Set free in the snowy woods outside Kiev after being tortured for hours, Ukrainian opposition activist Ihor Lutsenko considers himself lucky. His fellow protester, Yuri Verbitsky, froze to death, unable to move when he was dumped a few kilometers away.
“I was praying because I thought it was my last moment,” Lutsenko, 35, said by Skype from his hospital bed in the capital on Jan. 29, eight days after the attack.
As demonstrations aimed at ousting Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych have spread, so has the brutality of the response, stiffening his opponents’ resolve and deepening the standoff. Protest groups say seven activists have died and 26 have gone missing since Jan. 16, when Yanukovych pushed through a series of anti-protest laws that rekindled unrest. Officials deny acting illegally and accuse the opposition of falsifying claims to win public support -- a position dismissed by the U.S. and the European Union.
“There’s a witch hunt by the authorities,” Bogdan Ovcharuk of the Amnesty International human rights group, said in Kiev. “All those people who are critical of the government and are expressing their position are being targeted.”
Unlike the Orange Revolution a decade ago, when an outcry over a rigged election kept Yanukovych from power without bloodshed, this time the demonstrations have turned deadly as activists clash with police nationwide. Thousands of people are occupying Independence Square and government buildings in the capital and other regions. At least three policemen have died, according to the Interior Ministry.
The ministry said it’s only received nine missing persons reports from protesters and five of those have been found. A sixth person declared missing turned out not to exist, the ministry said in a statement on its website on Feb. 3.
The ministry also denied ignoring claims of abduction and torture, particularly by Dmitri Bulatov, a protest leader who resurfaced in public on Jan. 30 with wounds all over his body, saying he’d been “crucified.” Bulatov, 35, said he suffered eight days of torture by captors who nailed his hands to a door and sliced off part of one of his ears.
Bulatov said today his abductors accused him of being a U.S. spy and tortured him, including by waterboarding, until he agreed to say so on video.
“I lied so they’d torture me less because I could no longer endure the pain,” Bulatov told reporters in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where he is being treated. “On the last day, they told me told to kneel, to put my hands forward and nailed me. Then they beat me on the same spots as before. It was so terrible, I asked them to kill me.”
The Interior Ministry said investigators had tried to interrogate Bulatov three times, but hadn’t gotten any significant details about his kidnapping, after earlier suggesting it may all be a hoax. “Such behavior makes us think that he doesn’t want to cooperate with the police.”
The debate over the abductions has also made its way into global politics as the U.S. and the EU jostle with Russia over Ukraine’s future. Yanukovych rejected a deal for closer integration with the EU in November in favor of strengthening ties with Russia. President Vladimir Putin, who wants Ukraine to join his trade pact with Kazakhstan and Belarus instead, rewarded Yanukovych with $15 billion of aid and cheaper gas.
Secretary of State John Kerry told opposition leaders the U.S. is “deeply concerned about reports of human rights violations in Ukraine such as disappearances and killings,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Jan. 31.
As western countries and Russia accuse each other of meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, protests and reports of police violence continue, even after parliament repealed the anti-protest laws, the prime minister resigned and Yanukovych offered to share power. Now the U.S. and the EU are considering their own aid packages and threatening sanctions.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was in Kiev to meet with both sides and said yesterday that there is “great concern to see that those who have committed violence are brought to justice.” The EU is thinking “very carefully about the options” regarding sanctions, Ashton said Jan. 29 on an earlier visit to Ukraine.
Lithuania urged the EU on Feb. 4 to act quickly to pressure its fellow former Soviet state to end the “abduction, torture and inhuman treatment of peaceful protesters.”
Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said there’s growing support among EU members for targeted sanctions against Ukrainian officials responsible for violence. Possible measures include visa bans and “a careful investigation of bank accounts,” he said in an interview with the BNS news service.
The attacks on demonstrators are radicalizing the opposition, making it difficult to see how a peaceful resolution to the standoff can be achieved, said Lilit Gevorgyan, a senior economist at IHS Global Insight in London.
“The authorities may indeed resort to violence, arguing that their actions are a lawful attempt to restore law and order,” Gevorgyan said by e-mail.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry issued a statement on Jan. 31, prodding Yanukovych to “stabilize” the country. The president returned to work after a four-day sick leave on Feb. 3 and urged Ukrainians to reject “extremism, radicalism and stoking of antagonism,” according to a statement on his website.
