Acid Attack in Southern Ukraine: What Happened?
6 August, 2018

Nearly a week after activist Kateryna Handziuk was attacked with acid outside her home in southern Ukraine, the suspect has been sentenced to two months in a pre-trial detention center while the investigation continues.

Earlier on August 6, the suspect was identified by Handziuk’s lawyer Masi Nayyem as a 39-year-old Kherson resident Mykolay Novikov. Member of the Interior Ministry’s board and MP Anton Herashchenko told Ukraine’s 112 news channel that Novikov has previously been convicted of theft and illegal arms possession, and is a known member of a local criminal gang in Kherson.

This follows a July 31 attack on civic activist Kateryna Handziuk outside her home in Kherson, in southern Ukraine. As a result of the attack, Handziuk received around 30% burns and is now being treated in a hospital in Kyiv.

The police insist that they are doing everything they can to investigate the case, however, Handziuk’s friends whom Hromadske spoke to note the police’s slowness. They say that the eyewitnesses were not questioned straight away and patrol police arrived at the scene when there should have been investigators there.

Hromadske traveled to Kherson on August 2 to speak to the activists’ colleagues and friends to make sense of the incident.

Who is Kateryna Handziuk?

Apart from her civic activism, Handziuk is an advisor to the Mayor of Kherson, a position she’s held since 2014. She also manages the affairs of the Kherson city council executive and fights against the city’s corruption.

Kherson city council building on August 2, 2018. Photo credit: Oleksandra Chernova / HROMADSKE

Together with her friend Serhiy Nikitenko six years ago Handziuk founded an internet publication called Most (Bridge), for which she still occasionally writes articles and investigations. Her main two areas of interest are bribery in local government bodies and separatism.

Handziuk's friend and colleague Serhiy Nikitenko speaks to Hromadske on August 2, 2018 in Kherson. Photo credit: Oleksandra Chernova / HROMADSKE

“We think that we have this mission to explain to people what is going on in our region and city in simple language. We also follow state purchases and other things which should be made public,” Nikitenko explains.

READ MORE: Police May Be Involved in Acid Attack on Kherson Activist

Handziuk and Nikitenko are not only united by their journalistic work, but they have also both been targeted recently. On June 18, Nikitenko was attacked and beaten. Neither the journalist nor the police have any idea who attacked him.

“Are these two incidents connected? How can I connect them? No, the police should do this,” he tells Hromadske. “But I am certain that had the attacker been found, everything could be different now.”

Her friend and colleague Inna Zelena, who heads the media department at the Kherson city council where Handziuk was based, says that the activist often stays late after work.

Handziuk's friend and colleague Inna Zelena, who heads the media department at the Kherson city council, speaks to Hromadske inside Handziuk's office on August 2, 2018. Photo credit: Oleksandra Chernova / HROMADSKE 

“Everyone knows her moral position, that she is a person who is direct when it comes to injustice,” Zelena says. “She is involved with matters of anti-corruption, investigations. As advisor to the local government head, they defer to her on issues of medical and education reform.”

In fall 2017, Handziuk posted on Facebook accusing the head of the Kherson police’s economic protection department Artem Antoshchuk of bribing the local government by demanding 3% on all contracts and tenders. However, Antoshchuk wrote a backdated statement claiming that he was the one being bribed. Law enforcement subsequently searched Handziuk’s office.

Antoshchuk even took to the case to court, but it was not entirely successful. The local court partially satisfied the demand for Handziuk to refute the claim, acknowledging that some of the facts were false, however, did not force Handziuk to refute them.

What Happened on July 31?

The Kherson official and advisor to the local head of government Kateryna Handziuk lives in a multistorey building in a commuter district of Kherson. It was here, outside the entrance to her home, where the assailant attacked Handziuk with acid on her way to work.

Kherson city council’s driver Roman Haliutdinov, who usually comes to pick up Handziuk, was present at the time of the attack. When Hromadske spoke to him he had been questioned four times in three days by the investigators.

“She came past here, next to the car. I had just started the car and heard a scream. I jumped. A man ran away on that side (behind the car). He ran to the back, hiding in the bushes, obviously, otherwise I would have seen him in the rearview mirror,” he recalls.

The house where activist Kateryna Handziuk lives in Kherson, southern Ukraine. August 2, 2018. Photo credit: Oleksandra Chernova / HROMADSKE

Haliutdinov called for an ambulance and the police. While the paramedics were on their way, he poured water over Handziuk, as the paramedics had advised him to. Handziuk’s clothes had started to dissolve so she ran to throw them in the trash. Before he paramedics arrived, she wrote a few messages to her colleagues and husband, telling them that she had been attacked with acid.

The acid used in the attack had even eroded the metal on the car. That same day, Haliutdinov took the car to the garage to be repainted and polished. He should not have done this, but the police did not warn him otherwise.

Kherson city council’s driver Roman Haliutdinov, who usually comes to pick up Handziuk, speaks to Hromadske on August 2, 2018 in Kherson. Photo credit: Oleksandra Chernova / HROMADSKE

“I would not have cleaned anything if the police had told me I couldn’t. I thought it would be completely ruined. And now it’s been taken to the police, they pretty much dismantled the car to take samples for analysis.”

So How’s the Investigation Going?

On August 6, the Kherson city court sentenced a 39-year-old man to two months’ pre-trial detention. The police class this attack as attempted murder with extreme brutality, and the Ukrainian Security Service are looking into the incident too.

The police’s main suspicion is that Handziuk was attacked either because of her official position, her active civil stance, or as a result of some domestic dispute.

Handziuk herself has no desire to talk to Kherson law enforcement. According to her friend and colleague Nikitenko, she does not trust them. She has also already agreed to cooperate with the investigation in Kyiv.

/By Anna Tokhmakhchi and Oleksandra Chernova

/Translated and adapted by Sofia Fedeczko and Maria Romanenko