05.12.2013 | Halya Coynash

Berkut’s Victims


Svitlana Zakhorovko, wife of one of the detained protesters

While attention has deservedly been paid to the excessive use of force which the Berkut riot police have applied against peaceful protesters, other measures, including worrying prosecutions are also aimed at crushing the protest and are equally unacceptable.

The 20th OSCE Ministerial Council is meeting in Kyiv on Thursday, Dec. 5 as Ukraine reaches the end of its OSCE chairmanship.  The latter was short on achievements and is ending with the international community wondering whether Ukraine’s leaders will again resort to force against the peaceful EuroMaidan protest in Kyiv.  As well as the large number of peaceful protesters injured by Berkut riot police officers’ brutality, there have also been frightening rumours regarding around 18 people who had simply disappeared.  Late Wednesday evening EuroMaidan SOS reported that 23 people, including 6 of those under arrest, had been located in the ambulance clinic, badly injured but at least alive.  

It is vital that the OSCE meeting and foreign observers in general note and respond to other measures the government is using to bring down the protest.  The  prime minister, Mykola Azarov survived a non-confidence vote on Tuesday and has since been fairly openly threatening punitive measures, including breaks in funding for western oblasts which are actively supporting the pro-Europe protests.  Following the universal outrage over the brutal actions of the Berkut forces on Nov 30, both the president, Viktor Yanukovych and Azarov came out with statements of concern.  On Wednesday, however, despite all the damning video footage, Azarov claimed that Berkut had removed “provocateurs”, not peaceful protesters.

The prosecution underway of 9 men over the disturbance outside the president’s administration on Bankova St on Dec 1 shows similar disregard for the distinction between peaceful protesters and rabble-rousers.

As reported, there are fairly serious grounds for suspecting the confrontation on Bankova St to have been deliberately orchestrated.  The video footage shows scenes of mayhem and violence, and many protesters who simply happened to be on Bankova St, tried to get away from the confrontation between a crowd around a commandeered bulldozer  and the Berkut riot police.  Some did not run fast enough and were brought down by riot police who once again were brutal in their treatment of people showing no resistance. The 9 who have now been charged with organized mass disturbances have a range of injuries, many serious.  5 (or 6) remain in hospital under police guard.

Widely publicized video footage shows a large number of seemingly young men in masks.  Age is perhaps difficult to fix with any degree of precision, but it is surely of relevance that most of the detained men have two or three young children, and good jobs. 

At a press conference on Wednesday, organized together with human rights groups, the wives and other relatives of the detained men gave their account of the last few days.

Vladislav Zahorovko’s wife, Svitlana was present with all three young children, the youngest an infant whom she is still breastfeeding.  Her husband, who works as a driver, is the only breadwinner.  He went off to the demonstration on Sunday evening, saying that he would soon return.  All contact was lost and she next saw him in court on Tuesday night, looking bruised and beaten. 

Nina Bolotova’s husband, Yury Bolotov is the former director of the rock group Okean Elza and a friend of the well-known singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk.  They have two children, and she explains that Bolotov went to the demonstration by himself. 

Maryna Ostashchenko spoke with her small daughter on her lap about why her husband, Oleksandr Ostashchenko, an engineer, had been on the demonstration like hundreds of thousands of other Ukrainians, who support European integration and are angered by Yanukovych’s about-face and highly secretive negotiations with Russia. 

Like a number of the demonstrators he ended up badly beaten by Berkut riot police, and like 8 other people, remanded in custody for 2 months.  The prosecution claimed that the men needed to be detained to stop them continuing their alleged involvement in disturbances.  This is manifestly absurd, especially given that at least 5 of them remain in hospital with serious injuries.  It also makes no sense.  Not one of the detained men is a political activist, most have good jobs, and a number of them have young children. 

It seems more likely that the aim of their detention and of the criminal charges which could carry a sentence of up to 8 years is to deter others from taking part in peaceful protest.   

Thus far this has not been the case and several thousand people on Wednesday demonstrated in support of the detained men outside the Interior Ministry and the detention unit where some of the men are being held.  There was even a report, suggesting that two of the young men detained may be released.

The grounds for concern, however, are real given the ever-increasing pressure on the judiciary over the last three years and political interference in the work of both law enforcement bodies and the courts. The danger from the clear message these criminal prosecutions give to other peaceful protesters is immense, and must not be ignored by the international community. 

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