Kyiv, Ukraine – She sported a red dress, fur coat, high heels – and an AK 5-45 gun she got from her husband who died in 2014 fighting pro-Russian separatists in southeast Ukraine.
“We are solving national problems, but keep [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in the crosshairs,” says Tetyana Chornovol, in a video she posted on Facebook in January.
In today’s fiercely anti-Russian Ukraine, many see the 40-year-old former legislator and investigative journalist as a fearless heroine of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity that toppled a pro-Kremlin president and steered the nation of 43 million away from Moscow’s political orbit.
In the past two decades, Chornovol has become an outspoken figure – she has been badly beaten, doused with paint, fined and arrested for her investigative reports and political stunts.
She chained herself to a railway to protest against the arrests of nationalist activists in 2001, and was arrested for scribbling graffiti lambasting the decision of the pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych, to make Russian an official language in parts of Ukraine in 2012.
During the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, Chornovol assaulted pro-Russian figures, led protesters to seize the city hall and also “incited” them to throw Molotov cocktails into an office of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, according to Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigations.
A 57-year-old IT expert named Volodymir Zakharov suffocated in the smoke, and his death had not been investigated until April 10, when investigators searched Chornovol’s house outside the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and charged her with “arson” and “premeditated murder”.
Chornovil admitted that she set the fire, but refused to testify, calling the charges an “attack” on the achievements of the uprising.
“I personally supervised the evacuation of the Party of Regions office,” Chornovol, a mother of two and the widow of a volunteer who died fighting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east in 2014, wrote on Facebook on Thursday after reading her case in a Kyiv court.
“They trumped up the murder charges without any evidence,” she said, adding that even the case file stated that Zakharov entered the smoke-filled office after the protesters left it.
Heroes with impunity?
If convicted, Chornovol faces life in prison, but so far, she has only been placed under house arrest.
“She is an adrenalin junkie, she wants hype and thinks her principles make her untouchable,” Chornovol’s former colleague told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. “She does not understand that she went too far.”
The punishment so far is common practice in Ukraine, where authorities let suspected killers stay at home awaiting their trials because their arrests may, according to critics, antagonise opposition groups and trigger protest rallies.
In 2015, eccentric pro-Russian publicist Oles Buzina was shot dead next to his apartment building in Kyiv.
Two suspected killers from the C14 ultra-nationalist group were arrested, but soon released awaiting a sentence in the continuing trial. They move around Ukraine freely, organising nationalist marches and concerts by a band that advocates white supremacy.
In 2018, far-right activist Serhiy Sternenko stabbed a person to death and live-streamed the victim’s agony in the Black Sea port of Odesa. He claimed the victim was an attacker who tried to kill him with a gas pistol. Sternenko is still awaiting trial.
Thousands of ultra-nationalists volunteered to fight pro-Russian separatists who started what became Europe’s hottest armed conflict that has claimed 13,000 lives and displaced millions.
“The far-right have successfully used the war to legitimise themselves in the public eye, they are viewed not as proponents of certain views, but as defenders of Ukraine,” Kyiv-based hate crime expert Vyacheslav Likhachyov told Al Jazeera.
Many became part of armed forces and law enforcement agencies, nationalist and ultraconservative parties – and abused their newfound fame as “defenders” of Ukraine’s independence, he said.
They have attacked dozens of pro-Russian figures, liberal politicians, feminists, LGBTQ activists and artists. After trying to disperse a gay pride event in Kyiv in 2018, some 150 far-right activists clashed with police assaulting and injuring police officers, but walked free within hours.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has faced mounting criticism for turning a blind eye to the attacks.
Avakov immediately stood up in Chornovol’s defence, claiming the case was “revenge” of alleged supporters of overthrown ex-President Yanukovych.
“Get the hell out of your government jobs or go back to Yanukovych,” he wrote on Facebook on April 10.
Avakov also urged the investigators not to “distract” incumbent President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “from rebuilding the nation”.
But analysts claim that the entire Chornovol affair was instigated by Zelenskyy, a former comedian and anti-establishment political novice who trounced President Petro Poroshenko in last year’s election.
After losing the election, Poroshenko, a chameleonic oligarch who shifted political loyalties and whose party embraced Chornovol, has been summoned for questioning as a witness in more than a dozen cases linked to him and his allies.
Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party has 25 seats in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of Parliament.
Even though Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party dominates the Rada, Poroshenko’s support is vital for voting in controversial bills, analysts say.
“This is 24-carat political persecution,” Kyiv-based analyst and publicist Igor Solovey told Al Jazeera. “They think they will make Petro [Poroshenko] more flexible and accommodating before an important [parliament] vote.”
Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera that there is an unwritten pact between political elites not to investigate the violence committed by the anti-Russian protesters during the Revolution of Dignity.
“Within this context, the activisation of certain investigations is only used as a tool of political infighting, so the real goal is not the real investigation but the pressure that can be applied to certain political groups,” Kushch said.
Meanwhile, some Ukrainians were also sceptical about any real jail time for Chornovil and other alleged perpetrators of violence.
“She’ll get off the hook, she won’t spend a day in jail,” Yaroslav Oseledko, who for weeks supplied hot tea and snacks to protesters during the revolution, told Al Jazeera.