An activist in a T-shirt with a sign “Who ordered Katia Handziuk?” at the protest near the President’s Office on 27 April. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Radiosvoboda.org (RFE/RL)
Article by: Olena Makarenko, with contributions of Alya Shandra
The case of Kateryna Handziuk is a litmus test for measuring the state of Ukrainian justice, and the results are not comforting. The latest measurement came on 27 April 2020, when it became known that its pre-trial investigation was finished prematurely. This probably means that the high-ranking Ukrainian official accused of mandating a murder of an iconic 33-year-old corruption whistleblower will get away, her family and friends fear. The news sparked a protest near the President’s Office in Kyiv, near Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova’s house, and in the city of Dnipro, despite a lockdown Ukraine introduced during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Handziuk – a symbol of Ukrainian activism
Kherson activist and city official Kateryna Handziuk died in a hospital after suffering severe chemical burns to her body following an acid attack in November 2018.
The 33-year-old sharp-tongued woman was well-known in her south-Ukrainian region. A fierce critic of local corruption, Handziuk was often credited with helping to prevent the overtaking of Kherson Oblast by pro-Russian separatists in the wake of the Euromaidan revolution, and with fearlessly opposing representatives of corruption clans and officials who she suspected of illegal gains.
In 2018, she stood up to regional high-standing official Vladyslav Manher. The equivalent of 1100 football fields of forest near the city had been set on fire. The burned-out forest could now be cut down and sold, as it often happens in the region. Handziuk believed that the fire filled the pockets of the region’s management, who was said to be involved in lumber smuggling, and didn’t mince words in speaking out against Manher. And that was the reason that Manher hired a killer to douse her with a liter of sulphuric acid, Ukrainian investigators had officially claimed. So did Handziuk herself, before she died on a hospital bed following three months of medical attempts to save her life.
Her name is now associated with a movement of Ukrainian activists, from urban illegal construction protesters to anti-corruption whistleblowers, for their rights, and for a better country.
Then-President Petro Poroshenko, then-Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, and Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov left the question asked by activists many times over – “who ordered Katia Handziuk?” – without an answer. The activists believe Avakov had been personally responsible for the probe into the attack and stress that no Kherson policeman who sabotaged the investigation in 2018 has carried responsibility. In November 2018, the case was passed from the National Police to the Security Service, which was investigating it under prosecural supervision of the Prosecutor General’s Office.
Progress in the case was seen when General Ruslan Riaboshapka was Prosecutor General, promoted to the post by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Handziuk’s case should have become a report card for Riaboshapka’s work at the position. However, the political conjuncture in the country changed earlier. The Parliament voted for his dismissal in the beginning of March 2020 explaining it by a lack of results. In the middle of the same month, Iryna Venediktova was appointed.
Soon after the appointment, activists blamed Venediktova for sabotaging the case and for acting in the interests of the conspirators and organizers of the killing.
Who is involved?
So far only five executors of the murder were convicted. The investigation also suspects another three people of being involved in the case. Vladyslav Manher, the Head of the Kherson Oblast Council is suspected of organizing the attack, Oleksiy Levin, a figure known among local criminals, is suspected as the co-organizer, and Ihor Pavlovskyi, former assistant to Petro Poroshenko Bloc MP Mykola Palamarchuk, who agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
Levin had escaped the country and stayed hidden until at the end of January 2020 he was detained in Bulgaria in the result of a special operation. He was extradited to Ukraine on 16 March and the court in Kyiv ruled to take him into custody. On 25 March, the court prolonged the terms of the pre-trial investigation in the proceeding on Levin and Manher.
Viktor Handziuk, Kateryna Handziuk’s father, as well as the activists insist that the list of suspects has to be supplemented by ex-head of Kherson Oblast Administration Andriy Hordeiev and his ex-deputy Yevhen Ryshchuk. However, the two have not received suspicions so far.
Apallingly, Manher still keeps his position as head of the Kherson Oblast Council despite being suspected in the involvement in the murder.
Why was the investigation prematurely terminated?
On 27 April, the Security Service of Ukraine informed that it completed the pretrial investigation in the criminal proceeding on the suspicion of Manher and Levin.
Ivan Bakanov, the head of the Security Service, stated that all the materials and evidence base are ready to be transferred for consideration in court.
The same day, activists from the “Who Ordered Katia Handziuk?” movement organized a protest near the President’s Office demanding Zelenskyy’s explanations and Venediktova’s resignation. They underlined that completion of the pre-trial investigation is premature because the Prosecutor’s Office and Security Service officially still have three more months.
Previously, the prosecutor’s side had insisted on prolonging the terms of the investigation for a few more months. Lots of investigative actions had to be conducted with Levin, who was just returned to Ukraine, and some more were requested by Kateryna’s family.
The urgent completion of the pre-trial investigation especially amid the quarantine has less reasonable explanations.
The initiative Who Ordered Katia Handziuk? already warned that the representatives of the suspects were trying to achieve exactly that so that their clients would avoid guilty sentences.
The ex-Prosecutor General Riaboshapka gave his comments on the situation on Ukrainian TV, however noting that he does not possess all of the information as he has not been working for the institution for almost two months.
“From what I know, many investigative actions were not conducted, and a large portion of evidence which would have been decisive for a condemnatory judgment was not collected.”
As told by Riaboshapka, the lack of evidence would lead to an acquittal. Therefore, society would not know who ordered the crime and its details – and Manher would get away.
Unfortunately, high-standing officials escaping justice is a regular sight in Ukraine.
The ex-Prosecutor General explains Venediktova’s actions by a desire to score some quick PR points for the institution and herself by reporting on a “finally completed case” for Ukraine’s TV audience.
Meanwhile, Venediktova has defended the premature termination. Reacting to the protest, she dismissed the accusations of the activists, griping that Katia’s friends distrust the actions of the “reformed prosecutor’s office and reformed court.”
Her previous actions related to the Handziuk case had also drawn the criticism of activists. Specifically, after she dismissed Prosecutor General’s deputy Viktor Trepak, who had led the case.
Kateryna’s father Viktor lamented that this dismissal when the investigation just started to gear up was “absolutely pointless.” At the moment, he said, the probes were in full swing, the prosecutor just started to understand the case, finally pieced together a picture of the organized criminal group in the Kherson Oblast.
“Finally, finally, there emerged hope for a serious approach to the case and trust in justice,” Viktor Handiuk so praised the wave of searches, suspicions and detentions launched by Riaboshapka’s office, which led to the repatriation of “criminal authority Levin-Moskal.”
And a lot is at stake, he says. The successful investigation of Kateryna Handziuk’s murder can prevent similar crimes and become a symbol of a Ukraine where justice is not an empty word – but this won’t happen with a President who desires quick victories from “uninterested and unwitty” prosecutors and a blind trust in his Prosecutor General, says the father of the murdered activist, and sums up with prophetic words:
“Don’t hide from the truth. It will catch up with you anyway.”