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Deadly Attack Escalates Violent Trend Against Ukrainian Roma

A Roma man talks to reporters in a Lviv hospital after he was injured when his camp was attacked by youths wielding knives and hammers on June 24.
A Roma man talks to reporters in a Lviv hospital after he was injured when his camp was attacked by youths wielding knives and hammers on June 24.

KYIV/LVIV, Ukraine -- There were at least 10 attackers with knives, hammers, and other makeshift weapons. They struck under the cover of darkness, just before midnight on June 23, swinging their weapons and shouting obscenities, and jolting the 14 Romany campers -- including four children -- from their sleep.

By the time it was over, several terrifying minutes later, a 24-year-old man lay dead and four other Roma were wounded -- a 10-year-old boy, two 19-year-old men, and a 30-year-old woman.

"They attacked our house, beat us with a hammer," one of the victims, 19-year-old David Pop, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service from a hospital bed in the western Lviv region the following day. "The camp had children. They attacked us with knives.... The attackers were screaming to 'get out of here.'"

Pop, who is originally from the western border city of Mukachevo, is recovering from stab wounds to his chest and right shoulder following the latest in a wave of increasingly violent attacks against Romany camps in Ukraine -- and the first to turn deadly.

Pop's account matches what Ukrainian National Police said occurred in a forest on the outskirts of Lviv.

According to the Lviv Regional Police, their officers received a call from the Romany camp informing them of masked attackers around 11:30 p.m. Officers arrived shortly thereafter and stopped the attack, detaining seven male Lviv region residents aged 16-17. Later, police detained the 20-year-old alleged organizer of the crime.

The Roma camp near Lviv where the attack took place on June 24.
The Roma camp near Lviv where the attack took place on June 24.

Authorities are treating the incident as a deliberate murder committed by a group of individuals, an offense punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment. The perpetrators also face charges of hooliganism and of breaking a law on the equal treatment of citizens that is equivalent to a hate crime.

"The immorality of these people, as evidenced by their brutal attack on the Romany camp, cannot in any way be justified," National Police chief Serhiy Knyazev said in a statement that appeared aimed at showing that police are ready to take more serious action this time than they have in a handful of previous cases.

"I assure the public that the police will do their work: the perpetrators of these crimes will be prosecuted and will be punished in accordance with the current laws," he added.

High-Profile Attacks

Since April, Roma have been targeted in at least four high-profile attacks -- apparently by members of far-right organizations, including some with close ties to Ukraine's government and law enforcement bodies -- that have highlighted a long-simmering extremist problem, which Ukrainian authorities have appeared largely to ignore.

On June 7, members of the far-right Azov National Druzhyna militia used axes and hammers to destroy a Romany camp in Kyiv's Holosiyivskiy Park.

On May 22, unknown individuals attacked and burned down a Romany camp in the village of Velyka Berezovytsa, near western Ternopil.

On May 9, a group of thugs burned down a Romany camp in the village of Rudne, in the Lviv region.

Those followed an April 20-21 attack by members of the right-wing extremist group C14 who hurled stones and used sprayed spray as they chased terrified Roma -- including children -- from their temporary camp at Kyiv's Lysa Hora nature reserve.

WATCH: Video Of The Attack In Lysa Hora (natural sound)

Rights groups say these are just some of the most high-profile cases of right-wing violence against minorities in Ukraine. In a joint letter to Ukraine's interior minister and prosecutor general on June 14, international human rights groups Freedom House, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and Front-line Defenders said they have recorded "at least two dozen violent attacks, threats, or instances of intimidation" by far-right groups around Ukraine in 2018.

Police Response -- Or Lack Thereof

"The law enforcement authorities have rarely launched investigations into the threats and attacks committed by these groups," the letter charges. "In the cases where investigations were launched, there is no indication that effective investigative measures were undertaken, and perpetrators were identified, despite attackers publicly claiming, in some cases, responsibility for the attacks on social media."

Only after a video of the April attack went viral did authorities launch criminal proceedings. Thus far, however, no arrests or charges have been brought against those attackers despite them being caught on video and even posting images on their own social-media accounts.

The remains of a Roma camp in Kyiv that was burned down by right-wing militants earlier this month.
The remains of a Roma camp in Kyiv that was burned down by right-wing militants earlier this month.

But with this recent spate of attacks, members of the country's roughly 260,000 Romany population, which have caught the attention of the country's Western political and financial backers, as well as leading international human rights groups, Kyiv may be forced to reckon with its far-right problem.

"Horrified by attack on Roma camp in Lviv. Perpetrators must be brought to justice. Racist violence has no place in Europe, including in Ukraine," tweeted the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv in response to Saturday's attack.

"The arrest of several people allegedly connected with Saturday's raid is a step in the right direction," Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic wrote on Facebook.

'Sober And Angry Youth' Attackers

Unlike in past attacks, police moved quickly to arrest those allegedly involved in this one.

Police have not released the names of the seven teenagers or the 20-year-old male they suspect to be the organizer. But Svitlana Dobrovolska, a police representative in Lviv, said on June 25 that the young men include students of a Lviv secondary school and a vocational school.

The police are investigating the possible involvement of another six minors in the attack, Dobrovolska added.

According to the police, the eight arrested suspects admitted their involvement in a far-right extremist organization called Sober and Angry Youth. The organization is not officially registered with the state, but it has a presence online. According to its pages on Russian and Ukrainian social media, the group is "straight-edge" -- meaning its members don't drink, smoke, or use drugs -- and it lionizes Hitler and other far-right ideologues.

Evoking Hitler

According to the Ukrainian news site Zakhid, the group operated a YouTube page previously named Lemberg Jugend, meaning Lviv Youth in German, which, as Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group pointed out in a June 25 column, carries an obvious association with the Hitler Jugend.

Zakhid reported that one of the group's videos, titled "small report about a safari on gypsies," showed several youths harassing Roma.

The group also apparently created a channel on the Telegram messenger app on April 20 -- Hitler's birthday. At the time of publication, it had 51 subscribers. Zakhid reported that, of the more than 70 posts, many of which are in Russian, "most are motivating phrases in the Nazi spirit." One is a stylized picture of Hitler with the words: "An idea without deeds is dead."

The organization uses symbols of the far-right Misanthropic Division, an openly neo-Nazi group in Ukraine known for perpetrating violence against minorities. Some of its members were also volunteer fighters who took up arms in the early days of the war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Still, there were signs Ukraine was looking to shift the blame to someone with a proven track record of meddling in in the country's affairs: Russia.

Despite the arrests of Ukrainian citizens in the latest attack, Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) chief Vasyl Hrytsak said on June 25 that he saw the "hand of Russia" in it. He cited "a similar organization that exists in Russia as well," a reference to the far-right group behind the attack that appeared to be based within the borders of its northern neighbor but may have actually originated in western Ukraine, according to Zakhid's reporting.

Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy, who condemned the attack on the Romany camp and demanded a thorough and impartial investigation, said "those responsible for the murder" should face stiff punishment.

Sadovy later said the injured Roma had been provided with security.

Mykola Yurchenko, head of nongovernmental organization Roma of Ukraine Ternipe, told Hromadske TV that the victims were taken to a homeless shelter in Lviv.

Yurchenko and others had warned of a "chain reaction" of violence following the previous Ukrainian attacks, as authorities appeared slow to protect minority Roma.

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