Deadly Attacks on Activists in Ukraine in the Lead Up to Elections

By Tom Rozanov, volunteer at Eurasia Coordination Group, Amnesty International USA

In a joint statement released on Oct. 3, 2018, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Frontline Defenders call attention to over 50 attacks on activists in the last nine months recorded by local organizations Ukraine.

The attacks targeted civil activists and community leaders who campaigned against corruption, were involved in local politics, protected LGBT rights and the environment. Most attacks weren’t fairly prosecuted and many of the attackers enjoy impunity today.

With the upcoming 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine, these attacks could be part of the current administration under President Petro Poroshenko attempting to hold power and silence opposition. This raises some serious concerns about the direction Ukraine is taking in terms of protecting human rights. And questions the current government’s steps to ensure political freedom close to elections.

A vocal anti-corruption activist, Oleh Mikhaylyk, was shot on Sept. 22, 2018, and hospitalized in critical condition. Prior to the attack, Mikhaylyk had publicly demanded the dismissal of Odessa region’s chief of police and chief prosecutor for allegations of corruption. He also openly expressed his desire to run for mayor of Odessa (a major city in southern Ukraine). The day before the attack, he campaigned with his party “Syla Lyudei” (Power of the People) against illegal construction in Odessa.

Oleh Mikhaylyk Campaigning, Photo courtesy of Facebook/sylalyudey

In June 2018, an environmental activist was found hanging dead in the woods near the city of Kharkiv. Mykola Bychko, was researching pollution at a local river, allegedly caused by a nearby waste treatment plant. Bychko faced numerous death threats related to his work, however, police quickly ruled his death as suicide and refused to investigate murder. Police investigators also lost crucial evidence related to the case.

Mykola Bychko, Photo courtesy of KP.ua

Local council member and anti-corruption activist, Kateryna Handzyuk, died on Nov. 5, 2018, three months after she suffered burns over around 40% of her body and severe eye damage as a result of an unidentified assault on July 31, 2018. Handzyuk was active in local governance, including monitoring police activities in the southern city of Kherson.

Photo courtesy of Facebook/Kateryna Handziuk

Another case is Vitalina Koval, an LGBTI activist who was attacked in March 2018 for speaking up at a protest held on International Women’s Day in Ukraine. Her case triggered an open letter from Amnesty International USA to Ukrainian Interior Minister Avakov as part of the Write4Rights campaign.

It’s clear that political dissent is common among these cases. Political freedom, freedom of expression, thought and assembly is crucial to any democracy and especially in the run-up to elections.

Amnesty International USA urges Ukrainian officials to ensure the attacks mentioned are thoroughly investigated and their perpetrators are brought to justice. Amnesty stresses the importance of protecting human rights and freedoms and preventing future attacks. The U.S. and E.U. governments should be aware of repeated human rights violations in Ukraine and demand Ukrainian officials, including police and law enforcement officials, ensure the rights and safety of activists, protesters and political opposition.

Amnesty International members can take action by writing to Urge Ukraine’s Minister of the Interior to protect Vitalina and investigate the attacks against her and others. For more info, please visit this link.

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