The issue of the assault on the Kherson activist and the counsellor of the mayor, Kateryna Handziuk, does not disappear from news lines. Ukrainian and foreign newspapers are writing about this, ambassadors of the other states and UN Office in Ukraine express their concern. A month and a half have passed since the moment of the attack – July 31. During this time a lot of things have happened to Handziuk case. There were reclassifications of a crime, arrest and release of suspects, various reactions from law enforcement officers, government officials, journalists and ATO participants. All important facts and details that are up to date are collected in this material.
Chronology of events
July 31, the counsellor of the Kherson City Mayor and acting manager of affairs at Kherson City Council’s executive committee Kateryna Handziuk became a victim of a brutal assault. Around 8:30 am, when the woman was going to work, at the entrance to the apartment building, a man had run from behind and threw a concentrated sulfuric acid at her.
Handziuk was taken to the emergency room of the Kherson Regional Hospital in a state of shock. An acid got to the woman’s head, neck, back, left arm, and also to the eye. Doctors diagnosed more than 30% of body burns. The next day, Kateryna was immediately taken to the Kyiv Burn Center, where she is treated right now.
In connection with the attack, the Kherson police had opened criminal proceedings for “hooliganism”. Sooner, the crime was re-qualified as “intentional grave bodily harm, committed in order to intimidate the victim,” two days later it shifted to “an assassination attempt committed with grave violence”. Kateryna Handziuk was granted a state protection.
Two weeks after the attack, Handziuk gave a comment about possible crime scenarios to the journalists of “Ukrainska Pravda”.
“Many may find it profitable to get rid of an “inconvenient” functionary like me. Moreover, I stand out of the general habitat, that’s why I annoy many people, and not only from Kherson. However, a few can commit such a crime. Especially in a city where we all grew up together. With someone we were going to the same school. With other we were growing up on the same street. However, even among political opponents, such atrocities are usually unacceptable. The memory of people is very long, so we can’t be absolutely sure that we are talking about someone from Kherson. I am almost convinced that the person who ordered me has in his wardrobe some kind of uniform with shoulder-boards, perhaps even more than one.
I have really had conflicts with Kherson politicians, from the age of 18 I’m in the civic-political movement. Now I’m 33. Believe me, during this time, I had a lot of different ideological, party and political conflicts, but usually, all claims were addressed to law enforcement agencies,” commented Kateryna Handziuk.
Who is Kateryna Handziuk?
Katerina Gandzjuk has been a long time in the public environment. Since 2003 she has become an activist of the “Batkivshchyna” (homeland) party and soon heads “The young Batkivshchyna” in Kherson. In 2004, she takes an active part in the Orange Revolution. In 2006, she becomes a deputy of the regional council.
In 2012, Handziuk became a co-founder of the Agency of Civic Journalism “MOST” (the bridge) and the website most.ks.ua. This is an information platform that highlights local policy issues, focuses on monitoring public procurement and management of public finances.
Since 2012 she was working in the UNDP project “Young Football Volunteers: Sports and Volunteering for the Millennium Development Goals”. Handziuk was engaged in the development of sports in rural areas of the Kherson region, she was working with schoolchildren and school PE teachers.
After the Russian annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbas, Handziuk took care of forced migrants as a legal aid assistance to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the Kherson region. Later, she worked as a consultant to the project International Organization for Migration.
In 2013-2014, Handziuk takes an active part in the Revolution of Dignity. In particular, in the spring of 2014, using her knowledge of the state of affairs in local politics and due to her good communicative skills, Handziuk actively opposes pro-Russian and separatist movements in Kherson. In 2015, Kateryna Handziuk leaves the “Batkivshchyna” party.
During the local elections in 2015, Handziuk helps the acting mayor of Kherson, Volodymyr Mykolayenko to win the elections. In November 2016, Handziuk becomes an acting manager of affairs at Kherson City Council’s executive committee.
Taking into account her active life position, for a long time, Kateryna Handziuk has been in a systemic conflict with the pro-Russian forces of the region. Among them are Viktor Medvedchuk, Communist Party of Ukraine, KOB, and the Movement of Extra-territorial Communities.
Also, Handziuk has a public conflict with the local police. In particular, with Artem Antoshchuk, the former head of the Kherson police department of economic security. On September 14, 2017, she accused him of corruption and extortion.
