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23.10.2009

Sludge Fest

   

Ukrainian politics.

The Ukrainian presidential campaign kicked off on Oct. 19 with allegations of pedophilia, rape, extortion and blackmail.  And there’s still nearly three months left for the debate to sink deeper into the muck before the Jan. 17 vote.

The child sex abuse scandal exploded onto the national scene on Oct. 13 like ignited gasoline. A flurry of accusations and denials has played out ever since. The children involved were named by some media and exposed to public scrutiny. They became pawns in guerrilla political warfare that also possibly spoiled any criminal investigation.

Authorities believe that at least two children – a brother and a sister – were sexually abused. But police say they don’t know who abused the children or how many children were victimized. They also have not determined whether any abuse took place at Artek, a Crimean children’s camp famous since Soviet times. Law enforcers also say they do not know whether three members of parliament, part of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s faction, are involved in the sexual abuse. They deny it.

The list of victims and potential victims is getting longer. Careers will be ruined, justifiably or not. Law enforcement’s reputation for ineptness will grow. The nation’s tattered image will undergo yet another shredding internationally.

Family dispute

The child sex abuse case had been simmering out of public view since April 16, as part of a messy divorce between Kyiv couple Dmytro and Olena Polyukhovych.

The accusations burst into public view when Vadym Kolesnichenko, a parliamentary deputy from the Party of Regions, became the first person to mention the case on the party’s website on Oct. 12. A day later, Kolesnichenko told the press that the children’s mother told him her children had been raped at Artek camp. He said she came to her for help because police had been ignoring her, but her lawyers denied that she approached him.

The wife accused her husband of molesting the children, a 12-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. But it wasn’t until June 22 that an official medical examination concluded that the children had, indeed, been sexually abused. On July 24, Kyiv police reportedly learned of the possible involvement of Artek camp in the alleged abuse.

Nearly another month would pass before, on Aug. 17, police arrested the father of the children. From summer through fall, the accusations of sexual abuse grew – to involve three members of parliament from the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, known by its BYuT acronym, and Artek staff members.

Private lawyers also started to get involved in the case. Lawyer Tetyana Montian, who has given legal advice to the mother, said the mother learned from other inmates at the pre-trial detention center that her husband had confessed to the sex-abuse crimes. She said inmates named parliamentarians as accomplices, including Victor Ukolov, a BYuT deputy and Dmytro Polyukhovych’s friend. After that the mother printed photographs of all deputies from the official Verkhovna Rada website and the children recognized the other two, Montian said. However, in an interview with Gazeta Po-Kyivsky published on Oct. 22, the children’s mother, Olena Polyukhovych, said she never authorized Montian to speak on her behalf.

Hryhoriy Omelchenko, also a BYuT deputy and a whistle-blower in this case, said Olena Polyukhovych got suspicious that Ukolov was interfering: He sent a lawyer to Dmytro Polyukhovych after his arrest in August. The mother then showed the children Ukolov’s photograph and they recognized him as one of the alleged abusers. She then showed other deputies’ pictures, and two more alleged abusers were identified.

On Oct. 13, the day Kolesnichenko mentioned the case publicly, Internet publication "from-ua.com” published a letter to President Victor Yushchenko written by Omelchenko, who at the time was a parliament deputy from BYuT. Omelchenko wrote the letter on the mother’s behalf, who had contacted him to complain about official inaction. It detailed the sexual abuse case and named Ukolov as an accomplice.

Several hours later on Oct 13, Volodymyr Petrov – who used to work for presidential candidate Arseniy Yatseniuk – posted Omelchenko’s letter to Yushchenko on the social network “Live Journal” under his nickname “lumpen.”

“Ukraina Moloda,” a newspaper loyal to Yushchenko, became the first to name two other  BYuT deputies implicated in the sex abuse –Serhiy Teriokhin and Ruslan Bohdan on Oct.14.

In the media frenzy, confidentiality and discretion were quickly discarded along with the children’s privacy. The first media outlet to divulge the kids’ last names was Internet publication “from-ua.com.” Incidentally, the mother of the children had written columns for this very Internet publication in the past.

Father’s denials

Meanwhile, only a week after his wife made the original allegations, Dmytro Polyukhoyvch on April 23 appealed for help from a Kyiv-based human rights organization, the International League for Protection of Rights of Ukrainian citizens. “In August of 2008, I found out that my wife is cheating on me. Her lover, Artem Degtyaryov, was constantly threatening me. My wife accused me of sexual abuse of my daughter and said that information would be spread in mass media and I would go to jail with the help of her lover’s connections. They forced me to quit my job, now they are forcing me to give up mutually gained real estate and assets,” Dmytro Polyukhovych allegedly wrote to the International League of Protection of Rights.  Degtyaryov is a project manager for a civil rights organization that has been funded by Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian tycoon. Berezovsky has denied involvement in the dispute.

Polyukhovych had also filed a counter-claim to the police in April claiming that his wife was trying to slander him because of a divorce and a property dispute. It is partly because of this counter-claim, the police said, that they refused to open the criminal case in the wake of Olena Polyukhovych’s allegations on April 16.

