Viktor Handziuk is a respected surgeon in Ukraine. He runs a surgery department at a hospital in Kherson, in the south of the country.
Every Sunday, Viktor posts pictures of his daughter Kateryna on Facebook. In one, you see Kateryna going to school, in another – father and daughter are travelling together in Poland.
But in the last days of October, Viktor Handziuk published a very different photo of his daughter, calling it “her last selfie”. This photograph shows Kateryna Handziuk breathing through an oxygen mask, her body bound up with bandages and large pink scars covering her arms and face.
Kateryna, a civic activist, had participated in both of Ukraine’s Maidans – the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 EuroMaidan. She criticised the work of law enforcement agencies as well as the local authorities in her home town of Kherson. In 2018, in particular, she focused on tree-cutting operations in Kherson region.
On 31 July last year, Kateryna Handziuk was doused with a litre of sulphuric acid as she left her home in Kherson. She received burns to 40% of her body, and died three months later, on 4 November 2018.
“For many of us, that day became the worst day of our lives,” says Kateryna Mola, a friend of Handziuk. “And that day should become a day of justice. Justice for the dead is the same as joy for the living.”
In 2017-2018, there were more than 50 attacks on civic activists across Ukraine. Several of these attacks were carried out with particular brutality, as in the case of Kateryna Handziuk. Immediately after the attack, Kateryna’s friends set up an initiative called “Who ordered the attack on Katya Handziuk?” Protesting across the country, these activists are calling for an investigation into the attack on their friend. But the Ukrainian police and security services are yet to find those who ordered these attacks.
While Kateryna Handziuk was alive, she personally asked Ukraine’s General Prosecutor Yury Lutsenko to transfer responsibility for her investigation from Ukraine’s National Police to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Handziuk did not trust Ukraine’s Interior Ministry or its ability to investigate the attack on her. In summer 2018, police had, for instance, arrested a man who bore no relation to the attack.
“Not one of the police officers who falsely detained and arrested that man has faced punishment,” Roman Sinicyn, an activist with the “Who ordered the murder of Katya Handziuk?” initiative, tells me. “In the initial stages, the police sabotaged the investigation, they destroyed evidence. The police also warned the organisers of the attack, to make sure they left the country.”
According to the investigation, the man who organised the attack on Handziuk is Oleksiy Levin. He fled Ukraine and is currently wanted on an international search warrant. The five men who carried out the attack received prison sentences of between three and six years. Vladyslav Manger, the former head of the Kherson regional council, has received an official notification of suspicion that he organised the murder. Later, the suspicion against Manger was changed to a lighter charge - “organising the attack” on Kateryna Handziuk.
But Kateryna Handziuk and her father named three possible “clients” for the attack on her. Aside from Vladyslav Manger, this included Andriy Gordeev, the now former governor of Kherson region, and Yevhen Ryshchuk, his deputy. But the Prosecutor’s Office has only declared its official suspicions regarding Manger. The former General Prosecutor Yuri Lutsenko has stated that there’s only one “client” in this case, and that he wouldn’t present suspicions to other individuals “for sake of balancing political suspicions”. The issue here is that Vladyslav Manger represented Yulia Tymoshenko’s political party, and Andriy Gordeev and Yevhen Ryshchuk – former President Petro Poroshenko’s party.
This year’s elections have brought a new president for Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and a new General Prosecutor, Ruslan Ryaboshapka. The new leadership at the General Prosecutor’s Office has changed the prosecution team in the Handziuk case, and Ryaboshapka has promised that the investigation will continue.
“So far, the new General Prosecutor has our initial trust,” says Olha Reshetylova, coordinator for the Media Initiative for Human Rights. “His first steps demonstrate that he understands the problem and understands that there is a systematic element to them, as well as the complicity of individual representatives of the law enforcement agencies. Sources in the General Prosecutor’s Office say that there are currently active investigations going on.”
In the wake of Kateryna Handziuk’s death, the mass attacks on civic activists in Ukraine have stopped. The young woman’s life has broken the cycle of impunity in these cases. But this is too high a price in order for Ukrainian law enforcement and leading government figures to pay attention to crimes against activists.
The only reason that people remember Kateryna Handziuk’s case is that her friends continue to demand an investigation into her death. They are confident that everyone responsible for the attack on their friend will face punishment and end up behind bars. A year on from her death, they are organising an international protest to ask only one question: “Who ordered the murder of Katya Handziuk?”