Investigation demanded into suspicious death of young Ukrainian anti-corruption activist
Human rights activists have joined local residents of the township of Eskhar (Kharkiv oblast) in demanding a proper investigation into the death of 23-year-old activist Mykola Bychkho. Those who knew him dismiss the police conclusion that Mykola committed suicide, and suspect that his death is linked with the active role he played in fighting corruption and pollution of the local reservoir by an industrial business with links to the towns Mayor.
Bychko’s mother approached the police on 5 June, reporting that her son had gone out at 16.30 the previous day and had not returned. A police search unit was sent out, and at around 20.00, Mykola’s body was found in a forested area not far from the railway tracks. The police asserted that there had been no sign of violence, with a forensic examination apparently confirming their conclusion that the young activist had committed suicide.
A homicide investigation was initiated, but this would likely have been a mere formality had it not been for the reaction of local residents and human rights activists.
On 7 June, around 200 Eskhar residents took part in a march, blocking the road, to the prosecutor’s office and police department in neighbouring Chuhuiv. Representatives of the Chuhuiv prosecutor’s office came out to meet them, and were taken by the crowd to the place where Bychko’s body was found. The enforcement officers were forced to agree to carry out a repeat examination of the circumstances of his death, though this is now, unfortunately, likely to be more difficult. The Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Centre points out that valuable time has been lost, and asserts that some evidence, such as part of the rope that Bychko was hanging from,, has been destroyed.
Bychko was the administrator for the Eskhar youth initiative Facebook group, and according to Roman Likhachov, Head of the Chuhuiv Human Rights Group, he was planning to create his own NGO. Likhachov believes that there has been a brazen and cynical attempt to make the young man’s death look like suicide.
Bychko was involved in environmental issues, particularly in fighting the pollution of local reservoirs by the AVA Service 2017 share company and other industrial enterprises. Together with the youth initiative group, he had managed to get an environmental commission created.
The Prozorro website reports that AVA Service 2017 has received three contracts from the Eskhar Township Council worth over half a million UAH. All of these were without open tenders having been held. This was doubtless linked to the fact that one of the owners of AVA Service 2017 is Serhiy Lehkosherst, whose brother, Anatoly was until this week the Head of the Eskhar Council. Under pressure from angry Eskhar residents following Bychko’s death, Anatoly Lehkosherst handed in his resignation, as did his deputy and the head of communal services.
Mykola Bychko was buried on 8 June, after a service in the local church (which the Orthodox Church would not normally allow if a person was believed to have committed suicide). There were hundreds of people present.
The news of Mykola’s death came just hours after a serious, though thankfully not fatal, knife attack on Vitaly Ustymenko, an Odesa Automaidan activist and member of the Civic Council overseeing the work of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau [NABU].
The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, whose members include the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group and Chuhuiv Human Rights Group, have demanded a full investigation into the death of Mykola Bychko and the attack on Ustymenko. UHHRU points out out that these are not the first attacks over recent times and calls on the law enforcement bodies to develop effective mechanisms for ensuring the safety of civic activists and journalists.