Kateryna Handziuk, the activist from the south-Ukrainian city of Kherson who was doused with sulphuric acid on 31 July 2018, died in the hospital on 4 November.
The information was confirmed by Kyiv’s chief of police. After suffering burns to 30% of her body, the 33-year old activist and advisor to the Kherson mayor was being treated in Kyiv’s burn center, having undergone 11 operations. At publishing time, rumors explained her death by a blood clot or by the overall adverse effects of the extensive chemical burn.
However, the clinical reason for her death was insignificant, wrote MP Mustafa Nayyem.
“It’s not just a death in the hospital. This is the result of a successful assassination by a liter of acid. Kateryna did not survive the savage attack which the system attempted to brush off.”
Although Handziuk was a Kherson city official, she was more frequently described as an activist. She was known for her active pro-Ukrainian stance and policy of intolerance to local pro-Russian separatists, representatives of corruption clans and officials who she suspected in illegal gains.Kateryna was one of the pro-Ukrainian activists thanks to whom Russia’s project to break off southeastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014 failed, according to a Ukrainian MP. As well, the activist was involved in lustrating the police and exposing its corruption schemes.
Kateryna’s conflicts with the police is why, according to her friends, who set up the facebook page “Who ordered the attack on Katia Handziuk,” the police were so reluctant to investigate the crime. At first, the acid attack was classified as “hooligansm”; only after public protests and a media uproar was it changed to “intentional heavy injuries,” and then – attempt at murder.
Now the code is “completed murder” and her friends have changed the name of the page to “Who ordered the murder of Katia Handziuk?”After the first wave of outrage, Ukrainian police and the Prosecutor General dismissed accusations of inaction and produced the first suspect of the crime, Mykola Novikov. However, journalists digging into the case uncovered that Novikov had an alibi. This raised suspicions that Ukrainian authorities were eager to pin down the crime on a random person just to quell the public anger.
Now, five people had been arrested on suspicion of carrying out the murder, one of them is the suspected organizer it. All five are reportedly members of the Ukrainian volunteer army, a paramilitary group fighting against Russian-led separatists in Donbas.
“Yes, the killers and organizers were found. After protests. But in the end, they got their way: they wanted to kill her, and they did. But they are only an instrument in somebody’s hands. And this someone is now alive, walking next to us, and is waiting to see what we will do. Together with them, hundreds of others who are ready to do the same – to order the murder of an activist, politician, or journalist, but haven’t decided yet – are observing. They are waiting: […] will the vicious murders of public actors become normal for us and are we ready to resist this?” asks Nayyem.
A string of attacks
The savage attack on Kateryna is only one of 55 similar attacks which were carried out since 2017.
According to Tetiana Pechonchyk, head of the Human Rights Information Center, there are even more attacks on activists now than during the times of disgraced President Yanukovych, before the Euromaidan revolution of 2014. The reasons are:
- increased civic activity in Ukraine, especially the regions, where the corrupt authorities and criminal authorities see it as a threat to their rule and money flows;
- increased violence – and tolerance to violence – stemming from the Russian-led war in eastern Ukraine. Serving as proof for this statement, all five of the suspects had taken part in the warfare in Donbas. And there are little state efforts to rehabilitate veterans after their return from the front.
- an unreformed police, which can conduct an investigation no better than in Yanukovych’s time, and is sometimes suspected of sabotaging it.
The attack on Handziuk had spurred protests in 12 Ukrainian cities in late September, with protesters demanding the Ukrainian government take action to find and prosecute the attackers.
“Who’s behind all these criminals? Who’s covering and protecting the organizer? Why have so many investigations been sabotaged? Why should we put up with this while the most dedicated activists are being killed or crippled? Why should we encourage ordinary Ukrainians to engage in social activities and civic activism if we cannot protect them?”
asked Handziuk in a video appeal from her hospital bed at that time, where she, disfigured from the burns, insisted that her condition was much better than that of the Ukrainian judiciary, which was unable to grapple with the problem of attacks on activists.
On the evening of 4 November, activists in at least 17 cities were planning protests in front of police stations, demanding justice for Handziuk (protest in Kyiv pictured below).
The masterminds of many resonant Ukrainian murders before Handziuk are still unnamed. Among them are journalists Georgiy Gongadze and Pavlo Sheremet. Many Ukrainians see this as a failure of the Ukrainian judicial and law enforcement systems to ensure safety and the rule of law, promised after Euromaidan. And the patience of many is running out.
“First of all, the management of the Kherson police, which sabotaged the investigation of the attack on Kateryna Handziuk, should resign. And then – [prosecutor General] Yuriy Lutsenko and [Minister of Interior] Arsen Avakov, who did everything so that the reform of the law enforcement didn’t happen.
It is this – corruption, impunity, and the absence of reform – which is the reason for the attacks on civic activists. Active citizens all over Ukraine are dying and losing their health, fighting for the future of their country and their children. Until the attackers, organizers, and masterminds of over a hundred attacks which have happened in the last years are behind bars, no activist can feel safe,” summarizes Tetiana Pechonchyk.
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- Ukrainian activists protest mounting attacks, Prosecutor General suggests it’s their own fault
- A dangerous trend: attacks on activists in Ukraine are on the rise