Kateryna Handzyuk. Source: Wikipedia. Public domain.
Ukrainian civil society organisations are calling for an effective investigation into the death of Kherson-based anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handzyuk, who was the target of a contract killing in July 2018. She was doused with sulphuric acid and, despite all efforts to save her, died on 4 November.
The Ukrainian parliament has now set up an interim investigative commission to monitor the work of the police in the case, but its creation has turned into a political scandal.
“She was murdered,” this is what activists and people who knew Kateryna Handzyuk stated publicly after the Kherson campaigner died in Kyiv City Hospital №2 on 4 November. The official reason for Handzyuk’s death was multi-organ failure and chemical burns over 40% of her body, the result of an acid attack on 31 July. She was moved from Kherson, in southern Ukraine, to Kyiv for treatment and underwent 11 operations, but doctors didn’t manage to save her life.
The case of Kateryna Handzyuk has become a litmus test for the Ukrainian authorities’ response to attacks and killings of civic activists, of which there have been over 50 in the past two years. The figures are beginning to mount up in towns and cities far from the front line, and each new attack becomes possible due to the lack of investigation of the attack that preceded it. And all this is taking place on the eve of the fifth anniversary of EuroMaidan, whose participants counted observance of the law among their demands.
CCTV shot of the alleged attacker of Kateryna Handzyuk. Source: Kherson regional police.
The reluctance of law enforcement to see a political motivation behind the attack on Kateryna Handzyuk is clear, if only because the charge against the attackers has been changed several times. After being classified as “hooliganism”, “grievous bodily harm with the intent of intimidation” and “attempted murder”, it has ended up as “deliberate murder for self-serving motives, committed with extreme cruelty and carried out on a contract basis by a group of persons acting in collusion”. This frequent re-classification is linked to activists’ demands for an effective investigation of not only Handzyuk’s killers, but the people who ordered the attack.
The investigation is being carried out by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) and, until recently, the National Police Service. The SBU is responsible for tracking down those who ordered the attack, while the police have been looking for the killer and whoever organised the attack. On 3 August, the police arrested Ukrainian citizen Mykola Novikov on suspicion of carrying out the attack on Kateryna Handzyuk. The courts sentenced Novikov to be held under arrest for two months, but he spent a mere 19 days in pre-trial detention before being released: the investigators had found no grounds for a charge. On the day when Handzyuk was attacked, Novikov was relaxing on the coast with friends, but the police tried to persuade him to sign a statement saying that he had walked past the site of the attack – Novikov was only detained as a result of the wide media coverage given to the case and protests by activists demanding the arrest of the perpetrator.
A commission is set up
The investigation was handed to the SBU after Handzyuk died. The activist herself had doubted the effectiveness of law enforcement bodies given that she had previously exposed their corruption schemes.
According to Ukraine’s General Prosecutor Yury Lutsenko, the investigation carried out 367 interrogations and 21 expert assessments. But Lutsenko accused activists of leaking information about one of the suspects, referring to a post on a Facebook page run by Handzyuk’s friends, who are conducting their own parallel investigation. According to this version of the attack, the contact between the crime’s contractor and perpetrators was Ihor Pavlovskiy, who currently works as an adviser to Ukrainian parliament deputy Mykola Palamarchuk, a member of the president’s political party. The activists also claim that Pavlovskiy was prepared to reveal the person who ordered the attack, since after the arrest of the men who carried out the attack, he expected to be arrested himself. But Pavlovskiy was only arrested on 12 November.
Yury Lutsenko. Photo CC BY-SA 4.0: Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.
The information about Pavlovskiy’s possible involvement in Handzyuk’s murder emerged on 5 November, the day that Ukrainian parliamentarians began actively discussing the creation of an temporary investigative commission to monitor the work of law enforcement agencies, which would, in turn, be accountable to it. But the process of setting the commission has dragged on: by law, all the groupings in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, were supposed to nominate candidates for the commission. The order creating it was registered in October, but only the Samopomich and Batkivshchyna parties had chosen their appointees.
The parties that initially ignored the temporary investigative commission included the presidential party Petro Poroshenko Bloc, which informally monitors the General Prosecutor’s Office, and the People’s Front, one of whose members, Arsen Avakov, is currently Ukraine’s Minister for Internal Affairs. But by the evening of 5 November they too had appointed their candidates for membership. Mustafa Nayem, the commission’s instigator, failed to be proposed for membership by his colleagues from Poroshenko Bloc. According to Iryna Herashchenko, the First Deputy Chair of the Verkhovna Rada and Ukraine’s envoy to the Trilateral Contact Group’s (TCG) humanitarian subgroup, Nayem was not delegated by his fraction co-members since he took no active part in its activities. Herashchenko also drew the Rada’s attention to the commission’s lack of powers and means to investigate Handzyuk’s murder. Nevertheless, Nayem was later appointed to the commission.
Parliamentarians voted for the creation of an interim investigative commission on 6 November, the day when they heard the progress reports of the General Prosecutor’s Office, the director of the SBU, the Interior Minister and the head of the National Police. During his speech from the platform, General Prosecutor Yury Lutsenko, among others, announced his intention to retire. Andriy Parubiy, the Verkhovna Rada’s Speaker, put Lutsenko’s declaration to the vote and 38 members voted in favour. Neither Lutsenko’s announcement, nor the vote, nor its results have in fact any legal force, as standing procedures require him to announce his intention to the President, who then, having agreed it, passes it to parliament – and only after this can members vote on it. This was not Lutsenko’s first attempt at retirement – he mentioned leaving his post in September 2018 – but he intends to return to politics after the upcoming presidential elections.
4 November: to protest against the death of Kateryna Handzyuk, several hundred people gather outside the Ukrainian Interior Ministry in Kyiv. (c) Sergii Kharchenko/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.
After hearing statements by the heads of Ukraine’s law enforcement bodies, the MPs approved, by 255 votes, the creation of a commission to investigate Handzyuk’s death. MP Anton Gerashchenko, a former advisor to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, joined the interim investigative commission as a delegate from the People’s Front party. In response Evgeniya Zakrevskaya, Handzyuk’s lawyer, said that the MP had received information from the investigators before the victim herself. Zakrevskaya had earlier filed a petition, on Handzyuk’s behalf, to establish who had passed on information on the pre-trial investigation to Gerashchenko, and on what grounds, given there was a direct embargo on passing information on the investigation of the case through third parties, including Gerashchenko.
The commission held its first session on 8 November. MP Boryslav Bereza, the commission’s chair, announced that commission members couldn’t bring more than five cases of attacks on activists to its attention. Mustafa Nayem proposed examining cases in Odessa and Kharkiv, cities where attacks were systemic, to the list. The next day, activists announced they would carry out an action called “Avakov, leave!” Interior Minister Avakov should retire, they claim, because of the unsolved murders of journalist Pavel Sheremet and lawyer Iryna Nozdrovska, as well as that of Kateryna Handzyuk, and for sabotaging investigations and fostering an atmosphere of fear and hatred towards campaigners.
The commission is an opportunity to monitor law enforcement’s progress on investigations into the cases of Handzyuk and others on its list. For those who have encountered attacks and pressure, it’s a chance to bring the guilty to justice and promote public awareness of the violence covered up by Ukrainian law enforcement.