An end to high-level protection for the killers of Ukrainian activist Katya Handziuk?
It took well over a year and two attempts to capture Oleksiy (Moskalenko) Levin, a key suspect in the savage murder of Kherson activist Kateryna Handziuk. He has now been extradited from Bulgaria and remanded in custody, but only after a second operation, with Levin having been tipped off, presumably by somebody within the enforcement bodies, about the first attempt. This was not the first occasion that Levin was helped to flee prosecution, nor the only example of high-level sabotage of attempts to ensure that those who ordered the acid attack on Handziuk face justice. Handziuk was fearless in criticizing and exposing the corruption of people in high places and in the police force, and Vladyslav Manher, one of the main suspects in this case, has not been suspended from his influential post as Head of the Kherson Regional Council.
Hopes that Levin’s extradition would result in real progress in bringing all those responsible for the attack to answer might have been dashed due to suspect decisions taken earlier by prosecutors which could have forced the criminal investigation into the charges against him and Manher to be terminated on 2 April this year. This fortunately did not happen. After several hearings at the Pechersky District Court in Kyiv during which Manher, Levin and their lawyers fought hard for the shorter period, the court allowed the application from the prosecutors and extended the investigation for four months, to 29 July 2020. This should, hopefully, be sufficient time for the new prosecutors, appointed after Viktor Trepak was appointed Deputy Prosecutor General in October 2019 and placed in charge of all investigations linked with Handziuks murder.
In a recent interview to Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, Trepak discussed movement in the case over the last five months, and gave a fairly damning account of the actions by the police and Prosecutor General’s Office that have systematically blocked progress.
Handziuk was an aide to the Mayor of Kherson and a civic activist, well-known for her hard-hitting criticism of corruption by those in high places and in the police force. She was attacked outside the entrance to her apartment block on 31 July, 2018, with the assailant hurling a litre of the acid used in car batteries at her. She received burns to almost 40% of her body and needed to be airlifted to a hospital in Kyiv where she underwent 11 operations. She died on 4 November, aged just 33. For most of the last year and a half, it was thanks to her father Viktor Handziuk, friends and activists that an innocent man was not falsely charged and that progress was made in identifying not only the real perpetrators, but also those believed to have commissioned the horrific attack. That key role is, in fact, acknowledged by Trepak, as is the alarming number of other attacks on civic activists over the last two years.
Trepak explains that what he found in October last year were several criminal investigations, each carried out by a separate group of investigators and prosecutors. The initial investigation had been reasonably efficient, he says, with the perpetrators identified, as well as the direct organizer of the crime. As reported, on 6 June, 2019, Serhiy Torbin was convicted of having coordinated the attack and jailed for 6.5 years. Mykola Hrabchuk got 6 years for having carried out the attack. Volodymyr Vasyanovych and Vyacheslav Vyshnevsky were jailed for 4 years, Viktor Horbunov – for 3 over their roles in the crime.
It is generally the case that the perpetrators are found, but not those who commissioned the crime. In this case, however, it was only thanks to two of Handziuk’s journalist friends that the person initially arrested and charged with the attack was proven to have an unbreakable alibi and released. Mykola Novikov said after his release that he had been placed under great pressure to admit to a crime he had not committed.. When reminded of this, Trepak pointed out that the initial arrest of the wrong person has resulted in another ongoing problem, since Prosecutor General’s Office prosecutors quite unwarrantedly set the clock ticking from the moment that Novikov was charged. This, Trepak says, is “nonsense both from the logical, and from the legal, point of view”. Since the Criminal Procedure Code imposes time restrictions, the nonsense is, however, convenient for those wanting an excuse to shorten the investigation period.
Trepak also notes that his prosecutors have “a very large number of questions regarding the role of the Interior Ministry and the police”. It must be said that Handziuk’s family and friends, civic activists and investigative journalists have long voiced these and other questions, with some of them also addressed at the Prosecutor General’s Office.
Trepak is careful with his language, but does certainly acknowledge the problems. He says that the people believed to have ordered and organized the crime were identified and informed that they were under suspicion. “The investigators and prosecutors applied to the court for the arrest of these individuals and for their removal from their positions. But then, somehow, it all stopped. You have the impression that there was external interference in the investigation or that the brakes were deliberately applied.”
The fragmentation hits you in the eye, he adds. Instead of uniting inter-connected episodes into one whole, they were separated off from one another, with this having an adverse impact on the efficiency and the comprehensive nature of the investigation, and resulting in actions being incorrectly classified, and to certain people escaping liability.
Trepak does not name names, but it is clear that he is referring to Ihor Pavlovsky when he speaks of the “startlingly passive position of the investigators regarding one of the key suspects whose role was change from an active participant in the crime to secondary involvement in the crime by concealing it”.
Viktor Handziuk expressed anger last October over changes in most of the charges. Even if the perpetrators were ignorant enough to have not known that a litre of sulphuric acid would likely prove fatal, he was convinced that this was not an excuse that would work with respect to those who had commissioned the crime. The perpetrators had been allowed to reach a deal with the prosecution, with this leading to a reduction in the charges – and the sentence – from murder (as a contract killing) to causing grievous bodily harm which resulted in a fatality. This resulted in a lighter charge against Manher (and Levin, although the latter was already in hiding).