Police so far have failed to seriously investigate any of the deaths or the abductions and torture alleged by activists, which reflect a long-standing pattern of abuse by Ukrainian law-enforcement bodies, according to Amnesty’s Ovcharuk.
Lutsenko has written for Ukrainska Pravda, the website started by Georgiy Gongadze, whose headless body was found in a forest near Kiev in 2000 in what remains the highest-profile political crime in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. A senior police officer was convicted of the murder, though then-President Leonid Kuchma and Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko ordered the attack, a parliamentary commission found in 2005, a year after Kuchma left office.
The case against the former president, who denied any involvement, even after a former bodyguard produced audio tapes in which Kuchma demanded Gongadze be silenced, was dropped in 2011. Kravchenko was found shot to death before he was scheduled to be questioned. His death was later ruled a suicide.
Lutsenko said he and Verbitsky were abducted at about 4 a.m. by as many as 10 men from the clinic in central Kiev where he’d taken Verbitsky to get treatment for an eye injury suffered during clashes with police.
He said they were kept for eight hours on a metal floor in different compartments of a garage by interrogators who spoke Ukrainian and Russian. He said they bound his hands and legs, put a plastic bag over his head and beat him repeatedly with a metal bar amid questions about the demonstrations.
Several factors point to the possibility that the abductors “were in collusion with law enforcement and security services,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a Jan. 23 statement, noting that the kidnappers were well-organized and focused their questioning on the anti-government movement.
The Interior Ministry didn’t respond to e-mail and phone requests for comment on allegations that authorities ordered the abductions.
Lutsenko, who said he wasn’t working as a reporter on the night of his abduction, isn’t the only journalist to be injured, according to the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. At least 150 other reporters have been wounded, some by rubber bullets, since the end of November, including 42 in mid-January, said Ernest Sagaga, head of human rights at the Brussels-based research group.
Several protesters have similar accounts. Serhiy Sikorski, 30, a special-services veteran who now works as a builder, said he was seized near Independence Square on Jan. 20 by several men and shoved in to a minibus with another activist. Sikorski said he was then handed over to six men in riot police uniforms who took them to a forest and beat them for about an hour.
The assailants put them face down, took off their shoes, and beat their backs, lower knees and soles of their feet with rubber batons, Sikorski said by phone from his hospital bed on Jan. 28. The men stopped and left the area after passers-by approached the scene, according to Sikorski.
“They beat us professionally so we couldn’t walk,” Sikorski said. “If those people hadn’t appeared, I’m not sure I’d have come back alive. We would’ve ended up like Verbitsky, who died of hypothermia.”
Bulatov was found covered in blood in the same area where Verbitsky’s body was discovered, suggesting the attacks were carried out by the same group, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, a former economy minister who supports the protests, said on Hromadske TV on Jan. 30.
“There isn’t any doubt that the current authorities are involved in his kidnapping,” opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, a former world boxing champion, said Jan. 28. “It was his courage and energy that united thousands of patriots around AutoMaidan, who became a real force in fighting with this regime.”
Bulatov is one of several members of AutoMaidan, a group of car owners that ferries supplies to demonstrators on Independence Square, or Maidan, who say they’ve been attacked by government forces.
Yaroslav Gonchar, an AutoMaidan driver, said he was hospitalized Jan. 19 after police officers trapped his car with their own and beat him through the side window.
Oleksandr Kravtsov, another AutoMaidan volunteer, and about 15 other people were detained in Kiev on Jan. 23 after security service officers stopped their convoy and smashed their vehicles with batons, according to AutoMaidan spokeswoman Katya Butko, who said she was at the scene. The detainees were taken to a park and forced to kneel without coats in freezing temperatures for about 90 minutes, Butko said.
Oleksiy Gritsenko, one of AutoMaidan’s leaders, said he’s getting anonymous threats by text message almost every day and never spends more than one night in the same place.
“Protesters are continuing to go missing, and they don’t just go missing for no reason,” Oleksandra Matviychuk, a spokeswoman for EuroMaidan SOS, a nonprofit group that helps protesters with legal issues, said by phone. “People are very afraid now because they realize they have to be very concerned about their personal safety.”