Ukraine passes long sentences against former top official over savage killing of Kherson activist Kateryna Handziuk
A court in Kyiv two men, including a former high-ranging official, of commissioning or organizing the savage acid attack which killed a well-known civic ctivist from Kherson, Kateryna Handziuk in 2018. Given the grounds for concern about earlier sabotage of the prosecution, the Dniprovsky District Court verdict on 26 June 2023, and ten-year sentences against former Head of the Kherson Regional Council Vladyslav Manher and Oleksiy Levin (Moskalenko) can be viewed as a victory for Ukraine’s justice system. It was, however, a victory that would not have happened without the determination of Katya’s family and civic activists to not allow an innocent man to be made scapegoat, and to ensure that the real perpetrators were brought to justice.
In passing sentence, the court also ordered that the two defendants pay 15 million UAH in compensation (as 5 million UAH each) to Handziuk’s husband and her parents, as well as 153 thousand UAH to cover the cost of various expert assessments. The defendants will remain in custody, with the sentence allowing the period in detention to count as part of the final sentence (with each day counted only as one day of the sentence). The 10-year sentences by the prosecutor, and were the maximum envisaged by the articles of Ukraine’s Criminal Code under which the men were charged.
The verdict is not final, and Manher’s lawyers have already said that they will be filing an appeal, to be heard by the Kyiv Court of Appeal.
33-year-old Kateryna Handziuk was an assistant to the Mayor of Kherson and a well-known civic activist, who had been fearless in exposing police and local authority corruption. She was attacked on 31 July 2018, with the assailants hurling a litre of the acid used in car batteries over her head and body. She received burns to almost 40% of her body and needed to be airlifted to a hospital in Kyiv where she underwent 11 operations. Although she died over three months later, on 4 November 2018, Viktor Handziuk, a doctor, said that he had feared from the outset that his daughter would not survive an attack of such horrific savagery.
The attack received widespread publicity both within Ukraine, and abroad, and there were promises from Ukraine’s leader to ensure that the culprits were found and punished. The initial moves, however, were of concern, with an innocent man falsely charged, and only released after journalists proved that the man had an alibi.
One of the problems in Ukraine has long been that perpetrators may get caught and punished, but those who commission the crimes remain, at least officially, unidentified. Over the last five years, Handziuk’s family, friends and fellow civic activists played a major role in ensuring that real progress was made in identifying both those who carried out the crime and those who paid for it to be committed.
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 men had initially been accused of murder, with the charges later controversially reduced to causing grievous bodily harm. This, in turn and no less contentiously, resulted in lesser charges against Manher and Levin.
Manher was informed in February 2019 that he was suspected of having ordered Handziuk’s killing. He then paid the substantial amount named in bail and was released from custody. The charge against him was changed on 25 April 2019 to “commissioning the inflicting of bodily injuries”. It was, however, only in June 2020, that he was remanded in custody, without the possibility of bail, after the prosecution accused him of threatening witnesses in the case. At that stage, he was still Head of the Kherson Regional Council.
In fact, the real progress had begun earlier and appeared directly linked with the appointment in October 2019 of Viktor Trepak as Deputy Prosecutor General in charge of certain high-profile crimes, including the Handziuk murder. By January 2020, Oleksiy Levin had been arrested in Bulgaria, after an earlier attempt to catch him had been sabotaged by a mole, seemingly within the law enforcement bodies. This was probably also after a key suspect, Ihor Pavlovsky first reached a deal with the investigators and gave important testimony, incriminating both Levin and Manher.
There had earlier been other occasions where civic activists suspected high-level sabotage of the investigation. Bitterness was expressed by Viktor Handziuk and fears that the investigation into his daughter’s killing, would be sabotaged in March 2020, when Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova unexpectedly, and inexplicably, removed Trepak from his post.
The prosecution did continue, albeit very slowly, with the trial of Manher and Levin taking three years to reach the first-court verdict on 26 June 2023.