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.

Photo: Getty
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In the chaos of the Middle East, the world must stand behind the Kurds

The Kurdish people have shown themselves to be a small beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

It is one year since the lifting of the Siege of Kobanî. Many of us can recall harrowing images of the black flags of Isis flying threateningly from the surrounding hills, of car bombs being driven into the city’s defences, and of heroic citizens defending their houses and families from the despotic invaders intent on killing them. The Siege of Kobanî was the Stalingrad of the Syrian civil war – a true turning point in the battle against Isis.

Since then, we have seen a significant escalation in the involvement of the international community in Syria and Iraq. But to what end? Syria remains divided between various competing forces; Iraq is a half-governed country with declining influence over its populace. Foreign governments play power games across international boundaries which have long-since ceased to be relevant, least of all to those wishing to establish an Islamist caliphate.

Beheadings, suicide bombings, barrel bombs, religious extremism, violent intolerance, mass movements of people – these are just a few terms most associated with the Middle East today. To say the region is complex is an understatement bordering on ignorance.

In a recent PBS documentary, Inside Assad’s Syria, a television crew was sent to Damascus to cover its sectarian, religious and ideological divides. It showed us two halves to the city: one which lives in liberty and security; and another which resides in barrel-bombed apartment blocks and streets overrun with groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad.

In the southwest of Syria, pro-democratic force control pockets of land and fight Assad’s forces. In the northwest, Hezbollah works with Assad’s army to fight Islamist groups. Further north are areas ruled by groups with affiliations to Al Qaeda, such as the powerful al-Nusra Front. In the east, highways and cities have fallen to the apocalyptic regime of Isis, which stretches far across the old border into Iraq. What future does the Middle East have with such contrasting ideological and religious divides? It is near-impossible to offer a positive view for the future.

Resolving these issues will only be achieved in the long term and through a combination of local agreements (and perhaps the portioning of areas) of international oversight. In the short term, what can we do as citizens of a country with vested interests but limited power?

One of the problems of Western coverage and commentary is that we rarely view the Middle East in any way except through the prism of war. Debate is focused narrowly on the issues of intervention, extremism and migration. People are commonly talked about in derogatory terms with most mistakenly referred to as migrants, when many are fleeing from death and destruction.

These are people who, like us, desire to live in peace and security. They want to raise families and contribute to their communities. Although there are theological differences between Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Jews and various minorities, for centuries these groups have lived alongside each other with general tolerance and respect. Churches have existed in the same cities as mosques. Yet the internecine conflicts have ruined the multiculturalism balances in Syria and Iraq. Communities have been divided against each other, sometimes on pain of death. The region is overrun with regressive forces.

Here in the UK, our view of foreign policy is shaped by the forming of alliances with progressive forces – that is those countries, governments and parties committed to values similar to our own. With the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as they are, dominated by regressive forces, our foreign policy is in disrepute. Who should we support in Syria? How can we continue to support Iraq’s army if it is being led on the ground by Iranian generals?

There is one force within the region that is progressive. They share our commitment to democracy, the rule of law and liberty. They have cohesive, well-led armed forces which not only protect their peoples, but also others in fear of persecution. Their women fight alongside their men, often in leadership positions. They have been the bulwark against Isis advances in both Iraq and Syria. They liberated Kobanî from oppression in tandem with US forces.

The Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq have proved their strength and longevity in the face of enormous challenges. Lacking the weaponry appropriated by Isis, they have fought bravely and slowly liberated areas from tyranny. In doing so, they have treated non-Kurdish citizens well and protected them as they would wish to be protected by others. They have put their lives on the line for the common good, such as the taking of towns and cities outside of Kurdish areas. In doing so, they have refrained from declaring an expansion of Kurdish territory, instead stating that such lands will be handed over to local progressive groups when it is ready to do so.

Perversely, Western governments depend on Peshmerga and YPG forces to fight without adequately arming them. In Turkey, the same Kurdish citizens who would fight for the YPG against Isis are prosecuted and sometimes killed during clashes for protesting in favour of devolution. Turkey’s Kurdish populations in towns like Sur, Cizre, Nusaybin and many others are living under curfew. Yet we do nothing to raise this an issue.

Yet is it the Kurdish people that will be the first army to defeat the ideology of Isis. And because of this they are the biggest target. Their men and women are free. They live in lands governed by democracy, social justice and equality. They hold values in direct opposition to Isis but living in cities just miles apart. The Kurds are the only progressive force in the region which shares our values, has a commitment to democracy and has armies strong enough to protect its peoples.

If we believe in supporting those who share our values, we must show them our solidarity. Our support must go to Kurds as a whole not just those who fight for our interests, because the challenges Kurds face go beyond the borders set by the UK and France in 1920. These borders have been disregarded not only by Isis and al-Qaeda but also by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have each ignored international boundaries in pursuit of their interests.

It is fair to say that this simple notion of solidarity leads us to certain complications. Kurdistan is an ancient region divided up by imperial powers between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. How do we support the Kurds without alienating our allies in Ankara and Baghdad?

During the 1991 Gulf War, the US, UK and France established a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s air force. A year later, the first free and fair elections were held in Kurdistan. It was also the first such election in the whole of Iraq. A decade on, whatever the merits of the conflict, the Peshmerga were allies of the Coalition during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Since then, Kurdistan has remained steadfast in its commitment to a democratic future.

In Iraq, there is already a functioning Kurdish state in all but name. It is a pioneering force for democracy in the Middle East. In Iraqi Kurdistan there is a core set of values based on tolerance, respect and freedom of expression. Inclusiveness is enshrined in law. Women are recognised as equal citizens, with a law requiring that a minimum of 30 per cent of National Assembly seats must be taken by women. Furthermore, seats are also reserved for minority communities, with the Christian and Turkmen communities guaranteed at least five seats each. These values mirror our values.