After the assault on Kateryna, the police put forward a number of scenarios. The public and journalists who follow the case believe that this is a contract crime, ordered for Handziuk’s active civic and political activity.
The police made the first detention in the Handziuk case on August 3. Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov had reported this on Twitter.
Member of the board of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and MP Anton Herashchenko also said that “this is the exact man who committed the crime… It is known that Novikov had bought sulfuric acid and was waiting for Kateryna near her house, indeed it was him who committed the crime… Novikov is fully documented. There were no chances for him to get out of this, to say that it wasn’t him.”
The detainee appeared to be 40-year-old Kherson resident Mykola Novikov, previously convicted for stealing. On August 6, during the selection of a preventive measure for Novikov, both prosecutor and the investigator were relying on the testimony of a witness who lives in the same house with Kateryna Handziuk. Witness Chyrun M. M. claimed that he saw Novikov in the morning of July 31 at the entrance to the house. He identified the suspect on a photo provided by the police. Also, the prosecution brought the words of the witness – a neighbor of the Novikov’s sister, who’d heard men’s voices in the neighboring yard. In addition, law enforcement officials found that from November 29 to August 1 Novikov’s cell phone had been turned off – allegedly for the purpose of the conspiracy.
Novikov’s lawyer and his sister Iryna Kadukova said in the courtroom that from July 27 to August 1, the suspect and his relatives were on vacation at the seaside in the village Prymorske of Goloprystansky district of the Kherson region (about 100 km from Kherson). Together with Novikov there were his sister Iryna, her husband, their children and their relatives from Lviv. According to Iryna, during this time they hadn’t left the territory of the recreation facility, and 6-7 witnesses can confirm this.
Despite alibi claims, the judge satisfied the prosecution’s request and opted for a Novikov preventive measure in the form of detention for a term of 60 days.
Release of Novikov under the media pressure
Civic activists, journalists and people close to Kateryna Handziuk had started their own investigation. Most of them were convinced that Novikov wasn’t involved in this case; he was arrested in order to show the speed and effectiveness of the police. Doubts that Novikov committed this crime were expressed by Handziuk herself.
It took dozens of publications in the all-Ukrainian mass media, the posts of well-known bloggers on Facebook with thousands of reactions, as well as video interviews with witnesses who were at the same seaside resort with Novikov and were confirming his alibi, so that the police had finally reacted. However, the reaction was peculiar.
On August 22, the day when the Appeal Court of Kherson region had to consider a complaint against Novikov’s custody, he was simply released from the investigatory detention facility. The author succeeded to be the first who talked to Novikov after his release.
Mykola Novikov said that he was under the moral pressure from the police. He was offered an agreement with the investigation, according to which he had to sign a document in which he acknowledged that he was at the house of Handziuk on the day of the assassination. In response, the police should have closed the other cases on Novikov. Finally, the man accepted this proposal, signing the proposed document, but he hadn’t pled guilty.
After the publication of this video, the spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine Andriy Lysenko said that Novikov was released due to additional appeals received from the suspect, which he had previously concealed from the investigation. This was the reason for the Prosecutor’s Office of the Kherson region to close the criminal proceedings against Novikov in the absence of a crime in his actions.
It seems that the police forced Novikov to scold himself and confess that he was near the house of Handziuk on the day of the assassination attempt. This was done to “ensure” that after the release of an illegally arrested man, was justified. Novikov was illegally detained in an investigatory detention facility for 19 days.
A new group of suspects
Along with the story of the Novikov detention and release, the investigation continued. On August 7, the head of the National Police Serhiy Knyazev said that another citizen was suspected of involvement in the attack on Handziuk. At the time, the police circulated a photo of a wanted man.
It was Viktor Horbunov – born in 1991, a native of the city of Khmelnitsky. According to the investigation, it was he who had bought in Kakhovka sulfuric acid, which was thrown at Kateryna Handziuk. Horbunov was arrested a week after the “Wanted” note. He was the first to give evidence about the organization of a crime.
On August 15-18, the other suspects were detained. They are Serhiy Torbin, Volodymyr Vasyanovych, Vyacheslav Vyshnevskyi and Mykyta Hrabchuk (direct perpetrator of the assassination attempt, according to the investigation).
