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Across Ukraine, Calls Grow For Powerful Interior Minister's Exit After Police Shooting Of 5-Year-Old

People gather for a protest in front of the Interior Ministry in Kyiv after a 5-year-old boy was fatally shot by two police officers.

KYIV -- Ukraine's powerful and controversial interior minister, Arsen Avakov, has survived several changes of government since his appointment following the ouster of a Russia-friendly government amid pro-democracy protests five years ago.

He's also outlasted calls for his resignation over allegations of corruption involving his son and the handling of high-profile murder cases such as those of activists Kateryna Handziuk and Iryna Nozdrovska.

Now, after a 5-year-old boy was fatally shot by two allegedly drunken police officers, he's again digging in and defending his job in the face of angry protesters who want him gone.

Slogans such as "Avakoff" -- a play on the minister's surname and the F-word in English -- and "the police kill people" adorned posters held by some of the hundreds of protesters who gathered outside the Interior Ministry building on June 4.

Underscoring the breadth of the public anger, the demonstrators included several members of far-right groups that are thought to be indebted to Avakov and his ministry for support or leniency following violent attacks on minorities. They lit flares and joined chants of "Throw him out!"

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry in Kyiv on June 4.
A protester holds a placard during a demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry in Kyiv on June 4.

Similar protests took place at regional police offices in at least 10 other cities across Ukraine.

But after a cabinet meeting on June 5, a defiant Avakov told reporters, "I will not write a letter of resignation," according to Interfax-Ukraine.

The case that has sparked the latest calls for Avakov's exit involves two traffic police officers who are alleged to have drunkenly shot 5-year-old Kyrylo Tliavov while firing their weapons at empty cans in a yard outside Kyiv last week. Investigators say a bullet from one of the officers' guns struck Tliavov in the head.

Accusations Of A Cover-Up

Police officials are also being accused of attempting to cover up the officers' actions by initially reporting that an accidental fall caused the boy's head wound.

In a June 4 ruling, a Kyiv court ordered two months of pretrial detention for officers Volodymyr Petrovets and Ivan Prykhodko. They face premeditated murder charges after investigators upgraded the case from hooliganism and inflicting bodily harm.

Amid continuous coverage of the public outrage over the police actions, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took time out from his first foreign visit, in Brussels, to weigh in. In an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on June 5, Zelenskiy said, "I am sure that there will be political responsibility and criminal liability" for Tliavov's death.

Zelenskiy had written on Facebook on June 4 that he would do everything possible to ensure that guilty parties are punished. "No softening. No attempt to hide this matter. This tragedy should become a lesson," he said.

Some of the political responsibility has already fallen on Dmytro Tsenov, head of the Kyiv regional police force where the incident occurred. Tsenov resigned on June 4, telling reporters that he would seek a transfer to the eastern Donbas region where Ukraine is fighting a bloody war against Russia-backed separatists.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov (file photo)
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov (file photo)

Avakov said on June 5 that "Tsenov is politically responsible. We hold him accountable for the inadequate work of the police involved."

But many Ukrainians, seemingly fed up with police impunity and botched investigations from a law enforcement body that was thought to have been reformed, are demanding further action.

"Non-reformed police kills," Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Kyiv-based Anticorruption Action Center (AntAC), which participated in the protests and has been a harsh critic of the interior minister during his tenure, tweeted in English. "Arsen Avakov must leave the office!"

'Politically Motivated'

Meanwhile, protesters gathered in at least 10 cities -- including Chernivtsi, Vinnytsia, Mykolayiv, Rivne, and Kherson -- and demanded Avakov's resignation. They laid photos of a smiling Tliavov and teddy bears at the entrances to police offices and lit candles in his memory.

More than 22,500 people have signed a petition on the presidential website demanding that Avakov be suspended from duty immediately. Petitions addressed to the president should be considered if they gather at least 25,000 signatures within 90 days.

Artem Shevchenko, the chief spokesman for the Interior Ministry and National Police, told RFE/RL that calls for Avakov's resignation and suspension were "unacceptable."

"My personal opinion is that resignation calls are unacceptable and politically motivated, not professionally motivated," he said in comments made in English. "Avakov is an experienced and strong politician and can take a right decision by himself."

Shevchenko said he did not believe Avakov was responsible in any way for the boy's death because the two police officers were off duty at the time.

He said he was pleased with the police investigation into the incident, which he called swift and thorough.

Avakov has been criticized in the past from outside Ukraine, too.

Group of Seven embassies in Kyiv called out the minister for failing to hold violent far-right groups accountable for openly targeting and attacking minorities.

The right-wing Azov National Militia enjoys a special agreement with Avakov's ministry that allows it some of the same rights as police officers.