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Provoking a Crackdown

Riot police and thugs threaten to sabotage the Kyiv protests.

by Halya Coynash 4 December 2013

A dangerous stunt acted out by provocateurs and the Berkut (special forces) riot police on 1 December outside the Ukrainian president’s administration in Kyiv has taken a sinister turn. 


On 3 December, nine men, five of them still in hospital after being badly beaten by the riot police, were remanded in custody for two months.  All were peaceful protesters, without masks, who seem to have had nothing to do with the confrontation between a crowd of masked young men and the riot police. Various video clips are widely available showing some of them being brutally beaten, backing allegations that the whole confrontation was orchestrated. It is possible that the authorities are not even trying to conceal this. The message, after all, is chilling: go out and protest and you could end up in hospital and facing a five- to eight-year sentence for “taking part in mass riots.”  


The demonstration on 1 December brought up to half a million Ukrainians out into the center of Kyiv.  They were protesting against the government’s rejection of European integration but also expressing outrage at the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters early on 30 November. 




With such a huge number of demonstrators, police presence was undoubtedly called for. Yet mid-afternoon, the civic initiative OZON began sounding the alarm. There were almost no police on most of the central streets. Demonstrators who wanted to hand over individuals caught trying to start fights, or report strange stockpiles of sticks, canisters with unidentified substances, etc., couldn’t find police officers and were effectively ignored even when they rang the emergency police number. 


Outside the president’s administration, however, and around a monument to Vladimir Lenin, there were huge contingents of Berkut riot police. 


And lo and behold, a group of masked people seized a bulldozer and began heading toward the president’s administration. They ignored pleas from demonstrators to stop and reminders that this was a peaceful demonstration. A detailed report from the police on Facebook was suspiciously swift in appearing. It asserted that 200 protesters had tried to storm a cordon outside the administration and that five officers had received injuries and three had inhaled some unidentified gas. The number of injured officers was later put at 70.




Several videos can be seen of these events. Perhaps the most damning detail concerns one of the supposed “hotheads” – a tall masked man in a purple jacket. In the video he can be seen in various roles – first apparently fighting with the Berkut officers, then standing next to one and observing, before again changing sides.  The Berkut officers do not seem to bat an eye. Other video clips appear to show young men, suspiciously like the hired thugs swarming the center over recent days, being brought by coach to the president’s administration.



There were immediately suggestions in the media and social networks that the bulldozer crowd had been coordinated by Dmytro Korchynsky, captured on video near the bulldozer and described by Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher on far-right organizations, as being “widely considered an agent provocateur.” Korchynsky’s Bratstvo (Brotherhood) organization “already took part in several actions that were meant to provoke police suppression of peaceful protests,” Shekhovstov wrote on his blog.


The police even stated on 1 December that Korchynsky and his fringe group had been involved. Yet they are now saying that Korchynsky himself is not a suspect and that none of the men detained is connected with Bratstvo or any other political organization.    




Five of the men were so badly injured that they have been in hospital ever since under guard. Oleksander Ostashchenko, an engineer, married with a young daughter, was on Bankova Street, which runs past the presidential offices, with a friend. They both tried to get away when they saw men in masks and police. The friend, who escaped, says Ostashchenko can be seen here being knocked down by a Berkut officer. The same source says he is also one of the men being beaten and abused while lying on the ground and showing no resistance here.  


This clearly requires objective and thorough investigation. Unfortunately the court hearings on 3 December do not inspire confidence that the men will receive a fair trial.


The prosecutor demanded the maximum two-month detention period on the grounds that the accused men could otherwise continue their alleged role in mass disturbances. Most have concussions, bandaged heads, and fractures, which the video footage demonstrates were inflicted by riot police.


Journalist Dmytro Hnap reports that he was in court when the judge remanded Yaroslav Prytulenko in custody for two months. The prosecutor claims that he was caught with a firework device and that he hit out at the officers when being detained. This is undoubtedly undesirable behavior, however the allegations are based solely on testimony from police officers whose names were not given and who were not present in court.


Both the prosecutor and police refused to reveal the names of the men facing charges before the court hearings, and none has been allowed visits from family members.


All of this bears a disturbing resemblance to the charges laid on activists protesting against changes to the tax laws in 2010. Some of those charged with causing damage to the granite stone on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) by erecting tents were not even part of the tax protest. Then and now the calculation was brutally cynical: the more unwarranted the charges, the less likely people will be to stick their necks out.


The outrage expressed within Ukraine and from the international community following violent measures against peaceful demonstrators on 30 November forced Ukraine’s leaders to issue statements promising an investigation and claiming commitment to democratic values.  Behavior by law enforcement bodies on 1 December, their likely implication in planned provocation, and the detention and prosecution of peaceful demonstrators indicate that the current regime will stop at little to stay in power and crush dissent. 


The nine beaten by Berkut officers then arrested on Bankova Street:



  • Yury Bolotov, 39, a father of two and former leader of the Okean Elzy rock band; at the demonstration with a friend


  • Hennady Cherevko from Lubny


  • Valery Harahuts, a journalist from Dnipropetrovsk


  • Mykola Lazarevsky, 23, an architect


  • Serhiy Nuzhnenko, an amateur photographer. A friend says that during the demonstration Nuzhnenko simply took photographs.


  • Oleksander Ostashchenko, 32, an engineer


  • Yehor Previr, an unemployed architecture graduate


  • Yaroslav Prytulenko, 21, at the demonstration with a student friend


  • Vladislav Zahorovko, married with three children


Harahuts, Lazarevsky, Nuzhnenko, Ostashchenko, and Previr reportedly have serious injuries and were kept in hospital under guard from 1 December.  

Halya Coynash is a journalist and member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on whose website a version of this commentary was previously published.
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