The chronic lawlessness within police forces has served as a trigger for society’s outrage and led to civil protests in Ukraine many times before. One of the most-known took place in the village of Vradiivka, Mykolayiv Oblast, in summer 2013. The protest was incited by the gang sexual assault and attempted murder of a local woman. The victim named two police officers and a taxi driver as her assailants. The court and police refused to detain one of the abusers, which led to huge protests over a period of four days.
The incident reveals the moods existing within society before the Euromaidan Revolution which started a few months later. During the early days of the revolution, it also became clear that the activists and law enforcement (and the judiciary) were on the opposite sides of the barricades. The mass demonstrations were, in effect, instigated by this core confrontation between the ordinary people and representatives of the state system. The situation escalated when tens of the protesters were killed in the center of Kyiv at the end of the Euromaidan Revolution in February 2014.
As a result, reforms in law enforcement were set among priorities following the revolution. The reform process was launched in 2015, however, it has never been fully implemented. Now, five years later, more evidence of the superficial nature of reform attempts has appeared. Worse, despite continuing problems within the system, despite all the outrageous cases of police abuse and attacks on activists, despite numerous protests, there is still no accountability. The Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov does not bear any responsibility, and yet he has managed to retain his position for more than six years.
The controversial events during the last weeks of May were widely broadcast, however they were not seen as exceptions but rather as the norm. Some of the most public cases reveal worrying trends. Their details follow.
Kaharlyk case. Shuffling the deck on local levels instead of solving problems
On 24 May, an incident glaringly similar to the one in Vradiivka took place in the town of Kaharlyk, Kyiv Oblast. A young woman walked into a local hospital having endured gang sexual assault and a terrible beating. She stated that police officers were involved. The Department of the Inner Security of the National Police registered the report.
The initial probe confirmed police involvement in the crimes. According to the data of the State Bureau of Investigation – the agency responsible for crimes committed by law enforcement persons – the victim was restrained with a gas mask and handcuffs while the abusers fired bullets over her head. The incident occurred when the victim was invited to the police to testify as a witness to theft.
Later, another victim came forward in the case. A man was beaten in the same police facility at the same time as the women.
Two employees of the Kaharlyk Police Department involved in the crime were detained. Ihor Klymenko, Head of the National Police, suspended all the department management and ordered professional recertification there. A temporary head of the department was appointed. However, regular staff will continue their work for at least two months.
Following this incident, journalists of the Ukrainian Service of BBC went to Kaharlyk. They discovered that the sexual assault and beating of 24 May was only the tip of the iceberg. Local residents complained of the indifference of police towards victimized residents and of their inaction on crimes. Locals also stated that town police more often than not took the side of a stronger part of conflicts, which usually are perpetrators.
Meanwhile, Kaharlyk MPs blamed the police department for hiring incompetent officers. Another outstanding aspect of the local police work was that 20 criminal proceedings just disappeared there.
As the BBC reported, even before this incident, Serhiy Pavlyk, Head of the local City Council Commission on the regulation of law enforcement activities, called upon these MPs to do something about the unsatisfactory work of local law enforcement. However, the majority of the MPs did not feel it necessary. The question remains as to whether the two officers implicated in the crime are fit to work as police at all.
At the time of the attestation, one of the police officers was serving in the military in the Donbas war zone, where there was no process of attestation at all. Another was serving in a patrol police unit – a new department created in 2015 as a result of reform. The information regarding his attestation is strangely missing. There is no data on them being qualifying or not.
The BBC notes that renaming the old units into “patrol police” could have helped to avoid the attestation. As a totally new department, patrol police were not obliged to go through it.
Despite suspending the management of the Kaharlyk police, local residents hardly expect changes. Pavlyk stressed that the practice of appointing heads from other regions, as opposed to local police, does not help to build trust,
“When an outsider comes to head the community police, instead of starting with policing their first action is to perambulate [police-controlled local illegal businesses such as] sawmills, natural gas fueling stations, scrap yards, drug dens that are on record there but haven’t still been shut down.”
Pavlyk notes that in the opinion of local police, someone being transferred to a new region, like Kaharlyk, is perceived only as being promoted from a lower position to a higher one in another oblast center or somewhere else.
Kaharlyk, by far, is not the only place where solving a problem is done by appointing new people to a department where an outrageous incident took place. Meanwhile, exacting justice for law enforcement agents who committed a crime is nowhere near a real priority.
The case of five-year Kyrylo. Can police officers really be punished?
On 31 May 2019, in the city of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, Kyiv Oblast — on the eve of International Children’s Day — police officers entertained themselves by shooting at bottles set up on a street. They were drunk. Five-year-old Kyrylo Tliavov was playing nearby. A bullet shattered his skull and, after two days in the hospital, resulted in his death.
Protests near the Ministry of Internal Affairs led to the dismissal of the head of the Kyiv Oblast police. At the time, Minister Avakov stated that police would conduct “a set of measures to prevent such tragic situations in the future.”
However, a year after the tragedy, no one has taken the political responsibility for the case. The main evidence — the firearm has not been found. The local court came around to reviewing the case only a year later. And only one officer of the four accused was detained. Two were released on bail. The fourth is the son of one of the accused and also took part in the shooting. He is a minor and was merely placed under personal obligation.
The investigation lasted half of 2019, but none of the suspects ended up facing charges of premeditated murder — the harshest homicide charge. Only one was accused of reckless killing (manslaughter). None of the defendants pleaded guilty, maintaining they had only committed hooliganism with weapons — an offense that fell under the Administrative Code and carried a maximum penalty of a fine.
