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20th Jul 2019

Ukraine death highlights danger in EU neighbourhood

  • The 'Euromaidan' revolution in 2014 began with anti-corruption protests (Photo: streetwrk.com)

The death of an anti-corruption activist in Ukraine has raised the alarm on internal violence in the EU neighbour.

Kateryna Handziuk, a 33-year old activist and local councillor, died in hospital on Sunday (4 November), three months after her attack.

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  • Kateryna Handziuk had exposed corruption in local police in Kherson, southern Ukraine (Photo: http://khpg.org)

She became a symbol of the growing danger for civil society and journalists after recording a video clip from her bed in September.

Some 40 others had also suffered attacks in the past year with apparent impunity, she said at the time, showing her own injuries, after a man had doused her head in sulphuric acid outside her home.

"Why do we encourage people to civic activism when we can't defend them?", Handziuk asked.

There were more than 50 attacks in Ukraine this year alone, international NGOs Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and Freedom House said last month.

They included other fatalities - people were shot, stabbed, or found hung in suspicious circumstances.

They mostly targeted those like Handziuk, who confronted "corruption in the local community", such as local police.

But lawyers, gay rights campaigners, environmentalists, and journalists were also at risk, the NGOs said.

Some 143 reporters had suffered attacks, including a fatal car bomb, since the start of 2017, Ukraine's National Union of Journalists said on Sunday.

Poroshenko

The spike in violence threatens the authority of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko ahead of elections in March.

It also threatens his EU credibility as Ukraine tries to align itself with the West despite Russia's aggression in the east of the country.

Poroshenko vowed "to do everything possible to ensure that the killers [of Handziuk] are found ... and punished" when news of her death came out.

He did it under international scrutiny, with the EU commissioner on Ukraine relations, Johannes Hahn, saying: "Attacks against civil society activists are unacceptable. The perpetrators of this vicious crime must be brought to justice."

Handziuk's death also "shocked" Harlem Desir, the French diplomat in charge of media freedom at the the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"The perpetrators of this terrible crime must be brought to justice," Desir said.

The OSCE, a security club, monitors the line of contact between Ukrainian and Russian forces in east Ukraine.

It recorded 230 explosions in the Donetsk region and 70 in the Luhansk region, as well as movement of prohibited weaponry, in its last report.

Corruption

News of corruption in Ukraine has in the past fed EU scepticism on building closer ties, in countries such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands, despite Western sympathy on the difficulty of reform in war time.

It has slowed EU decisions on financial aid and other perks, such as visa-free travel.

It now comes at unstable times in EU politics, with a pro-Russian government in Italy threatening to veto the renewal of EU economic sanctions on Russia in December.

But for his part, Poroshenko's general prosecutor and political ally - Yuriy Lutsenko - did little to reassure friends of Ukraine in the Handziuk case.

"The blame for this situation lies not only with bandit elements and poor work of the law enforcement bodies, but also in the atmosphere of total hatred to the authorities which some civic activists stir up," he said in September, effectively blaming her for her own attack the same day her video clip came out.

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