Ukrainians demand answers year after murder of Kateryna Handziuk

Campaigners renew call for justice one year after anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk died following acid attack.

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    Kateryna Handziuk suffered 40 percent burns and was blinded in an eye after attackers poured a litre of sulphuric acid over her [Kateryna Handziuk/Facebook]
    Kateryna Handziuk suffered 40 percent burns and was blinded in an eye after attackers poured a litre of sulphuric acid over her [Kateryna Handziuk/Facebook]

    Kyiv, Ukraine - A year after her death, hundreds gathered in front of Ukraine's presidential administration in Kyiv, the capital, to remember murdered activist Kateryna Handziuk.

    Carrying signs reading "Who ordered the murder of Katya?", they were also there to demand justice. 

    Handziuk, a 33-year-old anti-corruption activist from the southern city of Kherson, died on November 4, 2018, from burns sustained in an acid attack.

    Those who allegedly ordered and organised the plot against Handziuk remain free.

    The mood at the Kyiv protest was sombre as Handziuk's father, Viktor Handziuk, addressed the crowd.

    "It's been a very difficult year," he said, with photos of his late daughter and information about her case projected on a screen behind him.

    "A year of unspeakable pain. A year of sorrow. A year of loneliness. It's been a year of various promises, loud statements."

    Once we put all of the perpetrators in her case behind bars we'll wake up in a different country where activists and journalists can speak freely without fear.

    Vasyl Arbuzov, activist

    Ukraine's authorities, including new president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have promised justice. 

    But activists across Ukraine continue to report impunity.

    Protests also took place in dozens of other cities across Ukraine on Monday, including Handziuk's hometown Kherson near the Black Sea, where she was attacked.

    During her whistle-blower career, she exposed everything from local police corruption to illegal logging operations.

    On the morning of July 31 last year, attackers poured a litre of sulphuric acid over her as she climbed into her car. 

    The attackers fled, leaving her with severe burns over almost half of her body and blinding her in one eye. 

    She underwent almost a dozen operations but died in a Kyiv hospital bed three months later. 

    "Everyone knows she was killed because she was an avid anti-corruption activist," Vasyl Arbuzov, a campaigner with the Who ordered the murder of Kateryna Handziuk? group, told Al Jazeera.

    Ukraine's National Police initially filed the case as an act of hooliganism. 

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    But after public pressure from activists, the charges were upgraded to an assassination attempt, then to premeditated murder when Handziuk died. 

    Frustration grew as the police perceived as being too slow in arresting anyone.

    The first person they arrested in August 2018 was not involved in the crime, police later discovered.

    Activists, including Handziuk herself before her death, have long believed they knew who was responsible for the crime. 

    In her last interview, Handziuk claimed that Vladyslav Manger, a powerful regional official in Kherson, had ordered the attack in retribution for her investigations into his alleged criminal ties.

    "Manger has a criminal circle, who could carry out such a crime," Handziuk said at the time. 

    Manger denies any involvement in the attack.

    The five men who carried out the assault, all former fighters in a far-right battalion, have been convicted and sentenced to prison terms from three to six-and-a-half years. 

    The leader of the group, Serhiy Torbin, allegedly received money from whoever ordered the attack. The other four men involved were paid between $300 and $500.

    Manger and other accused local Kherson officials remain under investigation by Ukrainian authorities. 

    In response to a request for comment, a representative from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) referred Al Jazeera to a briefing given on Sunday, where officials stated that they will have "new substantial results" about the case in due course. 

    The SBU also says it continues to focus on the alleged funder of the attacks, Oleksiy Levin, who fled Ukraine in August 2018 and who the SBU claims is "a key figure, who ties together those responsible for the attacks", including Manger.

    Rights groups note that, since 2014, there have been dozens of attacks on activists with impunity.

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    "Handziuk's case is very emblematic," Maria Guryeva, a spokesperson for Amnesty International Ukraine, told Al Jazeera. "But if we don't see any progress in this case, how can we expect others will investigated? The absence of results means the system isn't changing."

    Other activists in Ukraine have also allegedly been killed for their work. 

    Mykola Bychko, a 23-year-old environmental activist, died in June 2018 in what human rights activist claim was a premeditated murder.

    Journalist Vadym Komarov died in June this year after an assault six weeks before, an assault that took place a day after he revealed that he planned to publish an article on local corruption. 

    The deaths of both men remain unsolved.

    Presidential promises and cautious hope 

    Zelenskyy, who has been president of Ukraine for six months, wrote on Facebook this week that all those who ordered the attack "will be found and punished. I promise."

    Activists in Ukraine are hopeful, but not optimistic.

    "Unfortunately, we haven't seen any measured change in attacks on activists," said Amnesty's Guryeva. "We don't see any effective investigations."

    Ukraine's new authorities need to prioritise anti-activist violence, Matthew Schaaf from the NGO Freedom House told Al Jazeera.

    "There are already dozens of cases of attacks and threats, most without consequences," Schaaf said. 

    Tackling impunity "should be demonstrated by steps to prevent the violence, and a swift response when an attack occurs."

    Activists like Vasyl Arbuzov are waiting for that day. 

    "We believe that once we put all of the perpetrators in her case behind bars," he said, "we'll wake up in a different country where activists and journalists can speak freely without fear."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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