We should adequately arm the Kurdish forces of the YPG and Peshmerga to adequately protect their lands. We must do whatever it takes to ensure Isis is restricted from further post-liberation resurgences, as was seen in the Kobanî region following the redeployment of Kurdish forces to Iraq. Over 350 were killed or injured in that resurgence, simply because YPG and Peshmerga forces are overstretched.

We should also seriously consider supporting Iraqi Kurdistan in its long-term ambition to be an independent state – when the time is right. No other people deserves it as do the Kurds. It is the largest homogenous nation on earth not represented by a unified state. They have a right to determine their own future. True, there are major issues to contend with – most notably corruption, political infighting and the continued presidency of Masoud Barzani beyond his legal mandate – however these issues can be overcome with the close help and guidance of the international community.

Outside of Kurdish controlled-areas lie lands ridden with conflict. We have seen our fellow citizens, friends and trading partners have their lives ruined by the twisted and hate-filled soldiers of Isis. In Syria, close to Kurdish cities, pro-democratic forces have been wiped out by Isis or other Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. The rest of Syria is pock-marked with the barrel bombs dropped by Assad’s forces. Even within Kurdish-controlled areas, bombs have been dropped from Turkish planes on Kurdish YPG soldiers fighting for values which we would call our own. The region is highly complex and constantly changing.

Turkey is therefore a key player. Yet in recent years President Erdogan’s administration has escalated the conflict with the Kurdish citizens it represents. Peace talks between Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Turkish government ended unsuccessfully in 2015. Erdogan appears determined to militarily crush the PKK before any negotiations around a lasting peace can recommence.

Turkey has refused to recognise either the YPG or the PYD – the main political party of Kurds in Syria – as a legitimate force on the ground, due to its concerns that any Kurdish autonomy in Syria may motivate Kurds in Turkey to demand similar rights. Before the Syrian civil war there were thought to be between 16-20 million Kurds resident in Turkey, in contrast to just two million in Syria.

For Erdogan, this issue is of greater importance than what is occurring in Syria and Iraq. During the Siege of Kobanî, Ankara refused Kurdish YPG fighters the right to travel across the border into Kobanî to fight Isis forces. Rather than allow them to protect their families and friends, Turkey sprayed them with tear gas and removed their weapons. Significant international pressure belatedly led to Ankara allowing Peshmerga Forces to travel from Iraqi Kurdistan and enter Kobanî through Turkey – and just in time to save the city from Isis. In the interim period, Isis recruits routinely crossed over the border with ease.

The Erdogan administration’s conflict with its own Kurdish citizens is undoubtedly complex. Many Kurds in Turkey want some level of recognition and autonomy but it is not known how many desire outright independence. A free and fair poll has never been carried out and would not be tolerated by Ankara. President Erdogan prefers to suppress opinion rather than encourage it. Where is our solidarity for people demanding human rights?

While Turkey’s air forces have been bombing the Kurdish-controlled Kandil mountainous areas in Iraq, often missing Kurdish forces, Ankara has remained a strong ally of the government in Iraqi Kurdistan, which it sees as a correcting force against the regional influences of Riyadh and Tehran. However, Ankara fears an independent Kurdistan and the effects this may have on the Kurdish populations of Turkey and Syria. Ankara fears the establishment of a Greater Kurdistan, an option which is not on the table and most Kurds do not think is achievable.

Each of these issues is interconnected. Though Kurds in Iraq may carry different passports to those in Syria and Turkey, they similarly identify as Kurdish peoples. They share a culture, a religion and a language. The challenges faced by Kurds in Syria are of utmost concern to Kurds in neighbouring countries. There is a fraternity that must not be dismissed.

The Kurdish question in Turkey is obviously complicated. Turkey remains a critical member for the NATO alliance with its landing strips used to carry out bombing raids on Isis. Therefore, keeping Ankara on side is important to Washington. This is why we in the West have been relatively silent on the Kurdish issue. Meanwhile, the international and national boundaries of Iraq and Syria are now so distorted to be almost beyond repair. Kurds control areas beyond that of Kurdistan, with no other force strong enough to protect people in those areas. In our determination not to ‘put boots on the ground’, we ask Peshmerga and YPG forces to do the heavy lifting and endure the casualties of a conflict we in part caused. This is unfair to the Kurdish people.

We must encourage Turkey to end the Kurdish conflict within its borders. Ankara must resume peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan and the HDP – now the third biggest group in the grand assembly of Turkey. Ankara should accept that the Kurdish question cannot be resolved by militarily means. The overarching issues of inequality, equal citizenship and minority rights are beyond the control of even the strongest of strongmen.

The UK can help resolve the Kurdish question. We have long been a supporter of Turkey’s aspiration to become an EU member. We should agree to accelerate that process in return for allowing the EU to broker a peace. We have a duty to the citizens of any state which harbours ambition to join us. We have a duty to protect people’s human rights.

At the same time, we should support the Peshmerga and YPG as they fight a common foe. Defeating Isis forces in Iraq and Syria would reduce the Islamists’ ability to train home-grown jihadists and send them back to European cities. We should support them with weapons and finances in return for guarantees over human rights and post-conflict governance of the areas they retake from Isis.

The Kurdish people have shown themselves to be a small beacon of light in a sea of darkness. If we believe in the values of democracy, tolerance and freedom of expression – we must support those peoples that practice them. There are small steps we can take to show them our solidarity. We must do what we can to support them.

Ibrahim Dogus is the Director of the Centre for Turkey Studies (www.ceftus.org) and the Director of the Centre for Kurdish Progress (www.kurdishprogress.org).