Police suspected of involvement in horrific acid attack on Ukrainian civic activist Kateryna Handziuk
The criminal investigation initiated by the SBU [Ukraine’s Security Service] into the attack on Kateryna Handziuk suggests that police officers are suspected of involvement in this truly shocking crime. Handziuk, a well-known civic activist and assistant to the Mayor of Kherson, remains in the Kyiv hospital to which she was airlifted a day after sulphuric acid was hurled at her on July 31, leaving her with second and third degree burns over 30% of her upper body. This was the latest and most dangerous of many attacks on civic activists over recent months, and Handziuk’s very public criticism of certain people in or linked with the police made it even more high-profile.
The police initially qualified the attack as ‘hooliganism’, however that same day, this was changed to ‘causing grave bodily injuries in order to intimidate a person’ (Article 121 § 2 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code). It soon became clear that Handziuk’s assailant had used a concentrated form of sulphuric acid, which the police reported as being double the density of the acid used in car accumulators. After the forensic medical assessment was made, the investigation became one of attempted murder.
On August 3, the Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko reported having visited Handziuk in hospital. He wrote that it was after hearing her version of the reason for the attack that he decided to pass the investigation on to the SBU. The latter have added the case to the Single Register of Pre-trial Investigations with it described as being “over the organization of s murder attempt, carried out with particular brutality, against Kateryna Handziuk, assistant to the Mayor of Kherson, and undertaken on the commissioning by police or state agency staff, with the support of separatist organizations in the South of Ukraine, in order to destabilize the socio-political situation in this southern region of the country”
Lawyer Masi Nayyem, who is representing Handziuk, seems satisfied with the move, which, he says, suggests that the police probably are implicated in the attack.
It remains to be seen what, if anything, comes of this SBU investigation, with this depending both on whether there is the political will to carry it through, and on whether the suspect, detained on 3 August, Mykola Novikov, a 38-year-old from Kherson, provides the relevant information.
The SBU proceedings were initiated on 7 August, a day after Novikov was remanded in custody, with the court accepting that there was a real danger of him absconding if any other preventive measure were chosen. Novikov’s sister had apparently said that she and her brother were together at the sea that day, however this was not viewed by the police as a reliable alibi given the close family tie between them. In court, Novikov’s lawyer asserted that they could bring in 7-8 witnesses who would back the alibi.
In fact, the National Police are still reporting on the progress of their investigation into the attack. On 7 August, the Head of the National Police, Serhiy Knyazev reported that they were looking for a second person believed to be involved in the attack, publishing CCTV footage of the person they want to question. The following day, Knyazev’s deputy, Vyacheslav Abroskin announced that they had established the place where the acid was bought. He also produced video footage of the person who allegedly purchased it. He has reacted defensively to the reports linking the attack with the police. He writes that none of the people investigating the crime was ever in conflict with Handziuk and also claims, without providing any names, that “the person who was really in conflict with her did not and does not now work in any departments of the National Police in the Kherson oblast.
As reported, Handziuk has been highly critical of the Kherson regional department of the National Police and other authorities. In September 2017, she accused Artem Antoshchuk, who heads the department for protection of the economic within the Kherson Regional Police of demanding 3% as a bribe from all contracts and tenders.
12 days later, Handziuk wrote that Antoshchuk had tried to retrospectively write a report, claiming that, on the contrary, a bribe had been demanded of him.
Handziuk also directly accused Antoshchuk of seeking a pretext to try to link her with dodgy budget allocations. Since this is completely outside her scope, she said, in the end a search warrant was obtained on the bizarre grounds that somebody else was supposedly occupying her office.
“Corrupt cops calmly organize court rulings, make life hell for City Council officials, search, detain, fabricate cases and are very worried about their positions…”, Handziuk wrote. She said that she hoped they were right to be going crazy over this, since she didn’t want to believe that all of this could go on with impunity.
Antoshchuk took Handziuk to court demanding the retraction of allegedly defamatory statements, however lost. On March 13, 2018, the Kherson City Court found only one small part of Handziuk’s posts required retraction, but otherwise rejected the law suit.
Handziuk has also attacked what she views as pro-Russian circles linked with Ilya Kiva, the highly contentious former adviser to the Interior Minister. Kiva has, on at least one occasion, responded with foul abuse directed at his critic.
In an article written shortly after the attack on Handziuk, Yevhen Bystrytskiy, until 2017 the Executive Director of the International Renaissance Foundation, spoke of “a real war” underway in Ukraine against civic activists, citing Handziuk as one of eight examples in 2017/18.