The defense attorneys representing Kyrylo’s family have complaints with the work of the State Bureau of Investigation.
Andrii Levkovets, one of the Tliavov’s lawyers said that initially, the State Bureau of Investigation did not want to open a criminal proceeding which dealt with local police concealing a crime:
“We forced the State Bureau of Investigation to open the proceeding, through the court.”
Levkovets added that the bureau could have easily found the weapon, as it was known which police unit came to inspect the place of the crime.
“Maybe one of the officers went there, and under the guise of inspecting the scene took the weapon. But the State Bureau of Investigation does not want to deal with that. As well as the issue of including an underaged as a suspect to the case.”
Head of the Kharkiv Institute of Social Studies Denys Kobzyn is convinced there will be no justice in police-related criminal cases as long as police are evaluating and investigating their own work. He explains that while inspecting the police work the special departments of the Office of the Prosecutor and the State Bureau of Investigation can only rely on police evaluations of criminal actions.
He also points out the following:
- The State Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Prosecutor generally receive reports on police torture and illegal violence from the police themselves.
- Doctors who are approached by a beaten person have a duty to inform the police, but no obligation to inform the State Bureau of Investigation.
- The State Bureau of Investigation still does not have access to the databases of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which complicates the work on cases.
- Last, but not least, the lion’s share of the State Bureau of Investigation cases are those of corruption and crimes committed by the military — to address the rest they simply don’t have enough resources.
A few days after the Kaharlyk case, another serious incident occurred in the city of Brovary, Kyiv Oblast — a mass shooting involving some 100 people. Avakov explained that the conflict took place between railway carriers that were doing illegal passenger and cargo transportation through false tenders. Avakov put the responsibility for the situation on the local government and law enforcement agencies in Kyiv City and Kyiv Oblast.
Former MP Serhyi Leshchenko pointed out that by commenting on the Brovary incident, MPs known to support oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi were justifying Avakov’s actions — a clear sign of collusion between the oligarch and the minister. Leshchenko added that these MPs want to prove that there are two kinds of police. Some bad police that commit crimes, while good ones manage to control things. Meanwhile, MPs claim that because of the bad police they have not been able to complete reforms for these many years.
While Avakov blames “bad police,”civil society is again demanding his resignation, after both the Kaharlyk and Brovary cases become more of the “last straws” for the minister.
For years, the cry for Avakov’s dismissal has been heard at different protests around the country. Yet, this minister has managed to stay in power since early 2014. Throughout this time, Avakov’s name has been associated with several high-profile cases. Among them were police attacks on local activists which culminated in the death of prominent, 33-year-old, Kherson activist and politician Kateryna Handziuk.
Another controversial case was the continued detainment of three alleged “volunteer assassins” of the Belarus-Ukrainian journalist Pavlo Sheremet. This, even after evidence (that ostensibly took half-a-year of a pre-trial investigation to gather) made the allegations look even more shaky than when they were first laid.
Because of these two cases alone, activists have organized numerous protests demanding Avakov’s resignation. Automaidan NGO even published a list of wrong-doings from other countries that formed enough of a basis to command the resignation of a Minister of Internal Affairs. The list included a delay in investigating the murder of two girls in Romania; the killing of a prominent journalist in Slovakia; and the imposition of harsh curfews that violated civil liberties and caused widespread strife, in Türkiye.
Nevertheless, until very recently, Avakov seemed to be bulletproof to criticism. Nothing could have shaken his position.
After these recent incidents, Voice (Holos) MPs initiated a petition in Parliament calling for Avakov’s dismissal. As of 3 June, they managed to secure about 60 signatories — the total of Holos MPs and 30 MPs from President Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People, but only one from Past President Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity.
Also, in the wake of the recent police crimes, legislators have summoned Avakov to Parliament.
On 5 June, as the minister was delivering his report on his accomplishments, several protests for his resignation took place, including the one in front of the Parliament building itself.
At the Parliament’s “hour of the questions to the Cabinet” with Avakov summoned, Inna Sovsun (Voice faction) asked the minister to say sorry to the parents of 5-year-old Kyrylo killed by police and to the women raped in Kaharlyk. The minister refused, saying that he is not going to do what she wants, but is doing what he has to. Later on the day, a draft resolution on the minister’s resignation was registered in Parliament.
A day before, Avakov’s deputy Anton Herashchenko blamed Khatia Dekanoidze, who headed the National Police in 2015-2016 for the failed reform.
Her response was,
“Anton Herashchenko has decided to blame me on all failures in police activities, I believed that they had rock bottom to hit, but they go even deeper.”
What else contributes to police crimes
Apart from the deficit of government responsibility, both on the local and ministry levels, there are other systemic problems that ensure police lawlessness will hardly be stopped in the near future.
In particular, Kobzyn points at the ineffectiveness of the state agencies responsible for preventing torture. He also states that many of those NGOs that started out enthusiastically to deal with this difficult issue — barring some exceptions — have stopped their active engagement and concentrate instead on more comfortable activities like organizing some trainings and commentating on TV programs.
Kobzyn adds that the majority of donor and international organizations working to prevent torture are focused on assisting police and other institutions.
“This is not surprising, because buying cars, computers, renovating, cutting ribbons is much easier than supporting initiatives to break the existing, perpetually cyclical system and contributing to activities that lead to unpleasant conversations with police management.”
The expert also blames media for not digging deeper when writing about these thorny issues and for not driving at solutions.