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Is the death of a Kherson local official the Gongadze case all over again?

Kateryna Handziuk’s murder brings back memories of another politically motivated crime in Ukraine’s newer history. President Poroshenko needs to try to avoid the same mistakes Kuchma made almost two decades ago.

November 9, 2018 - Kateryna Pryshchepa - Articles and Commentary

Kateryna Handziuk Photo: Ivan Antypenko

On the 4th of November, activist and local official Kateryna Handziuk died in a Kyiv hospital three months after being assulted in her native city of Kherson. On July 31st, a man splashed Kateryna with a litre of sulphuric acid which caused third stage burns to 40 per cent of her body. Few days after the attack, Kateryna was transported from Kherson to a hospital in Kyiv, where she underwent 11 surgeries. But the medical interventions did not suffice and Kateryna Handziuk passed away in the Kyiv hospital as a result of massive organ failure caused by the chemical burns.

Although many years have passed since the abduction and murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, there are similarities between his murder and the attack and death of Kateryna Handziuk. In both cases the victims were activists who were rather unknown nation-wide before the time of the attacks on them. At the same time they were known and respected among other activists and journalists. In both cases the initial investigations were delayed and insufficient. In both cases the crimes attracted international attention. The reputation of Ukraine’s sitting president could be at stake as a result of the attack on Handziuk.

A tragedy connected to the war in Ukraine

As many activists, Kateryna Handziuk was involved in the Maidan events and later she took part in pro-Ukrainian activities in the spring of 2014, when Russian backed conspirators were trying to replicate the Donetsk and Luhansk scenarios all over eastern and southern Ukraine. Kherson was among those cities were attempts to spread the “Russian spring” were made. Kateryna was elected a member of the Kherson city council in 2014 and later became an advisor to the city mayor and the chief of staff of the city council.

It was in this position as a city hall employee that Kateryna found herself in a public conflict with the local police official in charge of economic crime prevention, Artem Antoshchuk. In September 2017, Handziuk claimed in a public post on her Facebook account that Antoshchuk was demanding a bribe from her, alleging the city hall official was involved in corruption related to public procurement contracts. Antoshchuk had sued Handziuk for defamation, but the court supported his demands only partially. 

Handziuk was also active in researching and publicly denouncing activities of local politicians who in her mind were tied to Russian intelligence officers. In her public statements on potential threats to her life and health she stated that she was a real target and that she was not afraid.

After the attack on Handziuk in the early hours of July 31st, local police acted unprofessionally. From the onset, the investigation became about alleged acts of hooliganism. The public outcry caused the police to change the potential charges to severe physical damage and later to a murder attempt with specific cruelty. Few days after the attack local police made an arrest of a previously convicted man who was pronounced the attacker. However investigative journalists and local activists collected proof that the arrested man was away from the city on the day of the attack and could not have committed the crime. The sister of the initially arrested man believed he was chosen simply because he happened to have his domicile in the district not far away from Handziuk’s home.

Eventually police identified and arrested five people in connection to the attack. Only two of them – the man who directly attacked Handziuk and the organiser of the crime are currently in police custody. They are waiting for trial while being in home confinement. All the suspects are recent Donbas war veterans, members of one of the volunteer battalions.

Translates as: Who ordered the attack on Katya Handziuk? Illustration by Gandziukgate

Political violence?

So far there have been a few similarities between the case of the attack on Kateryna Handziuk and murder of Georgiy Gongadze: both were known for their anti-corruption activities, both weren’t household names nationwide but were respected in their professional circles and had quite large networks of contacts.

In both cases there seems to have been criminal involvement of the law enforcement officers present. Either were they complicit or at least responsible for grave negligence. In both cases the reputation of the incumbent president was and is at stake. In Gongadze’s case the so called Melnychenko tapes revealed that President Kuchma knew of the existence of the journalist and expressed dissatisfaction with his activities. Although it is rather unlikely that Leonid Kuchma was involved in the abduction and murder of the journalist, public officials in his service certainly were. The highest ranking official convicted for the abduction of Georgiy Gongadze is the former police general Oleksiy Pukach, who held the post of the chief of the criminal investigation division in the Kyiv police until 2003.

In the case of the mortal attack on Kateryna Handziuk, the victim had herself suggested that her attacker could have ties to the local police in Kherson. In addition, investigative journalist Oksana Denysova and Tetiana Nikolayenko are now claiming that the people behind the crime received money to hire the attackers from an assistant to a current member of parliament. The former high ranking police official – Mykola Palamarchuk is currently a part of President Poroshenko’s party in parliament. His parliamentary assistant, Ihor Pavloskyi, who is named by Handziuk’s friends as the person who might have passed the money on to the organisers of the crime, has already confirmed that he knew the person accused of the murder. At the same time he denies any involvement in it. MP Palamarchuk announced that he had fired his parliamentary assistant suspected of involvement in Handziuk’s murder.

In the case of the murder of Georgiy Gongadze there was an atmosphere of suppressing the opposition in Ukraine, with a few prominent opposition politicians having died suspicious deaths. The attack on Kateryna Handziuk came in the midst of a wave of attacks on civic activists spreading in Ukraine, with some 50 attacks in the first half of the year.

Poroshenko could pay

Although certain similarities in the two cases are most likely the result of coincidences, they might have a similar impact on the president’s future now as they did in the early 2000s.

President Poroshenko’s public support ranking is in a single-digit number at the moment, but all the evidence suggests he is going to run for re-election in the upcoming 2019 presidential elections. 

Poroshenko’s advisors seem to appreciate the damage the Handziuk case can cause to the reputation and the electoral prospects of the president. The Facebook page of the President’s Administration posted a message of condolence just hours after the information of activist’s death became public. The official statement also declared that the president has asked law enforcement to do everything possible to solve the crime as fast as possible. There was no mention of Handziuk’s case on Presidential Facebook account prior to that. Neither were there any mentions of Handziuk’s case prior to November on Poroshenko’s personal Facebook page.

The Gongadze case and the allegations against President Leonid Kuchma profoundly influenced the position of the president during his second term in office basically having isolated him on the international arena and resulted in closer ties to Russia and President Putin, which ultimately didn’t serve Ukraine. The attack on Kateryna Handziuk and her subsequent death has attracted significant attention from the international partners of Ukraine, the European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, the US ambassador to Ukraine Mari Jovanovic, UN System Resident Coordinator in Ukraine Osnat Lubrani. Embassies of France and Canada released statements calling on Ukrainian authorities to double their efforts in solving the murder and punish the perpetrators. The inability to solve the crime will not only significantly damage President Poroshenko’s electoral prospectives, but also the reputation of Ukraine’s post Maidan authorities abroad. So it is not only Kateryna Handziuk’s family and friends who needs to see this crime solved.

Kateryna Pryshchepa is PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Studies (Polish Academy of Sciences) and Project Officer at the College of Europe Natolin Campus.

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