The tragic case of Ukraine's Oksana Makar draws to a close

Pressure is on the Mykolaiv court to reach a verdict that will show progress.

Legal debate has commenced in the tragic March case of Oksana Makar, which saw the 18-year-old from Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, raped, torched and ultimately killed. The incident shocked the world and cast a dark cloud over a Ukraine which was at that time looking towards Euro 2012 with anticipation. Now, more than six months later, the trial of her accused murderers is set to conclude, with the final stages now in process at The Central District Court of Mykolaiv.

A Difficult Life

Oksana Makar’s life was troubled right from childhood, spending a significant part of her early years in an orphanage after both her father and stepfather were imprisoned for drug dealing, and her mother, Tetyana Surovitska, a prominent figure in the media since her daughter’s death, was also serving a sentence on a robbery conviction. Oksana completed only six years of formal schooling, and by the age of 11 had run away from the orphanage, surviving at various locations in and around her hometown through petty theft and, reportedly, prostitution.

On 8 March , Makar is said to have met two of her attackers, friends Yevhen Krasnoschek, 23, and Artem Pohocyana, 22, in the Rybka, a Mykolaiv pub. After some drinks there, the young men suggested going back to the nearby apartment of their friend, Maksym Prisyazhnyuk, 24. The naked Makar was discovered the next morning at a nearby construction site by a passing motorist. She had been wrapped in a blanket, which at the time of her discovery had been on fire for hours, causing irreparable lung damage, beaten, strangled with cable, and dumped. Makar’s body sustained 55 percent burns, and a medical examination confirmed the girl’s claims that she had been repeatedly, and forcefully, raped.

Reports as to what happened in the apartment to cause such extreme, unfathomable brutality, have ranged from a planned, co-ordinated execution, to a rape, which saw Makar threaten to call the police and the gang attempting to subdue her through force, which escalated to the extent they believed she was dead when they left the apartment with her.

The Trial

The trial of the three accused, going on since 24 May, partly public and partly in closed sessions, has been eventful, insightful, and frequently disturbing, as new details have emerged of the International Women’s Day attack. The three accused have changed their stories several times, at one time in proceedings even going so far as to petition an insanity plea, rejected by the panel of judges, led by Judge Elena Selivanov.

The three defendants, Yevhen Krasnoschek, Artem Pohocyana, and Maksym Prisyazhnyuk, were all apprehended on March 11, after a still conscious Makar gave police information on her attackers. In a police operation which was to be the subject of fierce criticism, Pohocyana and Prisyazhnyuk were quickly released, and then swiftly re-arrested after a storm of protest broke out, and President Yanukovych intervened, while Krasnoschek has remained remanded in custody since March 11.

Each has reported stated that they were in a state of extreme alcoholic intoxication on the night of the incident, which led to the immediate amputation of Makar’s right arm and both her feet, to prevent gangrene. On March 29, Makar died in a Donetsk burn centre, even the expert intervention of a Swiss surgeon, paid for by Ukrainian billionaire and member of Verkhovna Rada, Rinat Akhmetov, insufficient to save her. Along with Akhmetov’s funding, the Mykolaiv community also raised over 1 million hryvnia for the treatment of Makar, with hundreds additionally donating blood.

Throughout the trial, defence lawyers have submitted a number of petitions aimed at mitigating or offsetting responsibility. The majority of these, including a call for a complete re-examination of proceedings (already examined by no less than 30 different experts) have been rejected.

In a labyrinth to-and-fro, which saw the defence counsel described by the prosecutor as ‘tricky’, defence lawyers even went so far as to ask for a re-examination of the deceased girl’s body, to confirm she had been raped. This request to exhume Makar, who was buried in a wedding dress in accordance with local tradition, was rejected on the grounds of irrefutable evidence already in existence, attesting to forceful sexual assault.

Relations between the accused have also fractured, as the three have broken ranks, offering attempts at expiation and blame shifting. At the end of August Yevhen Krasnoschek (who is married with a young daughter), through his lawyer Larisa Zavadskaya, refuted his earlier, recorded, testimonials and gave the explanation that he had intentionally choked Makar not quite to death so the other two would think she was dead, thus leaving her (for dead) and giving the brutalised 18-year-old girl a chance to find help. His contention was that he was then offered money to implicate himself in her murder, and lessen the charges levelled against Pohocyana and Prisyazhnyuk.

