war crimes in Ukraine

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Savage attack on Kherson civic activist known for scathing criticism of police corruption

Halya Coynash

Civic activist Kateryna Handziuk is in hospital after being sprayed with acid on 31 July by a young man who was lying in wait for her near her home.  Doctors report that she has burns to 30% of her face, head and upper part of the body.  This is the latest of several attacks on civic activists over recent months.  In most, if not all, cases, the culprits have not been found.  

Handziuk currently works as adviser to the Mayor of Kherson, Volodymyr Mykolaenko.  It may have been the latter’s protest at the police’s qualification of the attack as ‘hooliganism’ that led to this being changed to ‘causing grave bodily injuries in order to intimidate a person’ (Article 121 § 2 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code).  Although there does not appear to be any danger to her life, the injuries the young woman sustained were serious, and were very deliberately inflicted.  Mykolaenko spoke of systematic attacks on activists in Kherson and said that he would be asking the Prosecutor General to hand the investigation to the SBU [Security Service].  He added that Handziuk has her suspicions as to who was behind the attack, but gave no details.

Handziuk is well-known for very strong criticism 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.

One shot from CCTV footage has currently been made public of the believed assailant.  It is unlikely to help in identifying the person and Yevhenia Zakrevska, an activist and rights lawyer has called on all drivers to check the footage from their dashboard cameras and to ensure that these are not lost.

Transparency International in Ukraine issued a statement soon after the attack on Tuesday morning.  It called the use of acid in an attack on a civic activist in broad daylight a challenge to the law enforcement bodies, and demanded that they carry out a proper investigation.  TI pointed out that the police must “resist the temptation” to not follow this investigation through, given Handziuk’s strong criticism of the law enforcement agencies.  The police need to clearly demonstrate to the public that attacks on civic activists are a crime which will be punished.

TI was not alone in pointing to the alarming increase in attacks on independent media, whistle-blowers and civic activists over recent months.  Handziuk’s lawyer, Masi Nayyem is convinced that all of this has been made possible by the lack of any reaction from either Interior Minister Arsen Avakov or President Petro Poroshenko to the assault on journalist Serhiy Nikitenko.  If there is no reaction now, he says, he will assume that such violence with impunity suits them.

Nikitenko was attacked by two men in the Kherson oblast on 18 June.  The journalist says that his assailants silently beat him, before driving away in a car with a transit numberplate. 

There has been no progress on finding the culprits.

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