Ukrainian local “feudal lord” suspected of activist murder taken into custody by court order

Kherson Oblast Council head Vladyslav Manher suspected of organizing the murder of activist Kateryna Handziuk coming to Kyiv court. Snapshot: radiosvoboda.org 

Civil Society, Ukraine

The Facebook page of Viktor Handziuk, a prominent Kherson doctor is devoted to one single topic, justice. It was his daughter Kateryna, activist and city official who died in hospital after suffering severe chemical burns to her body caused by an acid attack in November 2018. This year on 17 June, she would have turned 35. Instead, she will remain 33 forever, and her heartbroken father has been waiting for justice for almost two years.

Meanwhile, Vladyslav Manher, the head of the Kherson Oblast Council who is suspected of organizing the attack, attempted using his powers in the region to evade standing trial. On the night of 19 June, the Pecherskyi District Kyiv Court eventually ruled to apply preventive detention as a measure of restraint to Manher without the possibility of being released on bail until 28 July. In the given circumstances the news broke out seeming rather like a miracle.

The world practice of resignations of the officials involved in big scandals seems like a utopia in Ukrainian realia as things in the country tend to take the opposite way. Recently, the movement “Who ordered Katia Handziuk?” found out that Manher was going to run for the Oblast Council at the October 2020 local elections in order to head the regional assembly again. In particular, he would do it using a new pocket political party created by his ally, MP Ihor Kolykhayev. Manher’s associates should have been representing the party running for councilor seats so that later they would be able to provide him with the votes needed to occupy the seat of the Kherson Council head again.

However, as told by Kherson journalist Serhiy Nikitenko, Kateryna’s good friend, after the recent clamor around Manher and the court hearing on him, Kolykhaev’s allies decided to distance themselves from the head of Kherson Oblast Council.

Now, the main question is whether the trial against Manher will succeed and if his local kingdom of corruption in Kherson is going to be destroyed. Up to 19 June, it was very unlikely to happen. Only publicity and society’s attention to the case could have made a difference.

The motion on the new measure of restraint to Manher

On 17 June, Kateryna Handziuk’s birthday, the court hearing on a measure of restraint for Manher was taking place in Kyiv, as it did throughout the entire week. Such a delay was possible due to various legal maneuvers Manher and his defense used.

The Prosecutor General Office presented the Kherson Oblast head with the notice of suspicion long ago, in February 2019. The court ordered to take Manher into custody back then, but the measure of restraint included the possibility to get released on bail set at 2,497,300 hryvnias (about $93,263). And the bail was eventually posted.

On 27 April 2020, it became known that the pre-trial investigation on Handziuk’s murder was finished. 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 the lockdown introduced in Ukraine amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The activists blamed the government, and in particular Venediktova for sabotaging the case and that it was too early to end the probe.

Read also: New prosecutor-general sabotages “litmus case” for Ukrainian justice

About a month and a half later the news arrived that gave hope for justice in the case – on 11 June newly discovered circumstances made prosecutors continue the pre-trial investigation. The same day Manher saw a motion on changing the measure of restraint for him due to his illegal attempts to press on witnesses threatening them and members of their families.

“The current measure of restraint in the form of bail against the head of the Kherson Oblast Council Manher does not fulfill the tasks of criminal proceedings and does not allow to prevent the possible committing of new criminal offenses,” the prosecutor’s office statement reads.

However, Manher turned out to be a tough nut to crack as he tried to evade the hearing on his detention by using his influence on regional officials.

The privilege of being a local top-official

Kherson police guarding the hospital with Manher. Photo: Oleksandr Vlasov

In June 2020, the situation for Manher aggravated making his attempts to avoid justice more obvious. However, using his influence as an authority figure to achieve that was exactly the thing he was doing all that time after Handziuk’s assassination.

And it was actually Manher’s corruption grip that Kateryna Handziuk was fighting against.

Viktor Handziuk posted this photo of his daughter on the day she should have turned 35.

 

Kyiv, 17 June, commemorating Kateryna Handziuk. Source.

As Euromaidan Press previously wrote, in 2018, Ms. Handziuk stood up to regional high-standing official Vladyslav Manher. The equivalent of 1,100 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 authorities, who were said to be involved in lumber smuggling, and didn’t mince words in speaking out against Manher. And that was the reason why 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.