Coming at the advanced stage of the trial it did, commentators were quick to note that his statements, contradictory and confusing as they were, seemed to be playing to the idea that Prisyazhnyuk, son of the former head of the Yelanets District Administration in Mykolayiv Oblast, was the ringleader in the crime. Many had thought that Prisyazhnyuk, who worked as a lawyer and with his background of wealth and power, was best placed of the three accused, yet with all aware of the global interest in the case, the Ukrainian judicial system can ill afford any exoneration based on privilege. As the trial has progressed, Prisyazhnyuk, described by sources as having a forceful character, has increasingly found his wealth and connections used to paint a picture of an individual who thought he could do as he wished. Pohocyana was originally said to have senior connections, with his father having worked as a high-ranking official in the district prosecutor’s office in Mykolaiv. However, police subsequently claimed his father was a manual labourer, who died in January 2012, and his mother a librarian. While Krasnoschek and Prisyazhnyuk are reported to have remained largely dispassionate during legal testimonials and evidence giving, Pohocyana has visibly buckled under the gravity of the situation, and earlier in October attempted to take his own life in his cell. All three are accused of committing crimes under paragraphs 4, 10, 12, Part 2 of Article 115, and paragraph 4 of Article 152 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine. Krasnoschek further finds himself charged with Part 3 of Article 153 (satisfying sexual desire in perverted forms).

Krasnoschek originally reported that Makar was wrapped in a blanket, and dropped in the pit, with the blanket catching fire when a pillow case was lit and tossed down. Afterwards, he reported, they went home and changed into new clothes, before buying vodka and eating at a local kiosk. "We sat down, had a smoke and then went our own ways." Whether the three will ever be able to go their own ways again will be determined soon, with a life sentence the maximum penalty for each of the men. However, it’s not just the Ukrainian legal system about to be placed again at the fore of the international media. Ukraine’s alarming record of domestic violence, and patchy record in past prosecutions, are about to be thrust into the global eye.

An endemic problem

Pressure is on the Mykolaiv court to reach a verdict which will show progress from 2011’s Roman Landik case, a so-called "bigwig crime". In July of 2011, Landik, the 37-year-old son of a national parliamentary figure, and himself a prominent personage, was caught on CCTV repeatedly punching a girl, Maria Korshunov, grabbing her by the throat and dragging her across the floor of a restaurant by her hair. The argument began when the (recently married) Landik tried to flirt with Korshunov, who refused his advances and the drink he attempted to force on her. Landik’s response was to rain down blows in a sustained assault lasting several minutes. 

One of the most disturbing factors of the incident was the passivity of the other diners, in what was a busy establishment - while Maria’s friend called police, restaurant patrons looked on with a mixture of indifference and some irritation at having their dinner disturbed. The waitress, meanwhile, deposited the bill on Korshunov’s table in the midst of the beating, and walked off. The battered Korshunov spent several days in the neurological department of the local Luhansk hospital, suffering from concussion, bruises and a nervous breakdown.

Landik had probably thought that was the end of that, and it may ordinarily have been. However, the upload of the video onto YouTube provoked a wave of protest and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He initially fled to Russia, and before being sent back gave a series of statements indicating that he was the real victim, and that Korshunov and he would be friends in future. Landik returned to Ukraine to pay Korshunov an undisclosed sum, which was taken into account when the court handed down a three-year suspended sentence. Independent lawyer Natalya Petrova went so far as to claim this represented standard legal practice, “Speaking as a lawyer, it is clear there is a beating, there is a crime. But she (the victim) agreed to a sum of compensation... If she had not taken money, the decision would have been different.”

In developed legal systems, any such compensation would have been paid after a successful conviction, not as appears in this case, instead. Critics of the Ukrainian legal system viewed this as simply another example of a ‘bigwig crime’, whereby the rich can largely do as they please.   

