KYIV, UKRAINE—When a critical mass of mostly young Ukrainians brought down a corrupt government in a wave of protests in 2014, Katya Gandziuk’s friends never imagined she would end up murdered four years later for exposing corrupt officials.
They had fought in Kyiv’s main square, the Maidan, and some died for a vision of a new Ukraine less tied to Russia and the country’s corrupt Soviet past. And they won, at least that battle.
Today, however, that vision is no sure thing. Even after ex-comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy swept to an unprecedented electoral victory on an anti-corruption ticket less than a year ago, daring to expose corruption remains a dangerous, even deadly business. Gandziuk, a prominent anti-corruption activist, was murdered for it and those who ordered the killing safely evade justice.
Gandziuk’s close friend Kateryna Mola came face to face with that impunity on a recent afternoon in Kyiv, picking up her phone to find a video that made her stomach turn. Staring back at her was the man widely believed to have ordered the murder of Gandziuk in a grisly attack in 2018. A friend of hers had spotted him shopping in a ritzy commercial district in the Ukrainian capital and captured the video.
It was almost a year since the daylight attack outside her home in the eastern port city of Kherson, on the banks of the Dnieper river, and her friends and family were still coming to terms with its savagery.
It also raised questions for Canada, which in 2017 opened the door for Canadian defence contractors to export weapons to Ukraine despite concerns from a Canadian parliamentary defence committee over high levels of corruption, which Ukrainian human rights groups have linked to Gandziuk’s murder.
On a late July morning, a man ran up behind the 33-year-old and doused her with a litre of sulphuric acid as she left home for the city council office, where she worked as an adviser to the mayor. Minutes later, in an ambulance racing to the hospital, she messaged friends photos of the burns via WhatsApp, saying she didn’t think they were that bad.
They were. The acid had splashed over her head and run down her back, arms and legs, ultimately covering nearly 40 per cent of her body.
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At the hospital, her friend Roman Sinitsyn remembers her doctors saying they had never seen such extensive chemical burns and had to pull out their textbooks to brush up on treatment. Within days, they transferred Gandziuk to a Kyiv military hospital for more advanced care. There, she endured nearly a dozen painful surgeries over three months before dying of her injuries on Nov. 4, 2018.
Before her killing, Gandziuk cut a conspicuous figure in Kherson, one of the last stops along the route from Kyiv to the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula. In her unique perch as a city official and activist, she gained a reputation for brazenly calling out local and regional officials for alleged corruption in sharply worded Facebook posts. They earned her a profile and credibility among Kherson’s reform-minded set, but made her enemy number one for the targets she exposed.
In the lead-up to the attack, she accused the regional governor and the head of the regional parliament, the man in the video, of covering up an illegal logging scheme. Her friends believe it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and spurred her killers to action.
News of Gandziuk’s death galvanized a Ukrainian public already resentful of rampant government corruption. Protests erupted in Kyiv and other cities. In the face of public anger, then-president Petro Poroshenko promised to bring the killers to justice.
Western governments took notice, too. German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out, as did Chrystia Freeland, who was Canada’s foreign affairs minister. Freeland took to Twitter, calling Gandziuk’s death a “tragic loss,” and demanded that her killers be brought to justice. Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine visited Gandziuk in hospital.
But with the international spotlight fading over the last year, the investigation has floundered. Five men were handed sentences ranging from three to six years for carrying out the murder on orders. Gandziuk’s father, Viktor, has called the sentences “laughable,” in part because the men saw their charges reduced as part of a secret plea agreement without the elder Gandziuk’s knowledge. No one has been tried for ordering the murder.
In the year since her death, the case has become emblematic of Ukraine’s struggle to bring the rule of law to bear on the everyday lives of Ukrainians.
Gandziuk’s mourners are not alone. Joining them in their search for justice are the survivors of dozens of other attacks against Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and the families of other murdered victims. In the last two years, Ukrainian human rights groups have documented 55 attacks against anti-corruption activists and four murders.
Human rights groups say the attacks are enabled by a pattern of corrupt relationships between criminals and local authorities common across Ukraine enables the violence.
