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Are Ukrainian prosecutors disrupting the investigation into the murder of Kateryna Handzyuk?

The high-profile investigation into the shocking murder of Ukrainian activist Kateryna Handzyuk is beginning to fall apart. Suspects are now facing lighter charges, and several of them could soon be released from investigative detention.

Tetiana Bezruk
26 April 2019
Activists outside Yuri Lutsenko's house, 25 April
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Source: "Who killed Katya Handzyuk?"

On 25 April, several dozen activists gathered outside the home of Yuri Lutsenko, Ukraine’s General Prosecutor. The demonstrators, part of the “Who killed Katya Handzyuk?” initiative, wanted to ask Lutsenko about the status of the investigation into the murder of Kherson activist Kateryna Handzyuk - and why defendants in this case are now facing lighter charges. Lutsenko did not comment on their questions.

Anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handzyuk, 33, died from numerous burns on 4 November 2018. This was the result of injuries received on 31 July, when, as Handzyuk left her home in the southern city of Kherson, an assailant poured a litre of sulfuric acid over her.

Ukrainian police have qualified the attack as “premeditated murder for self-seeking motives, carried out with particular cruelty, on order, and according to a pre-existing agreement by a group of individuals”. And the investigation has identified a clear hierarchy of assailants, organisers, middlemen and clients of this crime. The General Prosecutor’s Office has already declared its suspicion to several of them, but in the past week has changed the nature of its suspicions against the suspects.

Kateryna Handzyuk | Source: Facebook

On 17 April, the Prosecutor’s Office changed its suspicion against Ihor Pavlovsky, a former assistant to Ukrainian MP Mykola Palamarchuk. Previously, Pavlovsky had been suspected of organising the murder of Handzyuk, but is he now suspected of “covering up a murder”. Moreover, for a week, the Shevchenko district court in Kyiv was unable to hold a hearing on extending Pavlovsky’s investigative detention. The hearings were postponed, cancelled, and the stated time of them was changed. At one of the hearings, Pavlovsky’s lawyer stated that his client had fallen over and received a concussion, as a result of which he could not attend court.

Maryna Khromykh, a friend of Kateryna Handzyuk and activist with the “Who killed Katya Handzyuk?” initiative, says that the fact that Pavlovsky is alive and is giving evidence in court is “very inconvenient for someone”. “For this suspect, house arrest is far more [physically] dangerous than being under the control of law enforcement,” Khromykh claims.

On 24 April, the hearing to extend Pavlovsky’s detention was finally held. Here, Pavlovsky’s legal counsel, as well as the General Prosecutor’s Office - which raises many questions - asked the court to release Pavlovsky under house arrest or on an agreement not to leave the country. But the judge refused all these requests and left Pavlovsky in investigative detention.

CCTV shot of the man who attacked Katyerna Handzyuk | Source: Kherson regional police

Meanwhile, the General Prosecutor’s Office has also changed its suspicion against the men believed to have carried out the attack on Kateryna Handzyuk - Serhiy Torbin, Viktor Gorbunov, Volodymyr Vasyanovych, Vyacheslav Vyshnevsky and Mykyta Grabchuk. All of these men are currently held in pre-trial detention and initially the General Prosecutor’s Office suspected them of pre-meditated murder. But on 23 April, it was reported in court that the General Prosecutor’s Office had changed its charges to all five suspects to lighter charges. Now these men are charged with inflicting serious bodily harm. The next day, Andriy Lysenko, press spokesperson for the General Prosecutor’s Office, stated to the media that the five assailants had struck a deal with the investigation and admitted their guilt.

But the General Prosecutor’s Office hasn’t limited itself to reducing the charges against the assailants and organiser. On 24 April, prosecutors presented a new suspicion against Vladyslav Manger, head of the Kherson regional council. Manger was first officially suspected of ordering the murder in February this year, but two months later the charges have been altered. He is now suspected of ordering an attack causing grievous bodily harm against Handzyuk. After the author asked Yuri Lutsenko the reason for this decision in a Facebook post, the General Prosecutor cited the results of a forensic medical report. Whether the General Prosecutor’s Office cited this (previously unknown) report when it first suspected Manger, Lutsenko did not comment. Vladyslav Manger is one of three people who Kateryna Handzyuk’s father believes is involved in the attack on his daughter, but Manger is the only one under official suspicion.

According to Viktor Handzyuk, the other two people responsible for his daughter’s death are members of the president’s political party, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc - Andriy Gordeev, former head of the Kherson city administration, and Evhen Ryshchuk, his deputy. Ahead of the second round of Ukraine’s presidential elections, Ryshchuk and Gordeev resigned their positions - a key demand of activists. Earlier, in February, Yuri Lutsenko stated that he had no information concerning Andriy Gordeev’s involvement in the attack on Handzyuk.

Yuri Lutsenko | CC BY-SA 4.0: Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

The General Prosecutor is currently in a difficult position. A number of civic activists and reformers are calling for his resignation, starting a flashmob in support of Euromaidan lawyer Evgenia Zakrevska on Facebook. But while Lutsenko can only be fired if a proposal to remove him receives a majority vote in the Ukrainian parliament, the number of MPs who would have previously supported President Petro Poroshenko - and therefore likely not to vote for Lutsenko’s resignation - could change. After Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidential election on 21 April, Ukrainian politicians are beginning to change their views - and openly support Zelensky. Indeed, the team of the president-elect has stated that Lutsenko should leave his post.

Still, Lutsenko will remain at his post at least until Volodymyr Zelensky is inaugurated as president - only then can Ukraine’s new president try to remove him. And in the intervening period, the General Prosecutor’s Office has started changing the suspicions against the alleged team that carried out the attack.

After the prosecutors released these “new” suspicions, the US Embassy gave an international “Woman of Courage” award to Kateryna Handzyuk for her role in fighting corruption and defending freedom and democracy in Ukraine. US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who recently came into public conflict with Lutsenko over an alleged list of high-profile figures who should be given informal immunity regarding corruption charges, presented the award to Viktor Handzyuk. Yovanovitch called for the investigation into the activist’s murder to be completed, and the guilty - to be brought to justice. These statements give a clear understanding that Ukraine’s international partners are following the investigation.

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