Three days in a row in Kherson they were selecting the measure of restraint for each detainee. As a result, Horbunov, Torbin, Vasyanovich and Hrabchuk were under arrest for 2 months. Vyshnevskyi appeared to be under the round-the-clock house arrest and had to wear an ankle bracelet.
ATO participants as suspects
All detained on suspicion of organizing an assassination attempt are combat comrades. Torbin, Horbunov, Vasyanovich, Vyshnevskyi and Hrabchuk are participants of combat operations in the ATO zone as part of the 5th separate battalion of the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps. Today they are associated with the Ukrainian Volunteer Army (UVA), headed by Dmytro Yarosh. The men took part in the defence of the Donetsk airport; some of them were fighting under the Savur Mohyla, in Pisky, Avdiyivka and other hot spots.
Serhiy Torbin (code name Oper) – Kherson resident. Torbin heads a public organization “Volunteer ATO Participants ‘Dobrovoltsi Bozhoi Choty’ ”, has the Order “For Courage” of the III degree and the Order “People’s Hero of Ukraine”. From 1997 to 2000 Torbin worked as an operative in the Kherson police. He had been suspended due to professional incompetence. During the ATO, Torbin was the commander of all the mentioned above men.
Volodymyr Vasyanovich (code name Shurup) – a native of Zhytomyr. He also has the Order “For Courage” of the 3rd Degree and the Order “People’s Hero of Ukraine”. Vasyanovich is a category II disabled person. During one of the military operations, he trod on a mine and had lost his left leg.
Preliminary Hearings regarding the selection of preventive measures for Viktor Horbunov, Vyacheslav Vyshnevskyi and Mykyta Hrabchuk were held during closed meetings, so there is little information about them.
How the assault was committed
However, some details of the planning and the assault itself were revealed in the petition of the investigator for the arrest of Torbin and Vasyanovych. They were detained on August 17 at the Kherson bus station just after they had found out that Horbunov was arrested.
For the last few months, all detainees (except for Torbin) were living in the city of Oleshky, near Kherson, in a rented apartment. They didn’t work. As they say, “they had come to set up the territorial defence”. Torbin was funding them.
According to the investigation, Victor Horbunov bought two bottles of accumulator sulfuric acid in Kakhovka. The acid was stored in the warehouse of “Zermа-Ukraine” Ltd. This is evidenced by the salesman Slyusar S. According to him, Horbunov bought acid on July 6 this year.
During the interrogation, Horbunov said that Torbin offered him, Vyshnevskyi, Vasyanovich and Hrabchuk to organize an assault on Handziuk. According to Horbunov, Torbin explained that Handziuk is a corrupt official with pro-Russian views, so it’s necessary to injure her. Horbunov said that he received 300 USD from Vasyanovich for the purchase of acid, but he refused to take further action. Subsequently, Horbunov recognized Hrabchuk on the video. He was that man running from the Handziuk house.
Vyacheslav Vyshnevskyi also reported during the interrogation that Torbin offered him, Vasyanovych and Hrabchuk to commit a crime against Handziuk, he offered each of them 500 USD.
Vyshnevskyi testified that in the morning of July 31 he, Vasyanoych and Hrabchuk arrived at the house of Handziuk on a car of Torbin. He and Hrabchuk left the car, Vasyanovych stayed there.
After a while, the car, on which Handziuk was going to the workplace, arrived at the house. He informed Vasyanovych about this. He began to move towards the ATB store – it was a signal that she should leave the house now. Vyshnevskyi didn’t see how exactly Hrabchuk performed an acid attack.
During the selection of preventive measures, all detainees had found out that Horbunov, Vyshnevskyi and Hrabchuk recognized their involvement in the attempt to assassinate Handziuk. They began to collaborate with the investigation. Torbin and Vasyanovych didn’t plead guilty.
After the suspects were taken in custody, discussions broke out in social networks. People doubted whether participants of ATO, volunteers and defenders of Ukraine could commit such a crime. And if so, what was their motive?
A number of volunteers and brothers in arms of detainees are still convinced that they are innocent, even despite their confessions.
On September 13, Kherson region’s Court of Appeal considered complaints made by lawyers of suspects, whom a court of the first instance had detained. Everyone insisted on changing the precautionary measure and asked the court to apply to their defendants a round-the-clock house arrest with wearing an electronic ankle bracelet.
