Ukrainian activists protest mounting attacks, Prosecutor General suggests it’s their own fault

Sign saying “Who killed Mykola Bychok?” displayed by a protester during the "Night on Bankova" demonstration on 27 September. Photo: Olena Makarenko 

Ukraine

On 27 September, demonstrators in 12 Ukrainian cities gathered to support civic activists who fell victim to attacks starting from 2017. A joint appeal signed by representatives of over 50 NGOs demanded that the central and local authorities reveal those who ordered the attacks.

The last drop which triggered the wave of protests was an attack on Oleh Mykhailiuk, an activist of the seaside city of Odesa and head of the regional branch of the new grassroots “Syla liudei” party. He was hospitalized with gunshot wounds on 22 September and is slowly recovering after being close to death. On top of this, during two months there has been no progress in revealing the masterminds behind the acid attack on Kherson activist Kateryna Handziuk.

According to human rights organizations, starting from 2017, there have been 55 attacks on civic activists from different regions of Ukraine, most of them in the south-east.

The state of freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, security of public activists and politically active citizens are ceaselessly deteriorating. Ukraine is plunged into the days of persecution of public activists and inaction of the state, which was a calling card of regimes of Kuchma and Yanukovych,“ the joint appeal states.

According to the organizers, the wave of attacks is being disregarded by the law enforcement, which start to act only under pressure of the public. Demands towards the authorities include: to hold a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council, to report to the public on the investigations into the attacks, to establish a dialogue with the civic sector, to establish a parliamentary commission on the attacks and have the Interior Minister report on the progress of investigation to Parliament.

Titled “The night on Bankova,” the main protest took place in Kyiv near the Administration of the President. Meanwhile on the morning of the same day, President Poroshenko himself was attending the UN General Assembly in New York. His reaction to the protests in Ukraine has not appeared on the official site of the President’s Office. Nevertheless, his administration spread his comments on the situation through a news agency. In it he said that he is dissatisfied with the criminogenic situation across the whole Ukraine and ordered to investigate the attacks on people for their active life stance.

The statement of the Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko who is constantly blamed for the different kinds of attacks on activists was even more ambivalent:

Not only the criminals and the poor performance of the law enforcement are responsible for this situation, but also the atmosphere of total hate towards the government, which is sown by a part of civic activists,” Lutsenko said during a briefing.

The area near the building of the President’s Office was encircled by the National Guard and police as usual.

Photos: Olena Makarenko, Euromaidan Press

The start of the protests

Vitaliy Ustymenko with a poster saying “I am a part of the civic activists who sow total hate towards the government” referring to the statement of Prosecutor General Lutsenko.

A woman holds a poster asking who ordered [the attack on] Odesa activists (a list is of their names is in red)

The sign says “Sorry, so who ordered [the attack on] Handziuk?”

Vitaliy Ustymenko (left), Serhiy Sternenko (right)

The sign “Talk, Mr. P. [Petro Poroshenko]”

Police passing near the protesters

Signs: “Where is the government?” and “Who ordered us?”

Serhiy Sternenko and Vitaliy Ustymenko, activists who fell victim to attacks, in front of journalists and protesters

Graffiti saying “silence kills”

Graffiti saying “silence kills”

Similar events under the name “Silence Kills” took place in Dnipro, Lviv, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhya, Ternopil, Chernihiv, Vinnytsya, Uzhhorod, Kropyvnitskiy, Severodonetsk, and Ivano-Frankivsk.

However, the general atmosphere of the protest was dimmed by a conundrum. Along with human rights and anti-corruption activists, the joint appeal of the protesters was signed by the ultra-right C14, National Corps, and other organizations known for physically assaulting Roma and their ideological opponents – feminists, LGBT, and left-wing activists. The presence of these groups at a protest against uninvestigated attacks was dubious at best.

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The attacks

Here is a small selection of the recent attacks.