As Makar lay in the burns centre in Donetsk, dying from her wounds, she was filmed by her mother, and the video posted on YouTube. Makar is clearly suffering, as her mother coaxes the girl to wave the stump that was her right arm to the camera, and persists in getting her to repeat, “I’ll live while I’m alive.” At around the same time, a video was posted of an 18th birthday party in Ukraine, in which a fight breaks out. In the fracas, the young men start indiscriminately and brutally beating up the young ladies. They do so in both a callous and casual manner, causing many commenting on the video to observe what seasoned hands they seemed at it. And on exactly the same day as the Makar attack, another teenage girl from the area, Aleksandra Popova, was also hospitalized after being beaten by a male perpetrator. Popova remained unconscious for weeks, before recovering. Male on female violence in Ukraine is far from an isolated incident, as statistics substantiate, with one in four murders in Ukraine a result of domestic violence, meaning over 1000 women in a given year die at the hands of their boyfriend or spouse. Statistics further record that a third of Ukrainian women have been faced with domestic violence in their adult lives.

I interviewed Liza Rai, of La Strada, a group in operation since 1997 working against human trafficking, domestic violence, gender inequality and children’s rights violations. 

What are your thoughts on the Makar case?

It’s been a terrible and shocking incident, firstly for the girl and her family, but also for Ukrainian society. Some of the attitudes exposed by the case have been frightening, in terms of some thinking that in some way she was responsible for what happened to her, because of her lifestyle or behaviour.

And of that contention?

Any woman can, and should be able to dress as she likes without fear of reprisals. Any woman should be able to behave freely without threat of brutality. In this case, Oksana Makar was, and had been since her early life, a victim. She was in need of society’s care and support to help her achieve some kind of normal adult life.

What punishment should be given to the accused?

The maximum sentence for the crime they are accused of is life imprisonment. If they are indeed convicted, then, given the extreme brutality of the crime, life imprisonment should certainly be passed down.

What are the causes behind the problem of violence against women?

The causes are deep-rooted and manifold. Firstly, if a child is either the victim of domestic violence or witness to it, there is a strong chance they will one day perpetrate themselves. There is also the issue that in Ukrainian society, we sometimes simply don’t care enough about each other. We have a proverb here, “my house is at the end of the city, and I don’t want to know anything about my neighbours”, which gives you an idea of the mentality. When people see a woman being beaten, their first reaction is often not to intervene, but ignore.

On top of this, you have the hard economic realities of Ukraine. That of low salaries, and of salaries not being paid on time. Tensions over money can swiftly escalate into violence – especially when alcohol is involved. Now, in addition to this, women are becoming stronger and more independent in society, something some men see as a threat for which violence should be used to suppress.

And the laws dealing with the issue?

There is a law, the 2001 law "On the Prevention of Violence in the Family" (The Advocates for Human Rights 17 July 2009; OSI 2007, 21), which was amended in 2008. Before the 2008 amendment, police had been allowed to shift blame from perpetrator to victim. The 2008 act also gave additional powers in terms of detention of accused, and the rights of non-married victims. It furthermore eliminated what had been a common mitigating plea, that of “provocative behaviour” of the defendant, and increased punishments. So, we have the law in place – its application, though, is another story. Many times, even now, the woman is simply told to ‘sort it out within her own family’. Judges similarly don’t really want to get involved, and tend to rush these cases through with a fine. The tragic irony is that the man who beats his wife pays the fine, but of course that money comes out of the family budget. So, the woman who has been beaten now has less money to feed her family. Now, Ukraine has signed, and is soon to ratify, EU Convention #210 on the elimination of all forms of violence against women.  

What can be done to solve the problem?

Firstly, it comes down to education. It must be instilled in children from an early age that violence against women is morally abhorrent. Secondly, there needs to be acknowledgement in Ukrainian society of both the scale of the situation and how unacceptable it is, in any sphere or setting, against any victim. Men need to know that they will be punished for what they do, and before they do anything, they need to stop for a moment, and think that the person they are about to hurt is a human being, weaker than them. Alcohol doesn’t excuse anything.

La Strada has, since 2004, operated a National Toll-Free Hotline for victims of domestic violence, male or female.

La Strada hotline number:

0800-500-335 or 386
(for toll-free calls from mobile phones)

International callers:
38-044-205-3695

www.la-strada.org.ua 

This article originally appeared in Pravda. Much of the article was originally written by this author for What's On magazine of Kyiv.

Oksana Makar in hospital in March. Photograph: Getty Images

Graham Phillips is an English journalist, based in Kiev, Ukraine. Find him on Twitter as @GWP_MG. His book Kiev or Kyiv -  Notes from a Year in Ukraine, is out soon.

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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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