Vitaliy were his wife and a friend, also a war veteran, Andriy Madzharov," wrote journalist Yury Butusov.

Criminal proceedings were opened under Part 1 of Article 115 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (premeditated murder). In addition, in Zaporizhia and Donetsk regions, a Siren interception plan was introduced to detain the offender. The investigation is under the control of the leadership of the National Police.

Vitaly Oleshko was a well-known activist in Berdyansk. In May 2014, he volunteered to become part of the Donbas Battalion and fought for Popasna, Lisichansk, and Ilovaysk. In August 2014, he was captured by the enemy near Ilovaisk. In 2015, after returning from captivity, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov personally awarded Oleshko the Order "For Courage" of the third degree. After returning from war, Sarmat continued his active work in Berdyansk, organizing a number of protest actions near the Zaporizhia Regional State Administration. For example, he accused the region's leadership of opaque allocation of land to servicemen.

As Andriy Madzharov told UNIAN, it is the ex-mayor of Berdyansk, Verkhovna Rada MP Oleksandr Ponomarev, with whom Oleshko had a long-standing public conflict, who may be involved in the murder.

"He is now our main suspect. With this man at the level of Berdyansk and Zaporizhia region, there has long been a political war. The city now has a monopoly on power - all utilities, the city council, and officials are affiliated with the deputy, they also help him siphon money from the budget, and Vitaly tried to stop it," said Madzharov.

Actually, according to Sarmat's friend, Vitaly was repeatedly threatened. Moreover, local authorities in Berdyansk facilitated the opening of a number of criminal proceedings against Oleshko in an attempt to seize his property - the hotel in the courtyard of which the owner was killed. Oleshko had already grown accustomed to a variety of measures on the part of local officials, including unscheduled inspections of his business...

It's dangerous to be an activist

It should be noted that recently in Ukraine there have actually been several high-profile attacks on activists. In May of this year, a Donbas veteran, defender of the Donetsk Airport Dmytro Verbych was assaulted in Kyiv. The victim was walking along the street when he got stabbed in the back. The group of attackers consisted of three male teenagers and another female, all wearing masks. Kyiv police also opened an investigation into "hooliganism". Later it turned out that one of the attackers was the daughter of an official from the Ministry of Defense, and received a suspended sentence.

In June this year in Odesa, two unidentified perpetrators attacked the leader of Odesa Automaidan, Vitaly Ustymenko. The attackers broke his head and wounded him in the hip. The police are investigating the case as an assassination attempt. Before that, Ustymenko had already been assaulted by a group of attackers after the court session to elect a measure of restraint to the mayor of Odesa, Hennady Trukhanov.

Also, two attacks were committed on the Odesa leader of the "Right Sector," Serhiy Sternenko. Moreover, the second time, he killed the attacker in a self-defense effort. Sternenko repeatedly asked the police to provide him protection, but only after the second attack and the death of the attacker did Sternenko receive a guarded witness status.

In addition, a year ago in Odesa, at the door of her own house, an activist, a participant in the expert commission of the investigation team of the "May 2 case," Svitlana Podpal, was beaten up.

And in 2017 in Kharkiv, deputy of the local regional council Dmytro Bulakh, known for being the creator and head of the public organization "Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center," which conducts its own investigation of the distribution of land in Kharkiv, was also beaten.

Unfortunately, all these stories only confirm the fact that Ukraine has not yet been fully reformed. Enjoying relative impunity, criminals are moving from threats and beatings to actual murders.

Anastasia Zaremba, Iryna Dubchenko

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