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Ukrainian Police-Abuse Protests Come To The Capital

A Ukrainian protest movement sparked by allegations of police abuse in the village of Vradiyivka has been gaining momentum in recent weeks.
A Ukrainian protest movement sparked by allegations of police abuse in the village of Vradiyivka has been gaining momentum in recent weeks.
KYIV -- For 10 days now, a group of about a dozen people has been walking the 300 kilometers from the Ukrainian village of Vradiyivka to the capital, Kyiv.

They were angry when they set out, but they will likely be furious on July 18 when they gather in downtown Kyiv to protest rampant and unpunished abuse in the country's police force.

And the group plans to camp on Independence Square indefinitely until their concerns are addressed. Opposition politicians, seeing the police-abuse issue as a wedge against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and his ruling Party of Regions, are backing the protesters.

"In terms of their brazenness, their Ukrainophobia, their incompetence, our police have reached the absolute limit," says Andriy Illienko, a parliamentary deputy from the opposition Svoboda (Freedom) party.

Accusations of police abuse -- torture, bribery, rape, murder, and more -- are an old story in Ukraine. But the frustration boiled over late last month when a woman in Vradiyivka, Iryna Krashkova, accused two local police officers and a civilian of brutally beating and raping her. Other locals soon came forward with similarly outrageous accusations that they say were covered up earlier.

After days of protests in Vradiyivka, including a mob storming the police station, residents there are now taking their anger to the capital, where they expect to tap into a national well of outrage.

READ MORE: Villagers Say Rape Case Just Tip Of Iceberg

Iryna Krashkova's claims that police raped and beat her has prompted a wave of protests. On their way to Kyiv, the protesters from Vradiyivka stopped in the town of Fastiv on July 16 and attempted to force their way into the police station there to investigate reports that the building houses a room used to torture prisoners.

Police prevented them from entering the station.

On July 14, a crowd in the capital stormed a local police station after an officer reportedly struck Iryna Bondar, a female activist who was working at a local market to help vendors avoid extortion by gangsters. Bondar told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that she asked a police officer who approached her to speak to her in Ukrainian and he then punched her while another officer stood by.

"When a law enforcement officer allows himself to strike a woman, when a law enforcement officer closes his eyes to the misconduct of another officer, how are we supposed to deal with such police?" she asked.

Bondar was treated at a local hospital and released. Several police officers, meanwhile, were reportedly injured during the storming of the police station.

'Dirty And Stained'

Over the last few years, cases of alleged police abuse have been documented in almost every region of Ukraine. The human rights watchdog Amnesty International has been calling for police reform since at least 2011.

"Neither the Interior Ministry nor the head of our government understands that the police force is a mirror of the authorities," says Mykola Palamarchuk, a former deputy interior minister who is now a legislator from the opposition Udar party.

"And that mirror today is dirty and stained. The police force is rotting. The police have become dangerous to society. Nowadays there is an expression that is popular among police officers -- 'a liquid client.' That is, a client from whom you can beat money. This structure needs to be rebuilt."

The government's response to the growing anger has been limited. Yanukovych said he has taken the Vradiyivka case under his personal control and some local police officials have been dismissed.

However, Party of Regions lawmakers have responded to the wave of attacks on police stations by proposing harsher punishments for injuring a police officer. Svoboda lawmaker Illienko says this call amounts to "mocking" the public's anger at the alleged police abuses.

That anger, says lawmaker Palamarchuk, stems from the public perception that the police impunity is the result of protection from corrupt politicians in the ruling party.

"The most terrible thing is that an institution that should be entirely apolitical is now political," he says. "How do you join the police now? If they check you and find out that you don't support the 'correct' party, they won't take you in."

For its part, the Ukrainian opposition sees a real opportunity in the police-abuse issue and the government's ineffectual response to it. It is seeking to capitalize on the widespread and growing unrest, according to Kyiv-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.

"They say you have to strike at the weakest point and establish a pattern of behavior -- so that there will be one concession after another and the police will feel weakened," he says. "Weakening the police means the neutralization of one of the authorities' main control levers in the run-up to the [2015] presidential election."

And with the weather warm in Kyiv, and the protesters, clearly angry, the demonstration could drag on for days or even weeks, presenting a daunting challenge to the authorities.

Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague; RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Yevhen Solonyna contributed from Kyiv

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