The panel of judges turned four complaints one by one. Mykyta Hrabchuk didn’t appear in the court. Most likely, after the confession of the assault execution, he had no hope for a change of preventive measure. In the absence of Hrabchuk, the Court of Appeal decided to leave the decision of the court of the first instance unchanged.
Then a complaint by the lawyer of Serhiy Torbin was listened to. The lawyer, like all his colleagues who are working with these detainees, provided the court with positive characteristics from some public organizations, brothers in arms as well as documents confirming his rewards.
Torbin didn’t plead guilty in the court. He stated that he is persecuted “because of his civic activities”. Torbin complained that since was taken into custody, there were no investigative actions applied to him and that he was held in a solitary confinement cell of a temporary detention facility. The suspect also said he was ready to take part in the investigation, but believes he would be better off under house arrest.
After consulting, the panel of judges had decided to keep Torbin in custody.
At the same time, the opposite decision of the judge was made in case of Volodymyr Vasyanovych, whose complaint was listened to next.
Probably Vasyanovych succeeded because of the fact that he decided to declare publicly his involvement in the crime and the role played in it. Let us recall you that in the first instance court, Vasyanovych hadn’t admitted his guilt.
“My role in this criminal offense is that on July 31 I brought people from Tsyurupynsk (the former name of the city of Oleshka – Ed.) to Kherson, and after an hour or two I brought them back. I didn’t think that such a harm would be done to the victim since on the eve of assault Serhiy Torbin told us that we have to ‘scare’ victim by pouring an acid on her hand or foot,” Vasyanovych said.
“There is no possibility of normal treatment in the detention facility. I assure you that I won’t affect the witnesses or the victim in any way, and will not try to escape or hide from the investigation. I am a soldier, not a bandit, your honour. I am guilty because I’ve offended, but not defended. And I will be punished. But I ask you to let me wait for a court sentence under a house arrest,” Volodymyr Vasyanovych appealed to the court.
After the debate, the panel of judges decided – to satisfy the Vasyanovich’s complaint, to choose a preventive measure for suspect in the form of a home arrest with wearing an electronic ankle bracelet at the place of his residence in Zhytomyr.
Immediately after that, the judges examined the complaint of another suspect – Viktor Horbunov. It is known that Horbunov also collaborates with the investigation and described the details of the case that are known to him.
Despite the arguments of the lawyer that the role of Horbunov in the attack was insignificant, despite the positive characteristics and military awards of the suspect, the court decided to keep him in custody.
Who ordered Kateryna Handziuk?
So, out of the five suspects in the assault on Katerina Handziuk, there are three that remain in custody. They are: Serhiy Torbin, Mykyta Hrabchuk and Viktor Horbunov. Two other suspects – Vyacheslav Vyshnevskyi and Volodymyr Vasyanovych remain under house arrest.
The investigation goes on. Meanwhile, civic activists, journalists and people close to Kateryna demand a response to the key question: Who ordered the assault? After all, even those volunteer soldiers, who still protect the suspects, has no doubt in the fact that this is a commissioned crime.
In order to find a mandator as soon as possible, friends of Handziuk, on Facebook, have spread appeal to suspects with a request to help in disclosing the crime. Here is a part of the text of the activists’ appeal.
“We appeal to you as to people who are likely had made the biggest mistake in their lives. We’re doing this because we want to prevent another, no less serious mistake.
Whatever the scale of the crime is, a person must always have the opportunity to remedy the situation. The fate gives you this chance today. We know that the police are not leaving any attempts to conceal a genuine mandator. We know that a version that shifts the main blame to one of you is being prepared.
In order not to call the real mandator in the assault, the prosecutor’s office refuses to re-qualify the case as a contract. Speakers-sycophants of Ministry of Interior are already moulding the version that the attempt of Kateryna’s assassination was just a personal hostility. Nobody believes in this version, but it won’t stop the prosecutorial-police-judicial gang from attempts to forge the case…
We appeal to you with confidence and trust, because we know that you are on our side. One day you’d made a heroic decision to protect our country when it needed you. We know that for you the safety, well-being and independence of your people are not just words. Today you have to make one more heroic deed. Find the strength to answer the question “Who ordered Kateryna Handziuk?”. We’ll be thankful for this until the end of our lives.”