KYIV, Ukraine — Halyna Dushenko remembers the night of June 13, 2006 particularly well.
It was the last time she saw her son, Serhiy, alive.
“He went to a bar to meet with his former classmates,” she says. “He never returned home.”
The 25-year-old law student, who was two months shy of marriage, unwittingly made a fatal mistake that night: he stumbled on a drug deal conducted out of the local police chief’s car.
Dushenko believes her son was drugged and beaten to death — a victim of revenge perpetrated by what she says are the corrupt and marauding law enforcement officials that have plagued her district in southern Ukraine for years.
The police classified Serhiy’s death as a hit-and-run accident. But Dushenko, who visited him in the hospital hours before he died, says his physical injuries — including a nose broken in three places — were inconsistent with the official version.
Besides, she says, that sort of thing happens all the time in her town, and no one is ever punished.
“For seven years, I haven’t been able to move my case forward one single centimeter,” she says.
She’s far from alone.
The 63-year-old was one of several hundred protesters who rallied in downtown Kyiv last week to decry police abuse after the rape of a woman in the southern region of Mykolaiv last month.
Irina Krashkova, a 29-year-old store clerk and single mother from the town of Vradiyivka, was allegedly abducted by two policemen and a taxi driver during a night out, driven to a nearby forest, raped and savagely beaten.
Miraculously, she managed to escape and tell her tale. When local residents learned that the chief suspect, a police lieutenant, hadn’t been detained, hundreds stormed the local police precinct, hurling rocks through its windows and breaking down doors.
Days later, a dozen people marched from Vradiyivka to Kyiv, picking up Dushenko and others along the way. They demanded Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko’s resignation last Thursday outside the Interior Ministry.
When they reached Kyiv’s central Independence Square, where they attracted hundreds more protesters, however, riot police violently broke up their peaceful attempt to set up a makeshift tent city.
The Vradiyivka affair is casting fresh light over widespread police impunity in Ukraine, where law enforcement agencies have long been riddled with corruption and the lack of functioning courts and other state institutions regularly enable enterprising officials to escape prosecution for crimes ranging from extortion to murder.
Those who participated in the march said the local police in their towns and villages run their jurisdictions like personal fiefdoms, soliciting bribes and enforcing their own brand of law.
They say the police are often protected by their connections to local prosecutors and other senior officials. In the Vradiyivka case, the lieutenant, Yevhan Dryzhak, is the godson of the regional police chief, while the other police suspect is the nephew of a district prosecutor, according to Ukrainian media reports.
“One does the killing, and the other covers up for him,” said Volodymyr Piven, who believes his 21-year-old son, Yuri, himself a police officer, was shot and killed by his colleagues in 2009 after he filed a complaint against his superior officer.
Piven accused his local prosecutor in the central Ukrainian region of Kirovohrad of approving a shoddy alibi cobbled together by the local police to shield his son’s alleged killer.
“Everything was falsified,” he said. “All the forensic work — it was all completely falsified.”
Such cases have led to a dismal level of trust in police. Only 25 percent of Ukrainians categorically have confidence in police officers, according to a nationwide poll conducted last year by the Kharkiv Institute of Social Research. The survey found that 47 percent of Ukrainians believe the biggest problem with the police is corruption, and that 32 percent criticize officers’ reluctance to assist “ordinary” people.
The problem has attracted the attention of leading human rights organizations.
“Amnesty International has been calling on Ukraine to establish an effective system to investigate police abuses since 2011,” the group said in a statement this month, “and has continued to document numerous cases of torture, extortion and abuse by officers.”
“These crimes usually go unpunished as the local prosecutors tasked with investigating routinely refuse to bring charges against their colleagues in the police,” it added.
The federal authorities were finally forced to act after the Vradiyivka protests made national headlines earlier this month. Zakharchenko, the interior minister, sacked the district and regional police chiefs, and President Viktor Yanukovych announced he was taking the case under his “personal control.”
“If they [citizens] feel unlawfulness, injustice on the part of police officers, I as a minister guarantee that all of their concerns will be investigated thoroughly, objectively and impartially,” Zakharchenko told journalists last Thursday, the Kyiv Post reported.
He refused to resign, however.
Finally on Monday, Andriy Kurys, the Mykolaiv Region prosecutor, announced the authorities had enough evidence to prove all three men’s guilt in the rape. He said the case may be sent to court this week.
But many say Krashkova’s rape is only the tip of the iceberg: it wasn’t even the only such occurrence in Vradiyivka, with its population of about 9,000.
Local resident Tatyana Dolhova, one of the Kyiv protesters, pointed to a similar case there two years ago, when a 15-year-old girl was raped and viciously murdered. While the authorities claim 11 men confessed to the crime, at least one of them reportedly committed suicide. The investigation remains stalled.
Kurys also promised on Monday to reinvestigate that affair.
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Although the authorities are finally making at least at show of action, Dolhova laments that it took what amounted to a popular uprising to draw their attention.
“It wasn’t until we started storming the police station that they started to look at us differently,” she said.
And despite senior officials’ solemn promises to bring the Vradiyivka rapists to justice, many remain skeptical that it will do much to eradicate the culture of police impunity.
“Don’t think that this only happens in Vradiyivka,” Dushenko said. “What you see there happens in every region, in every district.”
“This is no country,” she concluded. “Laws here simply don’t exist.”