Harriet Salem in Kyiv -
When bne meets with Mykhailo Gavryliuk, a charming Cossack from Chernivtsi in west Ukraine, he is surrounded by a group of gorgeous Ukrainian women. Sitting around a stove fire in Kyiv's Euromaidan camp, they hang onto his every word, giggling like schools girls. It's easy to see why. With blonde hair and grey-blue eyes, Gavryliuk is ruggedly handsome, mild-mannered, with an electric sense of humour.
But earlier this month Gavryliuk was the centre of attention for a much darker reason. On January 22, he was captured by the notorious Berkut special police unit on Hrushevskoho Street - the frontline of the violent clashes between the law enforcement officials and anti-government protesters. In temperatures below freezing Gavryliuk was then stripped naked, beaten and humiliated as police officers took pictures on their mobile phones.
Posted on YouTube, the video of the ordeal of the charming Cossack became a viral sensation with over 2m hits. But while Gabruliuk's treatment was perhaps the most brazen display of the extra-legal police violence against anti-government protesters, it was far from isolated. Since the demonstrations began in November, there are estimated to have been hundreds, if not thousands of victims of police brutality. "It is almost impossible to know figures in this chaotic environment," says Heather McGill, a researcher at the European and Central Asia project for Amnesty International. "But incidents appear to have been widespread."
Online amateur film footage shows multiple examples of protesters being brutally beaten by police even once immobilised on the floor. And according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, there is evidence that police deliberately targeted medics and journalists during clashes in central Kyiv, shooting them with stun guns and rubber bullets.
Figures provided by the Ukrainian Parliamentary Human Rights Ombudsman show that more than 250 detainees have now sought to access free legal aid. However, this is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg; Civic Maidan, an organisation monitoring human rights abuses connected to the anti-government protests, have over 2000 cases on their books. "A lot of people just won't complain at all," notes McGill.
And despite the high profile nature of his case, Gavryliuk is amongst them. "I won't press charges," he tells bne. "In the end God will judge them for their actions."
He claims the police are looking for him. "The only reason they haven't taken me is because I'm here [at the Euromaidan camp] and they are afraid to come here," he says.
Fly like an eagle
Gavryliuk's persecutors, the notorious Berkut - which means Golden Eagle in both Ukrainian and Russian - have been at the forefront of the police violence both during and prior to the protests. Earlier this year, two off-duty police officers from the special unit beat and raped a 29-year-old woman from Vradiyevka. The incident sparked protests locally.
The display of police brutality during the Euromaidan protests, sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal at the end of November to sign off on a longstanding deal to bring Ukraine closer to the EU, has only served to further underscore the population's existing distrust in Ukraine's law enforcement agencies. "The relationship between the police and the public was already at a catastrophically bad level even before these [Euromaidan] protests erupted," says Amnesty's McGill.
The overhaul of the Prosecutor General's Office has been a requirement for Ukraine since it joined the Council of Europe in 1995, though little progress towards the goal has been made in the last decade. "This is an issue at the forefront of Amnesty's campaigns for a long time," McGill tells bne. "But there is not a willingness for reform. The Prosecutor General's Office is not independent. It functions vary much like a Soviet-era Prosecutor's Office, it is not compatible with the rule of law."
The case of activist and journalist Tatyana Chornovol is just one such example. In December, Chornovol was dragged from her car and severely beaten, with the incident filmed on her dashboard camera. Five men have now been arrested for the assault, including Andriy Zinchenko in the Russian Federation on February 6. But the Prosecutor General's Office ruled that the incident was simply "road rage" caused by Chornovol "cutting up a car." The journalist responded by calling the conclusions "absurd," stating on her Facebook page that the attack was clearly related to her work.
"Those in the top levels of the police believe they are above the law," says Mykola, a former Interior Ministry police officer who recently quit his job because of the "moral corruptness" that he says permeates the institution. "Corruption is rampant in the higher levels of the police. People at the bottom will not quit because they are afraid, they do not realise they have any power. There is a fear that if you leave they will bring a [fake] case against you and you will go to prison, that you will be hurt or even killed," he tells bne without providing his surname.
In the context of the Euromaidan protests this corruption has also reportedly manifested itself in the police's collaboration with the so-called Titushki - civilian government-hired thugs - as the "fourth column" of the government's defence. Multiple YouTube clips show the street-bandits attacking anti-government protesters either under the noses of, or even alongside the police. "The climate of lawlessness is permeating the country more and more," says Oleh Shamshur, former Ukrainian ambassador to the US. "That there are thugs protected by, or even working with supposed law enforcement officials shows how dangerous the situation has become."
Earlier this month, the Verkhovna Rada repealed a repressive package of legislation curtailing media freedom and activities related to protest, an apparent concession to the opposition. But reports from the ground suggest that in practice the laws are still being enforced. "My car was stopped more than ten times yesterday," says Anton, a member of the Automaidan patrol unit. Fourteen leading Euromaidan activists are still on the "wanted listed" posted on the Interior Ministry's website. "Amnesty, what amnesty?" laughs Gavryliuk. "How many people have been hurt, have been injured, we cannot trust the government, the police any more."
Confidence in the rule-of-law is now so low that several leading Euromaidan activists and journalists critical of the government have fled the country. Among their number is the leader of Automaidan, Dmtroy Bulatov, who was kidnapped and tortured for more than eight days by unknown assailants. Bulatov fled to Lithuania on February 1 in fear for his safety. Speaking about his decision to leave at a press conference in Vilnius on February 6, Bulatov said: "I was afraid that the militia [Ukraine police] and authorities might do something wrong to me... I had huge fear and distrust." He added that following being questioned by the police in hospital, he had become "very scared" that if taken into custody his health would deteriorate rapidly.
The violent crackdowns have fuelled the desire for radical action in some corners of the Euromaidan camp, which now has a giant catapult on standby on Hrushevskoho Street ready to launch fireworks and Molotov cocktails across the police line. Full combat gear, protective headgear and baseballs have now become the normal dress code for young men on Kyiv's Independence Square.
Praviy Sector, Afghan veterans and Spilna Sprava - all groups reportedly leading the protesters' violence in January - have notably grown in popularity while the three more moderate opposition leaders have been booed and catcalled by their supposed supporters. Meanwhile, in the east of Ukraine groups of young men - often associated with the football hooligan group Praviy Sector - are organising anti-Titushki patrols where they hunt for the government's supporters; confrontations often end in violence.
Yet despite the vicious attack on him, Gavryliuk remains committed to the ideal of peaceful protest. "It's not the right thing to fight the police because the police should be with the people," he tells bne. "The police are not free people, they are serving, their commanders and Yanukovych."
Amnesty International is calling for a full investigation into each and every allegation of violence. "This is the only way to start to rebuild trust," says McGill. "An international component in this could certainly ensure that the process had more credibility and that more challenging questions could be posed."
At the moment there are two options on the table: either a Council of Europe-backed advisory panel with representation from government and opposition forces, or a fact-finding mission by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The OSCE option would circumvent the sensitive political issue of the Russia, Ukraine and Europe triangle.
But both at present remain pipeline dreams. Judging by this clip of a bugged phone conversation in which a senior US diplomat disparages the EU over the Ukraine crisis, the West is at odds with each other over how to diffuse the crisis. And with protesters still firmly hunkered down in Independence Square and political wrangling over the appointment of a new government ongoing, little progress is likely to made imminently on any investigations.
But the major concern is that while the bruises on victims' bodies fade, the wounds inflicted on Ukrainian society will take much longer to heal.
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