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Handziuk murder: Ukraine’s Prosecutor General sabotages case against high-ranking suspect

Halya Coynash

Fears that the new Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova was jeopardizing the investigation into the savage killing of Kherson activist Kateryna Handziuk appear to have been justified.  Only the chief suspect’s lawyers were celebrating on 27 April when the Prosecutor General’s Office and Security Service [SBU] announced ‘completion’ of their investigation three months early.  Since there is no good reason for refusing to gather evidence against Vladyslav Manher, Head of the Kherson Regional Council and the man suspected of commissioning the fatal attack and Oleksiy Levin (Moskalenko), Handziuk’s father and friends are not alone in fearing that the case against  them is intended to collapse in court.

During Monday’s press briefing, Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko announced that investigators and prosecutors had required just 40 days from when the investigation was reinstated “to gather new evidence, to systematize the case material and to complete the pre-trial investigation.”  He reeled off a list of the number of interrogations, searches, investigative experiments, etc., although these were almost certainly from when the original investigation began after the horrific acid attack on 31 July 2018. 

The figures sound impressive, and the SBU have confirmed that Manher is suspected of having ordered the crime.  In fact, however, Yevhenia Zakrevska, who is representing the Handziuk family, believes that the Prosecutor General’s Office is planning to send the case to court on the basis of evidence gathered as of almost a year ago, under former Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko.  This was not a speed test, and given the fact that the investigators had three months at their disposal, Zakrevska calls the decision to stop now and pass the case to court “nonsense”.  She said that she could not name a single investigator or prosecutor who would not use the time available to carry out investigative activities; seek additional proof in order to ensure that the case did not collapse and that a fair and lawful verdict was passed.  She can find no sensible explanation for the move which cannot be in the interests of the investigation, but is, instead, good for the suspects,  

Zakrevska points out that planned investigative activities, included some sought and granted by Handziuk’s family, have not taken place, nor have any of the activities for which they managed, with huge difficulty, to get the investigation extended.

“It is evident to me that this is solely in the interests of the accused.  The main demand of Manher’s lawyers was to hand the case to the court “as is”, without seeking additional evidence.”  This is now precisely what has happened, and the only question remaining appears to be why. 

The press briefing on 27 April came exactly one month after another bombshell from Venediktova, who rather controversially took over as Prosecutor General at the beginning of March.  

In October 2019, her predecessor, Ruslan Riaboshapka had appointed Viktor Trepak, Deputy Prosecutor General and given him charge over the investigation into Handziuk’s murder, Maidan cases and others.  It was under Trepak that real progress was made in the investigation, including the capture in Bulgaria and extradition to Ukraine of Oleksiy Levin (Moskalenko).  

There was simply no good reason for Venediktova’s abrupt decision on 27 March to remove Trepak from the cases he was running with such success, and Viktor Handziuk, in particular, reacted very bitterly, fearing that the investigation into the murder of his daughter was again being sabotaged.  Riaboshapka also condemned Venediktova’s move, warning that if Trepak were removed, we could forget about any real progress.  Venediktova’s effective dismissal of Trepak came a week after the latter gave a very revealing interview in which, among other things, he pointed to sabotage from within the enforcement bodies that led to the first attempt to catch Levin having failed.

Kateryna (Katya) Handziuk was an aide to the Mayor of Kherson and a civic activist, well-known for her hard-hitting criticism of corruption by those in high places, including Manher, and in the police force.  She was attacked outside the entrance to her apartment block on 31 July, 2018, with the assailant hurling a litre of the acid used in car batteries at her.  She received burns to almost 40% of her body and needed to be airlifted to a hospital in Kyiv where she underwent 11 operations.  She died on 4 November, aged just 33. 

It was thanks to her father, friends and fellow activists that an innocent man was not falsely charged and that progress was made in identifying not only the real perpetrators, but also those believed to have commissioned the horrific attack.  In his interview, Trepak acknowledged the role played by activists, and explained that, in October 2019, he had found several criminal investigations, each carried out by a separate group of investigators and prosecutors.  The initial investigation, after the false start, had been run reasonably efficiently, with the perpetrators identified, as well as the direct organizer of the crime.  As reported, on 6 June, 2019, Serhiy Torbin was convicted of having coordinated the attack and jailed for 6.5 years.  Mykola Hrabchuk got 6 years for having carried out the attack.  Volodymyr Vasyanovych and Vyacheslav Vyshnevsky were jailed for 4 years, Viktor Horbunov – for 3 over their roles in the crime.  The very significant reduction in charges against them resulted in similarly reduced charges against Manher and Levin.  Manher continues to hold a very high post in the Kherson oblast, one normally carrying a considerable amount of influence.

Trepak pointed out that the initial arrest of the wrong person has resulted in another ongoing problem, since Prosecutor General’s Office prosecutors quite unwarrantedly set the clock ticking from the moment that the wrong person was charged.  Trepak called this “nonsense both from the logical, and from the legal, point of view”. 

It was, however, very convenient nonsense since Ukraine’s Criminal Procedure Code imposes time restrictions on any investigation.  Claiming a starting point three months earlier gave an excuse to shorten the investigation period.

The initial progress had not, Trepak made clear, only been in identifying the direct perpetrators.  He said that the people believed to have ordered and organized the crime had been identified and informed that they were under suspicion.  “The investigators and prosecutors applied to the court for the arrest of these individuals and for their removal from their positions.  But then, somehow, it all stopped. You have the impression that there was external interference in the investigation or that the brakes were deliberately applied.”

Trepak also noted that, instead of uniting inter-connected episodes into one whole, they had been separated off from one another, with this having an adverse impact on the efficiency and the comprehensive nature of the investigation, and resulting in actions being incorrectly classified, and to certain people escaping liability.

There have been a number of suspect moves in this case, including the very strange change in the charges against Ihor Pavlovsky , the failure to investigate the suspected role of two other figures - Andriy Hordeyev, former head of the Kherson Regional Administration and his deputy, Yevhen Ryshchyk.   There was also the manner in which Levin was effectively allowed to flee the country, even though he had been identified as a key suspect, as well as the fact that it must have been somebody within the enforcement bodies who tipped him off about the planned operation to catch him.

Levin’s expedited flight from arrest heightened concern back in July 2019 when the criminal proceedings against Manher were suspended on the grounds that his case was linked with that of Levin and must wait until the latter was caught. Until Trepak took away, there had been considerable scepticism that Levin would be caught.

It was after Levin’s extradition that Manher’s lawyers began fighting very hard to have the investigation, which was claimed to have begun with the arrest of the wrong person terminated on 2 April. It had seemed like a major step forward when, on 25 March, the Pechersky District Court in Kyiv allowed the application from the prosecutors and extended the investigation for four months, to 29 July 2020. 

Two days later Venediktova removed Trepak, and a month later her deputy suddenly announced that they had all the evidence they needed, and the case is going to court.   During his election campaign and later, Volodymyr Zelensky promised that Handziuk’s killers would be brought to justice.  It was Zelensky whom Handziuk’s friends and other activists demanded action from in a protest on 27 April, with their demands including the removal of Venediktova.

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