Harriet Salem & Graham Stack in Kyiv -
Dmytro Bulatov, leader of AutoMaidan
"He is alive. Fantastic. That is great news." Ihor Lutsenko breathed a sign of relief as bne broke the news to him on the night of January 30 that his fellow Euromaidan activist, Dmytro Bulatov, had been found alive after more than a week missing.
Severely beaten, tortured, scarred and missing part of one ear, Bulatov - one of the high-profile "faces" of Ukraine's anti-government protests - resurfaced in the suburb Boryspil, where he hammered on the door of a village house seeking help. "They spread-eagled me and nailed my hands, they cut my ear, cut my face and there's not a unmarked spot on my body," Bulatov told 5.ua just hours after his attackers released him. "Thank god I am still alive," he added.
Bulatov, who disappeared on the same day that missing activists Lutsenko and Yuriy Verbytsky were found, one dead and one alive but badly beaten. Verbystky and Lutsenko were snatched from a hospital by a group of seven to ten men. Lutsenko had one tooth knocked out and a black eye but survived the ordeal. Verbytsky was not so lucky. The 50-year-old, well-respected seismologist was found dead, with broken ribs, traces of duct tape on his hands and clothes, and other visible signs of torture. A coroner's report found he died from exposure.
According to Alexandra Novitchkova, a spokesperson for Euromaidan SOS - an organisation set up to monitor attacks on protesters - there are currently more than 40 missing-person cases on their books. Since the anti-government protests turned violent on January 16, there has been a surge in reports of vanished people and bloody assaults on protesters and journalists, she tells bne. "Most of these attacks are by police or special police units in the area surrounding the Maidan," adds Novitchkova.
In the run-up to his disappearance Bulatov was subject to an aggressive campaign of harassment and persecution, Katya Butko, spokesperson for the Automaidan, a group of motorists founded in late November to support Ukraine's European integration, tells bne, "Titushksa [a slang term for government hired thugs] gathered outside his house shouting slogans and distributing brochures," Butko says, adding that Bulatov received phone texts warning him that his and his family's safety would be in danger if he did not stop his political activities.
Dimytro Yovdiy, Bulatov's lawyer, confirmed this information. According to Yovdiy, authorities failed to properly investigate the activist's disappearance, which was reported by his wife on the evening of January 23. "Dmitry disappeared together with his car, but no efforts were made to find the car. He also had his mobile phone on him. The police should have contacted the operators to find out his last connections and investigate them. They didn't. We got much more information from our own efforts via informal channels than the police did," the lawyer tells bne.
Bulatov's kidnap and torture at the hands of unknown persons is part of a pattern of attacks against those organising and supporting the anti-government protests, in which a number of striking similarities are beginning to emerge.
As highlighted by Ukrainian investigative journalist Denis Bigus, Bulatov's reappearance was in close proximity to where previously kidnapped activists Lutsenko and Verbitsky had resurfaced, possibly indicating that the same people were behind the two kidnappings. The area in question is near the riverside suburb of Oskorki, which is home to many of Kyiv's rich and close by to an Interior Ministry police HQ. "Here there are deep cellars thick walls and garages," Bigus wrote on his Facebook page.
Adding to the mystery is a press statement dated January 22 on the website of Oplot - a Kharkiv-based pro-Russian "fight club", with a core membership of special forces veterans, who boast about attacking Euromaidan protesters. The statement related how on January 22 - the same day activist Bulatov disappeared - the group were "assisting" traffic police at posts throughout Kyiv when they clashed with Euromaidan activists. "One of the [Euromaidan] activists had his ear sliced off with his own knife," reads the news release - a sentence that today took on a sinister new significance as Bulatov's gruesome injuries were displayed on TV.
Multiple victims of the mysterious spate of assaults have now made links between their attackers and the state.
Journalist and opposition activist, Tetyana Chornovol, who was ambushed and brutally beaten by three men whilst driving outside of Kyiv on December 25, has stated that she can link her attack to the authorities, but cannot disclose her evidence due to the ongoing criminal investigation. Three men have been detained in connection with the attack.
Activist Lutsenko also says he believes that trained "professionals" were involved in the attack against him. "In my opinion, the people in charge were either current or former members of the law enforcement agencies," he tells bne. "Judging by the way they behaved when they interrogated me, they were used to conducting interrogations. They spoke usual Ukrainian Russian, but probably from the east of the country."
Oleksandra Khailak was detained simply because police officers checking her documents saw her Euromaidan badge. After being passed on to the special Berkut police unit, she was driven around between police stations for several hours. Her documents and personal belonging were confiscated and she was then dumped in a forest in sub-zero temperatures
Commenting to bne in the hours following Bulatov's release, Veronika Szente Goldston, the Human Rights Watch advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, said that the NGO has documented "widespread abuses including violent and brutal attacks by riot police against protesters. The fact that there is no evidence of credible progress in initiating investigations is sending a very worrying signal."
"There is definitely reason to suspect there could be government collusion in attacks," she says.
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