Kateryna Gandziuk, a civic activist and local council member from Kherson, a city some 550 kilometers south of Kyiv, died on Nov. 4 in a Kyiv hospital. Gandziuk, 33, was attacked with acid on July 31, resulting in severe burns of her head and body.

The attack is believed to be linked to her activism, including her efforts to expose corruption in Kherson. It was just one in the series of attacks on activists in Ukraine in 2018. Gandziuk became the symbol of a protest movement against the lack of investigation into the attacks on activists.

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Two friends of Gandziuk, Kherson journalist Ivan Antypenko and Kyiv lawyer Masi Nayyem, confirmed to the Kyiv Post Gandziuk died but didn’t reveal any detail. The cause of death is yet to be announced.

Kateryna Gandziuk lies in her hospital bed after a man attacked her with a liter of acid on July 31. (Facebook/Masi Nayyem)

An unknown man attacked Gandziuk near her home in Kherson when she was leaving for work. He poured an estimated one liter of acid into the woman, causing severe burns of 40 percent of her body surface. She was getting treatment first in Kherson and later in Kyiv.

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Gandziuk refused to cooperate with Kherson police, suspecting they could be connected to the attack, but testified to the Kyiv investigators. Authorities originally classified the attack as hooliganism, but after the public uproar changed it to “intentional injury with the purpose of intimidation” and later to “assassination attempt.” After Gandziuk died in hospital, the police reclassified the case into contract killing.

Gandziuk was sure that the attack on her was an attempted killing.

“If they just wanted to warn me, they would splash some acid on my hands or legs or even into my face. But to splash a litter of battery acid on my head…It was an attempt to kill me,” she told Hromadske news website on Sept. 25.

Several suspected perpetrators of the attack are in custody, but the investigation revealed nothing about those who ordered the attack.

Kherson municipal official Kateryna Gandziuk before she was attacked with a liter of battery acid. Her friends believe it was a result of her efforts to expose corruption in the city. (Facebook/Kateryna Gandziuk)

Reacting to the news of Gandziuk’s death, President Petro Poroshenko released a statement on Nov. 4 calling on the law enforcement to find and prosecute the killers. The statement mentioned “the killers” but didn’t specifically demand to find those who ordered the murder.

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“We all must help the law enforcers so that the evil is punished,” the statement read.

About 1,000 people came to the Interior Ministry Headquarters in Kyiv later on Nov. 4 to hold a vigil and demand a proper investigation of Gandziuk’s murder.

People hold a vigil for the murdered activist Kateryna Gandziuk and demand a proper investigation of her murder in Kyiv on Nov. 4. (Video by Kyiv Post)

Despite her severe condition, Gandziuk recorded a video address on Sept. 26. In the video, she lies on the hospital bed, her face covered with burns, and talks about impunity and lack of justice in Ukraine.

“I know I look bad,” she says, looking into the camera. “But still not as bad as current Ukrainian justice and rule of law. I’m getting treatment. But nobody is curing our justice system.”

Following it, several hundred people protested near the president’s administration in Kyiv on Sept. 28 demanding that the authorities investigate the attacks on Gandziuk and other activists.

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“I can’t believe it,” journalist Oleksiy Matsuka said on Facebook reacting to the attack. “She was always ready to fight, an uncompromising optimist. I met her almost 12 years ago and all these years I was watching her bravery, energy, and candor. I don’t want to believe it. It’s a serious loss.”

Protesters come to the President’s Administration on Sept. 28 to demand that the attacks on Kateryna Gandziuk and other activists are investigated. 

Investigation

Police arrested a suspect in the attack, Mykola Novikov, on Aug. 3. But he was widely believed to be a scapegoat. His sister said he had an alibi since he was not in Kherson at the time of the attack, which was later confirmed through an investigation by the Ukrainska Pravda online newspaper. On Aug. 22, police released Novikov.

By then investigators had identified new suspects – a group of five people, all former fighters of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army, an offshoot of the nationalist Right Sector group.

As of November, Serhiy Torbin, a former officer of Kherson police, remains the main suspect in Gandziuk’s case. Torbin was arrested on Aug. 17 and for a long time, he kept silence. He denied accusations during a court hearing on Oct. 17.

Another suspect, Volodymyr Vasyanovych, claimed in court that Torbin was the organizer of the attack on Gandziuk. Vasyanovych said that he was only a driver – his role was to take four other suspects to Kherson from a village in Kherson Oblast the day before the attack. He was put under house arrest.

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Viktor Gorbunov, another suspect who had allegedly bought the acid for the attack, was also released under the house arrest on Oct. 16 and has also named Torbin as the organizer.

On Oct. 28, Torbin was taken from Kherson to Kyiv and stays in the Security Service of Ukraine’s pre-trial detention center, his defense lawyer Yuriy Khazov told the Kyiv Post on Nov. 4.

 

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