Prosecutor General turns the tables on corruption fighter who survived murder attempt
Article by: Olena Makarenko
Being an activist in Ukraine can be dangerous: your car or apartment might be arsoned, you might be doused with a lethal dose of acid, you can be attacked on the street and even killed. But the danger can rise to new levels when the law enforcement system gets involved. This is what happened with Serhiy Sternenko, who went from being a local Odesa activist to someone in the sights of the state Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova herself.
The activist was assaulted three times during February – May 2018. First, he was beaten up and spent a week in the hospital. Then, he was shot. Then, he and his girlfriend were knived on the street. Sternenko fought back and killed one of the attackers.
He is confident that all the attacks were organized by representatives of the local Odesa government. Court cases regarding the attacks on Sternenko have stalled. Instead, he himself has come under the threat of being penalized for them.
Recently, Ukraine’s new Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said that Sternenko would be served with a notice of suspicion on 18 May. If this will happen, a wave of protests is expected in Ukraine.
Sternenko’s case is one of the many attacks on activists that took place across the country in 2018. All related to local issues, when taken as a whole, the cases illustrate the undeclared “war” of local elites against activists. Moreover, law enforcement has turned a blind eye to this “war.”
At least 50 attacks on activists and human rights defenders occurred during the first nine months of 2018, as reported by local human rights organizations. The situation reached its pinnacle when the prominent Kherson activist and politician, 33-year-old Kateryna Handziuk, died in hospital after a horrific acid attack that ravaged 30% of her body.
For two years, the cases of activists who were attacked have hardly seen any progress. Some of them, like the Handziuk and Sternenko cases, face being sabotaged.
Venediktova changes the angle of consideration
Almost two years after the attack on Sternenko, his case has not been investigated in full. Yet, in October 2019, under former Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka, the investigation was transferred to the Security Service of Ukraine – to examine the possible involvement of representatives of the local government and police.
However, once Venediktova was appointed, things changed. Just after her appointment on 17 March 2020, in an interview with Ukrayinska Pravda, Venediktova stated that Sternenko would be served with suspicion anyway. She claimed that the question is only in the matter of defining the crime; that is, whether to call it deliberate murder or name it as exceeding the limits of necessary self-defense.
Sternenko’s case appeared on Venediktova’s agenda just before the vote for her candidacy in Parliament. In the session hall, Servant of the People MP Oleksandr Dubinskyi asked what she was going to do with the case, to which Venediktova responded: “Everything that can be completed quickly and legally will be completed quickly and legally.” Dubinskyi, together with representatives of pro-Russian parties and “old guard” political elites, regard Sternenko as a personal enemy. The activist himself interpreted the episode as political pressure on the new Prosecutor General from Dubinskyi’s side.
Whether it was Dubinskyi’s pressure or something else, a month after the appointment, Sternenko is being summoned to the Security Service for questioning and expects he will be served with a notice of suspicion on 18 May.
Sternenko – local corruption fighter
Serhiy Sternenko was an active participant in the Odesa resistance movement, during the so-called Russian Spring in 2014. At that time, the risk posed by Russia forces taking control of the city was high.
In March 2014, the Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity had just ended and Russia just moved to occupy Crimea. From this time, right up to February 2017, Sternenko headed the local organization of Right Sector. He coordinated and took part in numerous protests against Russia’s encroachment on Odesa. He was hugely involved in the measures against those authorities who had been supporters of the runaway president Viktor Yanukovych. His actions were also directed against local corruption, especially substance trafficking and illegal construction in the city.
The latter, in many ways, is Odesa’s most controversial issue. The majority of the city’s conflicts are due to the seizure of public property by construction companies, most of which are affiliated with the city mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov. Parks, coastal land, and areas of the city’s historic center are also threatened with destruction.
Sternenko attacked three times; the last time, he fought back
The first attack on Sternenko took place on 7 February 2018. The second on 1 May of the same year. An unknown person shot him from behind with a traumatic weapon. The activist managed to seize his assailant who was then detained. Sternenko suspected that the attacks were ordered by Trukhanov as revenge for his activism.
The fatal incident took place the following month, 24 May, late at night, when Sternenko and his girlfriend were on their way home. Two persons attacked them. Sternenko was stabbed in the arm and sustained a head concussion, while fighting for his life. He managed to overtake his attackers and one was mortally wounded by Sternenko’s defensive stabs. His girlfriend was able to live-stream the incident.