“These attacks are often connected with criminal and semi-criminal circles on the local level merged with local authorities, the prosecutor’s office, and the police,” said Tetiana Pechonchyk.
Pechonchyk, the head of ZMINA Human Rights Center, a Kyiv-based human rights organization, added that these officials help cover up each other’s illegal acts to maintain the ability to illicitly profit from their official positions.
The continued prevalence of this kind of corruption puts Canada, a close ally of Ukraine, in an awkward position. In 2017, after studying whether Canada should provide Ukraine with lethal weapons in its war against Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence recommended that Ukraine should first show it was “actively working to eliminate corruption in all levels of government.”
But as Canadian weapons flow into Ukraine two years later, organizations who monitor international corruption suggest that has yet to be done. Ukraine placed 120th out of 180 on Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index. Despite repeated promises over the last five years from Ukrainian politicians to prosecute corrupt high-level officials, not a single one has been convicted of corruption-related crimes.
In October, the International Monetary Fund froze talks with Ukraine over a crucial $5 billion (U.S.) loan because of stalled progress on a corruption case involving the theft of $5.5 billion from a major Ukrainian bank. The bank blames two previous owners for stealing the money, including notorious Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.
The fund has since reopened talks after promises to regulate the banking sector more strictly. But since his election earlier this year, President Zelenskiy has been trailed by criticism that he is too close to Kolomoisky, and has not moved quickly enough to recover the missing billions.
Kolomoisky’s personal lawyer now serves as the president’s chief of staff, even though this man is not legally permitted to work in a government post. Kolomoisky himself, who is under investigation by the FBI for financial crimes, had been in self-imposed exile from Ukraine, but returned shortly after Zelenskiy’s election win. He is also the owner of the television network on which Zelenskiy rose to fame.
Ukrainian civil society groups say Gandziuk’s murder should be seen as part of this wider trend of stalled progress on corruption.
High-level officials, including the head of Kherson’s regional parliament, are suspected of involvement in the plot to kill her. Ukrainian investigative journalism outlet Slidstvo.info obtained phone records showing that in the days before and after the attack, another suspected collaborator was in contact with local prosecutors and police. He has since fled the country, leading to suspicion that the police warned him his arrest was imminent.
Even the man in the video, Vladislav Manger, has seen his charges lessened, and the case has been lost in seemingly endless postponements, leading Katya Gandziuk’s friends to doubt he will ever face justice.
Sipping a cappuccino at a Kyiv café, Gandziuk’s friend Roman Sinitsyn worries how a trial might play out in Ukraine’s corrupt judicial system. Manger is wealthy, he says, and Ukraine’s courts are notorious for judges taking money in exchange for favourable verdicts. Judicial reform is considered among the most disappointing failures of Ukraine’s reform process.
But human rights groups say the murders and attacks go beyond the problem of corrupt local officials. To them, the corruption that enables the violence reaches high into the Ukrainian government, and one powerful man is responsible for the attacks and the failure to properly investigate them: Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. In his ministerial post overseeing police, Avakov has been widely criticized for blocking substantive reforms meant to root out police corruption.
In May 2019 as Zelenskiy assembled his new cabinet, Transparency International Ukraine and at least 19 other human rights and transparency organizations launched an appeal to have Avakov removed and for western countries to level sanctions against him. They allege that Avakov and Ukraine’s then-general prosecutor are guilty of a “silent coverup,” and are “politically responsible” for the attacks and murders for having blocked police reforms meant to weed out corruption.
Those reforms, meant to clean up Ukraine’s national police force, only made it as far as the Patrol Police, the force responsible for traffic enforcement and street patrols. While considered a moderate success, and financed in part by the Canadian government, these reforms left detectives and chiefs in the upper ranks of the national police force, where experts say the potential for corruption is greatest, untouched.
“There was no political will to seriously reform the police, because the leaders of the country and of law enforcement wanted to keep all their corrupt schemes going,” said Pechonchyk, the human rights advocate.
