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Investigation sabotaged into savage acid attack on civic activist who exposed police corruption

Halya Coynash

New and very disturbing details have emerged regarding the police investigation into the savage acid attack on Kateryna Handziuk, an adviser to the Mayor of Kherson and a civic activist known for her hard-hitting criticism of the police.  Not only are the Kherson police obstructing the investigation by the SBU [Security Service], but they are also showing suspiciously little interest in interviewing people who can provide their suspected assailant with a firm alibi for 31 July, when the attack took place.  

As reported, 38-year-old Mykola Novikov was arrested on 3 August and was remanded in custody for two months.  His sister’s testimony that the two had been on holiday at the sea from 27 July through to 1 August was not taken into consideration by the court on the grounds of the close tie between them.  It was, however, clearly stated at the time that there were other witnesses who could confirm this alibi. 

Since the Kherson police did not see the need to question these other witnesses, two well-known journalists Maryana Pyetsukh and Denis Kazansky decided to do so themselves. 

Anna Antonishyn and her husband, Serhiy, are from Lviv, but say that they were on a camping holiday in the Kherson oblast at the sea with Novikov’s sister, Iryna, her husband and two children, as well as with Novikov himself.  The two couples know each other through a fatal car crash which killed Antonishyn’s cousin and Iryna’s daughter.  Since they say that they knew Novikov, there seems no obvious reason for them to try to protect him.

The village Prymorske, where they set up their camp, is about 95 kilometres from Kherson where the attack took place.  The roads are bad, so it would take at least one and a half hours to reach the scene of the crime from his tent. 

Novikov is emphatic that he spent his time in the tent, in the sea or in a café.  While Antonishyn cannot confirm what he was doing to the hour, she is adamant that he was there with them, and that she would have noticed any absence longer than half an hour or so.   The police did question the campsite administrator and the local café’s barman, both of whom could confirm that Novikov had been there for several days, but could not say with any certainty whether he had been there on 31 July.

The two people who are not related to Novikov, and who can say with certainty that he was with them, have simply not been approached by the police.  They are themselves baffled as to why not. 

The suspicion is that Novikov who, according to Kazansky, has a criminal record, is seen as a convenient scapegoat.  He also lives close by, although that is, if anything, a reason to not suspect him.  The attack was carried out in broad daylight, with the assailant seemingly making no real attempt to conceal his identity.

Nor is this all. Lawyer Yevhenia Zakrevska reports that the Kherson police are also dragging their heels and not passing on their material to the SBU.  The latter initiated a criminal investigation on 6 August, and have still not received the police file.  Since it is now two weeks since the attack, any such delay could seriously hamper their progress. 

Is this what is intended?  For the moment, Zakrevska notes, there are really only ‘reports’ from the police via Facebook which can clearly not be used by the criminal investigators.  

Handziuk herself believes that people from the Kherson police may be behind the attack on her, and, according to Kazansky, a friend of hers, it is this that she told the Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko when he visited her on 3 August.  As reported, he wrote that it was after hearing her explanation for the attack that he decided to pass the investigation on to the SBU.   The latter 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

Put most bluntly, arresting the wrong person and holding up the SBU’s investigation can only result in those who organized and carried out a vicious and potentially fatal attack going unpunished.

The attack on 31 July left Handziuk 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 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.


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