Eduard Bagirov, head of a Kyiv-based human rights organization contacted by Polyukhovych, said the mother progressively added new accusations over time. “When the father first came to us for help, Olena was accusing him of sexual abuse of the daughter only. Then she added the son to the list, then ‘other people,’ then deputies,” Bagirov said. “She accused me of interfering in the case, then Ukolov … Very inconsistent.”

Dmytro Polyukhovych’s mother, Raisa, and a friend, Andriy Davydov, vouched for his side of the story. “They definitely tried to drive him to a suicide,” Davydov said. According to various sources, Dmytro Polyukhovych attempted suicide twice between May and his arrest in August. Ukolov admitted in his blog last week that he had helped to get a doctor and a lawyer for Polyukhovych, a long-time friend. Davydov described  the jailed suspect as an “absolutely asexual person, fully concentrated on his hobbies: archaeology, collecting stamps and antiques.”

Davydov also said his friend wasn’t close to any Artek staffers implicated in the child abuse. Lepeshev was also named as an accomplice in the alleged abuse.

Dmytro Polyukhovych’s  mother accused her ex-daughter-in-law of making up the accusations and bribing doctors to reach their medical conclusion that the children had been sexually abused. The wife is “all about money,” according to her former mother-in-law. “She appealed for Hr 3.5 million compensation for moral damages,” the suspect’s mother said. “Then she got a bribe from someone to involve the deputies into this story to damage BYuT’s reputation,” she told the Kyiv Post in an interview.

BYuT is, of course, the eponymous bloc of the prime minister, who is trailing front-runner presidential candidate Victor Yanukovych, the head of the Regions Party, in the Jan.17 presidential race. If the allegations against BYuT parliamentarians were meant to smear Tymoshenko, her side didn’t wait long to fire back at her main rival.

Serhiy Sobolev, a BYuT deputy, on Oct. 20 asked Prosecutor General Oleksandr Medvedko in parliament whether state prosecutors had looked into allegations made five years ago by Hryhoriy Omelchenko that Party of Regions leader Victor Yanukovych had raped a women in Donetsk oblast during his youth.

“Omelchenko appealed to the Prosecutor General’s Office years ago to look into Yanukovych’s criminal past, including an alleged rape,” Sobolev said.  “Have you addressed this issue fully? Or do you choose to investigate alleged crimes committed by certain deputies and not by others?” Sobolev asked.

Medvedko replied that he was not prosecutor general at the time and was unaware of the inquiry.

Yanukovych, who denies the rape charge, served two stints in prison – 18 months in 1967 for robbery and assault. He was convicted a second time in 1970 on a charge of rape, subsequently changed to assault and battery. He served two years in prison. His official criminal record was expunged and documentation was reportedly destroyed.

Those close to the jailed father defended him. His mother also said that “Ukolov was a friend of the family, a witness to the wedding and the godfather of the children. Dmytro did not know any other deputies.”

Idan Aliev, the suspect’s lawyer, said he doesn’t know much about the accusations against his client. “I have never received any documents on this case. I have seen Dmytro only once on Oct. 14 for a brief meeting to get to know him,” Aliev said. He accused law enforcement of “deliberately blocking his access to the case and Dmytro for over a month.” Aliev also expressed concern for his client’s safety and the possibility of suicide.

Blackmail, extortion

After the sex-abuse scandal and political implications dominated the news media for a week, the Verkhovna Rada on Oct. 20 called a special session to get answers on the case from the nation’s two top law enforcement officers, General Prosecutor Oleksandr Medvedko and Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko.

The law enforcers gave lawmakers a disturbing picture that only, however, added more layers of confusion to the case. While Lutsenko said authorities believe the two children had been sexually abused, he also said that the mother attempted to extort $2 million from implicated lawmakers in exchange for getting her children to stop identifying them as the children’s assailants.

“I inform that we, police … fixed the fact of the demand for $2 million by the [mother’s] lawyer [Andriy Tsygankov] from a member of the Parliament, BYuT’s faction,” Lutsenko claimed. In exchange, Lutsenko said, the lawyer offered that the children “would stop recognizing the deputies.”

The next day, Tsygankov, confirmed that he met with the parliamentary deputies on Oct. 20 at a cigar club. However, he denied all the accusations of wrongdoing. The lawyer said that Bohdan proposed paying for a video statement by the plaintiff in which she would state that the alleged sexual abuse of her children was a publicity stunt. Tsygankov said he refused, because “it did not make any sense.”

On Oct. 16, police brought the boy to an apartment in Kyiv where they had been allegedly sexually abused. “The son does not recognize the apartment,” Lutsenko told parliament, adding that investigators were pursuing three theories: The kids were raped by the father. The kids were raped by the father and a group of people. The evidence was falsified so that those implicated could be blackmailed.

Medvedko said the prosecutor’s office is also investigating parliamentarians’ involvement. “The fact [that deputies possibly were involved] became known to the general prosecutor’s office on Oct. 13, after deputy Omelchenko and the mother of the children appealed. Before that neither mother, nor children informed law enforcement about the deputies,” Medvedko said.