Viktor Handziuk was also angered by the substantial reduction in the charges against Pavlovsky. The latter was in constant contact with the law enforcement bodies in Kherson, and was also an aide to an MP from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc. In spite of weighty grounds for suspecting Pavlovsky of playing a significant role in the crime, the charges against him were reduced from organizing the attack or simply having found out about it and failed to inform the police (details here).
On 20 January 2020, around 35 searches were carried out in the Kherson oblast, with Pavlovsky arrested and later remanded in custody on charges of heading a criminal gang in Kherson involved in violence and arson attacks. Eight other men were informed of charges, including Serhiy Torbin, who is already imprisoned over Handziuk’s killing. Ukrainska Pravda and other media reported that those searched included Manher, as well as two other figures - Andriy Hordeyev, former head of the Kherson Regional Administration and his deputy, Yevhen Ryshchyk. These two have been repeatedly mentioned by Viktor Handziuk and civic activists, though had remained untouched. Some suggested that this was because Manher was associated with the Batkivshchyna party of Yulia Tymoshenko, while Hordeyev and Ryshchyk, at least at the time of the crime, were linked with the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko. According to Trepak, Ryshchyk is now facing charges of causing bodily injuries. He adds that the investigators are probing the alleged crimes that Handziuk herself had pointed to, including with respect to forestry. There are also allegations that police were involved in many crimes linked with this gang, which Trepak asserts are now under investigation.
Levin and Manher
It was assumed that Levin’s arrest in Bulgaria on 27 January was linked to the arrests and searches in the Kherson oblast a week earlier, however Trepak describes an operation that must have taken much longer to organize. He says that only four people in Ukraine knew about the special operation: Trepak himself, Prosecutor General Riaboshapka; the head of the SBU [Security Service] Ivan Bazhanov; and President Volodymyr Zelensky. As mentioned, there were compelling grounds for such secrecy, since somebody, presumably in the law enforcement agencies, had warned Levin about the first planned capture, giving him time to flee. There has also long been concern as to how Levin was effectively left to make his escape after the arrest of the perpetrators, although he had also been identified as a suspect. It then took the prosecution several months to get him placed on the wanted list.
Trepak says that they are aware “of the sources and mechanisms for countering investigators and prosecutors in the case”, and suggests that investigations into such activities are underway. Whether these come to anything remains to be seen.
It seems clear that it is not so much Levin who is being protected, as the information he could reveal.
The criminal charges against Manher and Levin were joined into one prosecution. That elicited concern in July 2019 when it was learned that the prosecutor had suspended the investigation, since Levin was in hiding. Although this had the advantage of not running down the amount of time allowed for a criminal investigation (one year), it was also seen as a way of putting everything permanently on hold, since few believed that Levin would be caught.
He was caught, however, and Trepak is now saying that the case against Levin and Manher could reach the court this year. He believes that Levin’s return could change a great deal in this case.
“It is no secret”, he says, “that one of his [Mahner’s] lawyers met with Levin while the latter was in hiding. It was also reported that certain lawyers tried to meet with Levin in Bulgaria” while he was in detention pending a decision on extradition. Trepak adds that he would not be surprised if one of the defendants in the case financed Levin’s lawyers. “It’s clear what their interest is”, he says, while pointing out that it is first and foremost Levin who stands to gain by giving truthful testimony. For the moment, Levin clearly does not see things in this light. During a hearing late on 24 March, he asserted that he had been put under pressure, including through the threat to arrest his wife, to give testimony against the other defendants
During the interview, Trepak was asked why Manher had not even been suspended from his post as head of the Kherson Regional Council. He responded by saying that by the time his team began working on the case, the investigation had been suspended. They had no legal mechanism for asking the court to suspend Manher, although he acknowledges that objectivity would be served by Manher’s suspension.
Trepak says that the Handziuk investigation has demonstrated that the Kherson oblast has a powerful clan which rules in the region, which the law enforcement agencies are under and which people genuinely fear. “All key economic, political and other issues are determined by the main players in this clan, some of whom are involved in this criminal prosecution. The clan has serious international links, including in Europe. I can say that it was no accident at all that Levin found a hiding place in Bulgaria.”
Trepak mentions also that members of the Kherson clan have business interests in territory occupied by Russia, in particular Crimea. This, he stresses, should not be disregarded. For Russia, the Kherson oblast is of strategic importance for the Russian security service who are known to have attempted various forms of special operations, as well as methods aimed at corrupting the local authorities, using criminal gangs and crushing patriotic movements. The clan form of feudalism is not confined to only the Kherson oblast, and Trepak warns that if measures are not taken, the situation can only get worse, especially in view of moves in Ukraine towards decentralization. The latter will only strengthen existing clans and their grip on power at local level.
It is not at all uncommon for investigators under a new administration to criticize their predecessors. In this case, however, Trepak’s team seems to have made real progress and it is no accident that Viktor Handziuk and the civic activists from the “Who ordered Katya Handziuk’s murder?” initiative reacted with concern to news earlier in March of Riaboshapka’s dismissal. For the moment Trepak and his team appear to be continuing their work unobstructed under the new Prosecutor General. The problems of the last year and a half have shown that this is only one of many hurdles to holding all those who commissioned and carried out a savage murder to answer. At present Manher and his lawyers are fighting hard to push flawed timing, based on the arrest of the wrong man, in order to get the criminal investigation against their client and Levin ended on 2 April.