Avakov is no stranger to corruption allegations. Beyond accusations of attacks on activists, he has been tied to violent far right militias, which he denies, and stands accused of interfering in a criminal case against his son. In 2018 Ukraine’s main anti-corruption investigation agency, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, arrested Avakov’s son, Oleksandr, on embezzlement charges related to a deal to sell equipment to the Ukrainian military at inflated prices.
Following the arrest, the interior ministry, which has no official connection to the younger Avakov or the case against him, inexplicably issued a press release attacking the charges as politically motivated. The case was later controversially closed by Ukraine’s special anti-corruption prosecutor, who has himself been reprimanded for improperly interfering in corruption investigations.
Artem Sytnyk, the anti-corruption bureau’s director, told the Star in an interview that the evidence against Avakov’s son was strong, and that there was “no legal reason why the case was closed.”
After the prosecutor dropped the case, a violent mob ransacked the anti-corruption bureau’s Kyiv offices. Sytnyk would not directly blame Avakov for the violence, citing a lack of evidence, but a cryptic post appeared on the bureau’s website soon after the incident, appearing to accuse him of complicity.
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It alleged that the attack was connected to “a close relative of the Minister of Internal Affairs whose actions have been investigated by the (bureau) detectives.” It also accused the police, nominally under Avakov’s control, of standing aside and allowing the mob to break into the building, destroy furniture and threaten employees.
In another instance of alleged retribution, police launched an investigation into the forensic expert whose opinion was used to build the case against Avakov’s son. The expert, Nadia Bugrova, believes Avakov is abusing his position as a powerful minister to take revenge on her.
At the interior ministry, Avakov is no marginal government player. He is deeply involved in negotiations to end the five-year-long war with Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, a sign of his privileged place in Zelenskiy’s government. But why he remains there despite his seemingly compromising past is a source of consternation, bewilderment and conspiracy theories among the Ukrainian public.
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According to Serhiy Shvets, a member of parliament from Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party, even members of his own party were against his appointment. On the eve of the vote to approve the new cabinet, Shvets said, Zelenskiy assembled MPs to address the controversy around Avakov.
Zelenskiy “explained that he knows the problems connected with this person, but for a few reasons, he asked us to vote for him as a member of cabinet.”
Shvets declined to discuss those reasons.
Despite initially agreeing to an interview in Kyiv, Minister Avakov’s office later cancelled, citing his busy schedule, and has not responded to emailed questions.
Gandziuk’s friends and supporters want countries like Canada to say something about Avakov.
“Push the Avakov problem, please. Push internationally. We need to get rid of him,” Sinitsyn said, adding that it would be “impossible” for Ukraine to build strong, honest law enforcement bodies with Avakov in power.
Canada does not seem ready to do that. In July 2019, Global Affairs Canada and Minister Freeland hosted Avakov in Toronto at a conference to promote reform in Ukraine. He appeared as a speaker on a panel about fighting corruption, and hobnobbed with Canadian cabinet ministers.
“Good to meet Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov at tonight’s dinner honouring Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskyy,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan commented on a photo of himself and Avakov posted to Facebook on July 2.
For some observers, Avakov’s attendance was at odds with Canada’s public statements on fighting corruption in Ukraine.
“Canada invested so much effort and money to the reform of law enforcement,” Pechonchyk said. “And then (Avakov) is invited to Toronto to a reform conference sponsored by the Canadian government to speak about the success of police reform? It’s ridiculous. He is anti-reform.”
The Department of National Defence refused to comment on the July conference or on Ukraine’s progress on corruption and how it might influence the defence relationship between the two countries. A 2017 DND intelligence assessment, however, shows the latest available example of internal thinking on Ukraine’s progress on corruption. It paints a brief but grim picture.
Under the heading “little progress,” the heavily redacted intelligence assessment from the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command states that “almost two years of international engagement in support of Ukrainian anti-corruption measures and socio-economic reforms have not produced any momentum beyond meeting the minimal required steps necessary to secure international assistance.” It was obtained by the Star using access-to-information laws.
A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence declined to answer questions about whether the intelligence assessment is representative of current thinking inside the department, saying only that “an intelligence assessment provides an understanding of a situation at a particular time; it is not an official position.”
