Ukraine Anti-Corruption Activist Killed In Acid Attack

            On July 31st, 2018, prominent Ukrainian anti-corruption activist, and previous Kherson city council member, Kateryna Handzyuk, was assaulted and doused with a liter of sulphuric acid when leaving her house. As a result of the attack, Handzyuk suffered severe burns to over 40% of her body, including devastating eye damage. Initially, her case was labeled as “hooliganism,” but after much public outrage, it was changed to “attempted murder.” On Sunday, November 4th, despite the 11 operations that were previously performed to lessen the effects of her injuries, Handzyuk passed away at age 33. Handzyuk was likely targeted because of her investigations into the occurrences of police bribery and political corruption that occurred in Kherson, which angered a number of local officials. Her death on Sunday caused Ukrainian President Petro Poronshenko to exclaim that the country’s authorities will “do everything possible to find murderers, to punish them, and to put them on the defendants’ bench” according to TIME magazine. Learning that Handzyuk had died from complications concerning her assault, and identifying the lack of investigation into her case, many Ukrainian citizens rallied to demand that Handzyuk’s attack be further examined. They also spoke about the numerous other cases that were similar to Handzyuk’s in what demonstrators called the “Silence Kills” campaign. Handzyuk is one of many activists who have been punished for their choice to speak out against the corruption present in the Ukrainian government.

Handzyuk acknowledged that she was not the only one who had been attacked for speaking on account of justice and remarked with abhorrence how “so many attacks in such a short period of time have gone without punishment and with the connivance of the police.” Prior to her death, Handzyuk called on the prominent members of the Ukrainian government to make more of an effort to punish those responsible for these attacks exclaiming how “I think we have to speak loudly about this at the Bankova (Ukraine’s presidential administration).” The Ukrainian administration did close to nothing to fulfill Handzyuk’s demands for retribution. When she failed to see anything done about her own case, Handzyuk became extremely disappointed and remarked from her hospital bed, “yes I know that I look bad now, but I’m sure that I look better than law and justice in Ukraine.” After her death, many are determined to see her quest for vengeance completed. Several hundred Ukrainian citizens rallied in support of justice for Handzyuk and victims of similar attacks, and the European commission demanded that a more thorough investigation of the case be completed. Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner remarked on twitter how “attacks on #civilsociety activists are unacceptable. The perpetrators of this vicious crime must be brought to justice.”

This desire to secure protection for those who challenge the Ukrainian government is deeply rooted in the country’s recent history. In 2014, 77 protestors were killed in Kiev by Ukrainian security forces. Since the start of 2017, there have been more than 55 unsolved attacks on activists in Ukraine. More recently, occurring on the same day as Handzyuk’s attack, Vitaly Oleshko, another activist who spoke frequently about government corruption in Berdyansk, was shot in the back with a hunting rifle. Other examples include Oleg Mikhaylik who was shot in September after protesting illegal construction on Lanzheron beach, and the politician Sergiy Gusovsky who was drenched with antiseptic liquid and badly beaten in the Kiev City Council after publicly speaking out about various corrupt investment agreements.

The President’s claim to investigate further into Handzyuk’s case and punish the accused for their attack is a good start to securing justice for these activists. This is only one of many necessary steps, more needs to be done by the Ukrainian government to secure rights for political activists to ensure that their voices are not suppressed. Protests and political dissent in general should be celebrated as it allows for citizens to exercise power over the government and correct wrongs.

Isabel Slingerland