Kateryna Handziuk. Photo: open sources

Kateryna Handziuk, Kherson. On July 31, Kherson activist and advisor to the mayor Kateryna Handziuk was attacked with sulfuric acid. In a result, 30% of her body suffered burns. The police is investigating the attack as an assassination attempt. On August 22, the police informed that six persons suspected of committing a crime were detained. Four of them have already confessed to being involved in the crime. But the main question – who ordered it? – remains unanswered. As lawyer Masi Nayem said, the law enforcement is afraid to reveal the mastermind because this person knows too much.

Oleg Mykhailiuk. Photo: open sources.

Oleg Mykhailiuk, Odesa. Activist and regional political leader Mykhailiuk was seriously wounded by a shotgun on 23 September 2018. He was known for resisting illegal construction at Odesa’s seaside and was in conflict with the city’s notoriously corrupt mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov. The next day representatives of the local political parties, NGOs, and human rights activists staged a protest, demanding to investigate all the attacks on journalists and activists in Odesa and to dismiss the heads of law enforcement in the oblast. Over the last 1.5 years, there have been 14 such attacks.

Sternenko after the attack on 24 May 2018. Photo: censor.net.ua

Serhiy Sternenko, Odesa. Sternenko, an activist and former member of the far-right Right Sector organization in the city of Odesa, has been attacked three times in the last year. Odesa, a hotspot of separatism during Russia’s attempts to break off South-Eastern Ukraine in the wake of the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, remains a target for Russian attempts to destabilize Ukraine. Sternenko’s activism is diverse and controversial, involving resistance to pro-Russian separatist activities in 2014, fighting corruption clans, blockading occupied Crimea, boycotting concerts of Russian and pro-Russian artists, and resisting illegal construction in the city park. Despite Serhiy’s appeals for police protection, none was given and in the last attack on 25 May 2018, Sternenko killed the attacker. Now he may be prosecuted himself.

Commenting on Handziuk’s attack, Sternenko stated that “attacks and murder of people with an active civic position have long become an unhealthy tendency.” According to him, police inactivity in investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators is what allows these attacks to happen. As to the mastermind of the attacks, Sternenko thinks that a structure with staff and money is behind them, and that

“right now, the Russians and local feudal lords controlled by them have the most money. […] If the top management of the country maintains their silence and indifference in this matter, there will be a lot of blood.”

Vitaliy Ustymenko. Photo: Vitaliy Ustymenko.

Vitaliy Ustymenko, Odesa. Automaidan leader Ustymenko was attacked on 5 June in the middle of the day. He was hospitalized with a stab in his thigh and head traumas. Ustymenko is known as one of the chief organizers of resistance to the “Russian spring” in 2014 and afterwards became an anti-corruption and urban activist fighting against illegal construction, as well as the personal enemy of notoriously corrupt Odesa mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov. He notes that the recent physical pressure on activists has taken a toll on their effectiveness.

Dmytro Bulakh, Yevhen Lisichkin, Kharkiv. In 2017, two attacks on representatives of the Kharkiv anti-corruption center took place: Dmytro Bulakh was attacked in August and Yevhen Lisichkin – in September. Bulakh has hospitalized with head trauma and broken ribs. This investigation has gone forward, with the police reporting that they detained a group of people who apart from the attacks committed a number of other crimes, including extortions and blowing up a chain of pharmacies. However, the mastermind has not been identified.

Vitaliy Shabunin. Photo: Zbruc.eu

Vitaliy Shabunin, Kyiv. The Head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), fell victim to an attack in Kyiv on 18 July 2018 during a protest near the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s (SAP) Office. A group of persons in sportswear and military uniforms spilt a bottle of the brilliant green antiseptic into his eyes, causing a chemical burn. The attackers played on the side of SAP head Nazar Kholodnytskyi and Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov. In those days, Kholodnytskyi closed several proceedings against Avakov allies.

AntAC with the help of social media users identified most of the attackers with the help of a “collective investigation.” The activists managed to trace the attackers to the far-right “Bratstvo” led by Dmytro Korchynskyi and Illia Kiva, Socialist Party leader and advisor to Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov.

As well, they identified that a part of the attackers had served in the structure of the Interior Ministry.

Edited by: Alya Shandra

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