On Oct. 19, prosecutors interrogated BYuT parliamentarians Ukolov and Serhiy Teriokhin. Both Ukolov and Teriokhin dismissed the scandal as part of politically motivated attacks.

“I have never been to Artek and visited Crimea for the last time in 1994. I never knew people mentioned by Omelchenko, except Ukolov, who was my assistant during 1998-2002,” Teriokhin wrote to the prosecutor general on Oct. 17. He also asked the prosecutor to start a criminal case against those who publicized a confidential investigation.

Artek camp

Artek, where some of sexual abuse of children allegedly took place, is one of the most prestigious institutions of its kind in Ukraine and the former U.S.S.R. Since Soviet times, thousands of children have enjoyed the beautiful network of camps and activities along the southern coast of Crimea.

So when Artek and its top manager, Borys Novozhylov, were implicated in the child sexual abuse, some saw an ulterior motive. One former Artek employee said: “Artek’s lands are just too luxurious to be given for some children’s camps. It’s a great plan: completely ruin Artek’s reputation, close the camp, buy the lands at their cheapest price and build a second Koncha Zaspa [an exclusive enclave near Kyiv for the wealthy] there.”

Kids were allegedly raped in a hotel near Artek. Four adult members of the staff, including Novozhylov, Artek’s general manager, were implicated. He has denied all accusations against him and was hospitalized as the scandal broke publicly. “I insist on being questioned as soon as possible,” Novozhylov said on Oct. 19. “I am ready to meet with investigators in the hospital.”

So far, the camp has ardent defenders and its reputation remains good enough for parents of 724 children to send them to Artek this week.

Abuse or dirty politics?

Everyone from the president to rival lawmakers got into the act of trying to decide the merit of the accusations.

“This whole informational war has an obvious false start,” said Svyatoslav Oliynyk, a parliamentarian from the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko. “It would work if launched two days before elections. Ukraine, who is already sick of all the dirt in media, will get even sicker as the case evolves.”

Tymoshenko’s bloc quickly expelled one of its own, whistleblower Omelchenko, who alerted incumbent president Yushchenko by letter to the sex scandal. BYuT deputy Serhiy Mishchenko said that Omelchenko was expelled from the faction for “corruption” and “immorality.”

But Yushchenko, who is running for re-election, wasted no time on Oct. 22 in smearing rival Tymoshenko’s bloc as harboring paedophiles and an accused murderer. He criticized the investigation of “paedophile-gate” at a forum titled “With love and tenderness to children,” appealing to Prosecutor General Medvedko, who was sitting next to him at the presidium.

“Let’s recall the scandal which today is unfolding in Ukrainian society, when at the highest echelons of power we have, excuse me, paedophiles, people, who create colossal harm to our morals… but, unfortunately, they today have a [deputy] mandate,” Yushchenko said. “I think that they will have the same fate as [Victor] Lozinsky [a fugitive ex-Tymoshenko bloc parliamentarian wanted for murder]. That there is political cover is obvious and in several weeks we will look for them through Interpol,” Yushchenko said.

“When society demands effective investigation, the General Prosecutor’s Office is unable to provide effective, clear and precise actions,” Yushchenko said. “So now we are playing a game, Oleksandr Ivanovich [Medvedko], that ends like the game with Lozinsky, who was let go and protected by a political force. Now we have the second chapter of that book with the paedophiles. I want you, Oleksandr Ivanovich [Medvedko], to react with lightning speed so that Ukrainian society sees that we have an effective general prosecutor’s office, which can nab a criminal and bring him to justice at an instant’s notice.”

A paedophile problem?

While it is hard to gauge the depth of the pedophilia problem, the nation has been seen as a hotbed of child pornography and sexual abuse. Official statistics are not considered a reliable measure of the problem. Punishment is considered light, even if the offenders are convicted. In Ukraine, child sex abusers get up to three years in prison for the first offence, in contrast to 14 years in Great Britain, for instance.

The 2008 human rights report by the U.S. State Department found that “commercial sexual exploitation of children remained a serious problem. According to domestic and foreign law enforcement officials, a significant portion of Internet child pornography continued to originate from the country.”

“For every dollar invested by those who deal with child pornography, they get between $500 and $1,000 in profit,” said Olha Shved, an international organization for preventing child prostitution, told the Kyiv Post in an interview earlier this year.

Semyon Gluzman, psychiatrist and human rights activist, said that Ukrainian society has poorly confronted the problem, dating back to Soviet times. In 1937, Artek also appeared in the center of the scandal when about 50 of its employees were arrested for immoral behavior, including child sexual abuse. Gluzman, head of the Association of Psychiatrists of Ukraine, said paedophiles have no common characteristics – except sexual interest in children. “Paedophiles may be very, very smart, as well as not very wise,” Gluzman said. “They may be successful people in terms of career and money, or maybe not. There is not a single portrait.”

Nataliya Bugayova, Alina Pastukhova, Oksana Faryna, Kyiv Post Staff Writers

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