“It would be inappropriate for DND to take a position on a foreign country’s political situation,” the spokesperson, Andrée-Anne Poulin, added.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, which hosted the conference, also refused to comment on Avakov’s presence, saying only that the conference “provided an opportunity for Ukraine and its friends and partners to reaffirm their full political and practical commitment to robust reforms — including in the fight against corruption.” The department also declined to comment on whether it had considered sanctions such as those requested by Ukrainian human rights groups.
Canada’s Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act — Known as the Sergey Magnitsky Law — allows Canadian MPs to level sanctions against foreign officials responsible for corruption and human rights violations. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s December mandate letter to the new minister of foreign affairs, François-Philippe Champagne, includes an order to “build the Magnitsky sanctions regime to ensure increased support for victims of human rights violations.”
But regardless of corruption, Ukraine is indeed in military trouble. Any dilemma Canada faces in arming Ukraine is underscored by the reality that the country is in desperate need of military aid as it seeks to deter Russia from further aggression. Since the double onslaught of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and fomenting a war in Ukraine’s east, where Russian-backed separatists still hold territory, the government has struggled to keep the country together.
Consequently, when U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to cut off hundreds of millions in military aid last summer unless Zelenskiy announced investigations into Democrat Joe Biden and his son, the president and his advisers were forced into a corner, and were reportedly ready to capitulate.
Canada, for its part, stood up for Ukraine early on, at first providing military training, equipment and aid money, before allowing Canadian arms manufacturers to apply to export lethal weapons to Ukraine as of December 2017.
Global Affairs Canada says that since 2014, Canada has committed more than $785 million in assistance to Ukraine. In 2018, the latest year for which figures are available, $5.2 million worth of controlled weaponry was exported to Ukraine, including over half a million dollars’ worth of firearms and their parts.
Not included in those figures is a deal reported by Ukrainian media last November for Winnipeg-based PGW Defence Technologies to sell an expected $1 million in sniper rifles to the Ukrainian government. Zelenskiy also recently expressed interest in buying light-armoured vehicles from Canada.
Leading up to Canada opening the door to weapons exports, several experts told the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence that military aid is badly needed to deter further Russian aggression. Fifteen thousand Ukrainians have been killed so far in the war. Canadian human rights and disarmament groups, however, opposed allowing arms exports, citing the checkered human rights record of Ukrainian security forces dating back to violent crackdowns on protesters in 2014.
Global Affairs Canada told the Star all applications to export weapons are judged on a “case-by-case basis” against criteria that include human rights considerations. Canada’s contribution, however, is unlikely to tip the balance. Ukraine’s future, for better or worse, is expected be decided in negotiations among France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia that began in December.
But for Ukrainians fighting to expose corruption, their human rights are not cards to be played or discarded in a geopolitical poker game. And as the weapons continue to flow and negotiations continue, they are fighting not to be forgotten.
On a cool, wet evening almost a year after Gandziuk’s death, many of them gather at a protest outside the president’s office in Kyiv to demand justice for Gandziuk. Among the hundreds assembled, some hold placards calling for Avakov to be fired, others plastered with photos of Gandziuk. Gandziuk’s friend Kateryna Mola is there, chatting quietly with friends. As she speaks with this reporter, the crowd erupts in a chant: “Who killed Katya Gandziuk?”
Despite the display of support, Mola is downcast.
“There are not as many people here as I’d hoped.”
Katya’s father, Viktor, is here, too. Leaving the protest in a car with a reporter, he looks out on the Maidan, where thousands of Ukrainians protested, and scores died, for closer ties to Europe and a western-oriented Ukraine governed by the rule of law.
“I used to drive this route to visit Katya in hospital,” he said.
Looking back to the beginning of Zelenskiy’s term, he remembers his optimism about the new president’s promise to find Katya’s killers and fight corruption.
But as time drags on, his confidence has waned.
“It’s a big disappointment.”
Corbett Hancey is the 2019 Michener-Deacon Fellow for Investigative Reporting