Later in June Manher received a motion on the resumption of the pre-trial investigation and a motion on changing the measure of restraint for him, so another Ukrainian legal “soap opera” started. The head of the Kherson Oblast Council got to the hospital in Kherson with a hypertensive crisis, allegedly with no possibility of being transported to the Kyiv court because of his bad health condition. The reports on officials getting ill right before court hearings usually don’t foster empathy in Ukrainian society. They are rather considered as a popular trick among politicians and officials to avoid justice.

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On 15 June, Kyiv Pecherskyi District Court eventually ruled to give the permission on Manher’s detention to haul him up before the court in Kyiv. An independent expert engaged by the prosecutors figured out that Manher can be transported to Kyiv accompanied by a doctor.

Just a day before it, Kherson doctors gave police a certificate attesting that his current health conditions didn\t allow transferring him to Kyiv.

The answer to the question of why the prescriptions of local Kherson doctors and an independent expert differ is Manher’s powers of the head of an oblast council.

Oleksandr Vlasov, MP of Kherson city Dniprovskyi District Council has no doubts that Manher was just hiding in a local hospital. To prove his words Vlasov explained that the cardiological clinic where Manher was allegedly treated is subordinated to the Oblast Council which is the assembly led by Manher himself.

“They receive funding from Manher and are completely dependent on him in terms of personnel appointments. That’s why they follow any of his instructions. The head physician [Oleh] Mazuryak, in his retirement years, probably decided that his life had been lived in vain if you had not saved the killer of a young woman by hiding him from justice in their intensive care unit.”

Vlasov also pointed out that the judge of the Kyiv Pecherskyi District Court played a significant role in helping Manher as she ordered the local Kherson police to give Manher the motion. It was the management of that police who allowed Handziuk’s killers to escape and detained some random person to charge him with the attack on the activist.

As Manher was in the hospital, local police were also guarding the medical facility.

“The thing is that several Kyiv bloggers joked yesterday that they were going to Kherson to cure Manger, who found himself in the hospital as soon as he heard that the prosecutor’s office once again wants to send him to a pre-trial detention center,” local activists wrote.

Vlasov also stressed that Manher received all the coverage from local institutions with the tacit consent of the Kerson Oblast governor Yuriy Husev who rather prefers to ignore the news around the Handziuk’s case.

“This is what was to be proved: today we are once again convinced that feudalism overcomes power structures in Ukraine,” Vlasov wrote.

The court hearing in Kyiv

The court was considering the case for almost a week. The consideration of the case on its merits started only in the afternoon of 18 June. The activists near the court building were waiting for the court decision until the late night. Photo: movement “Who ordered Handziuk?”

When coming to the Kyiv court became unavoidable for Manher, he and his defense continued using their tricks there.


Vladyslav Manher (L) and his defenders in court.

The hearing took place behind closed doors because the case of pressure on the witnesses and their relatives was considered.

The consideration of how to change the measure of restraint lasted so long for several reasons: Manher’s defense requested to recuse the judge several times, an ambulance rushed to him, and the defense engaged new lawyers in the case and they required time for studying the case file.

7:00 a.m. of 19 June was the deadline until which Manher could have been detained for the hearing by law. And the time allocated for choosing a measure of restraint would have passed after that point.

The consideration of the case on its merits started only in the afternoon of 18 June. The activists had to remain near the court building until the late hours waiting for the court decision.

Now Manher will remain in the pre-trial facility until 28 July.

Also, proceedings against the employees of the Kerson hospital who tried to hide Manher have been opened.

Meanwhile, the Facebook community of the “Who ordered Handziuk” movement informed that an alleged intermediary in the killing, Ihor Pavlovskyi, hasn’t come to a court hearing on him for the 18th time. On 17 June, Pavlovskyi’s lawyer informed that his client had a hypertensive crisis. The same illness that Manher claimed a few days before that.

The Temporary Parliamentary Commission on the investigation of the attacks on Kateryna Handziuk and other public activists in 2017-2018 found a number of defects in the investigation of these cases by law enforcement officers.


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Edited by: Yuri Zoria

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