Later, Sternenko described the incident in detail to the media. Just before the attack, he noticed two men walking unusually close to them. One of the men swung his arm out and hit Sternenko in his face: “The next thing I saw was his other hand bearing down on me with a knife.” He raised his arm to block the knife and ended up with a deep gash.
The video stream does not show how, in the middle of the brawl, the knife ended up in Sternenko’s hand. When describing the incident to police, he initially said it was his knife, when things settled down he was able to say the knife belongs to the attacker. Sternenko explained that at the time he was in a state of shock and might have confused things. He does not remember all the details of the attack, but he clearly remembers the assailant running away then falling down. When he caught up to him, he saw the flow of blood from his stomach and called an ambulance.
A passerby helped him wrap his own gaping wound to stop the bleeding, and then they called the police. The second assailant had escaped the scene but was captured by police that same day. After his release, he quickly left the country.
Sternenko reaches out for support and provokes unexpected split in National Cops rightwing party
With the continuing ambivalence by officials to his situation, Sternenko has reached out for support. A number of politicians and several activists have spoken out on his behalf. Mykhailo Zhernakov, head of the DEJURE Foundation, cited the articles of the Code of Criminal Procedure applying to this case:
“[The offense] does not exceed the limits of self-defense, and shall not result in criminal liability for the use of weapons, or any other means or objects, for protection against an attack by an armed person or assault by a group of persons <…>, regardless of the severity of the harm caused to the assailant.”
He stressed that Sternenko had been attacked three times, including this one, and that Sternenko had acted legally in defending himself, regardless of the consequences. Fans of FC Dynamo Kyiv also expressed their support for the activist, announcing potential protests should Sternenko be charged.
At the beginning of May 2020, activists organized a campaign in support of Sternenko. Among Sternenko’s supporters were two ex-members of the special-purpose detachment Azov – Nazariy Kravchenko (a founder of Azov and First Deputy of the political party National Corps) and Serhiy Filimonov (ex-head of the Kyiv branch of Azov and ex-head of the Kyiv branch of National Corps). Later the two claimed that they were beaten because of their support for Sternenko. They said that on the evening of 7 May they were called for a meeting with ex-comrades. Andriy Biletskyi, ex-Azov commander and now the leader of the National Corps party (who is often criticized for his complaisance with the Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov), was also present at the meeting.
Kravchenko and Filimonov said that their ex-comrades tried to “persuade” them not to support Sternenko through interrogations and blows to the head. They said Biletskyi and the ex-comrades wanted to know “who stands behind the media campaign for Sternenko.” Later, the National Corps released a statement denying the allegations.
Olha Reshetylova, a Coordinator at the Media Initiative on Human Rights, tells that it’s natural for civil society activists from all walks of life to unite around Sternenko’s case.
“We are talking not about Serhiy, but about survival of all the activists, about protection from information attacks of pro-Russian forces, about justice.”
Reshetylova adds that it’s important that everyone stands side by side like at Maidan, but Minister Avakov attempts to discredit this process by inciting Biletskyi to attack Sternenko supporters among the rightwing movement.
“So it’s very clear to me what he is doing. With the help of his loyal dogs, under the leadership of Biletskyi, he is trying to lower the discussion around the protection of civil society to the level of street fights between the rightwingers. So people would start talking about [the fights], instead of talking about activists being killed by police.”
Meanwhile, for Sternenko, using his public voice to announce every development on the case, no matter how small, and the support he gets from activists are his only instruments against the law-enforcement system ganging up against him, as they recently have.
Venediktova’s ambivalent personnel shift
Viktor Trepak, former Deputy Prosecutor General, told Ukrainian media that Venediktova showed great interest in this case:
“It is because of this case that I had a serious conflict with the new Prosecutor General. Venediktova has shown great interest in this case and, during our first conversation about him, told me that Sternenko should be served with a notice of suspicion of the commission of a crime.”
Trepak was surprised by this remark and answered that there were no grounds for such an action, which meant it would be illegal. Venediktova, in her turn, was extremely perturbed by his position. She later denied having had such a conflict with Trepak. Nevertheless, at the end of March, she suspended him from all cases being investigated by the Security Service – including the attack on Handziuk.
Following this, Trepak resigned, which led to activists, as well as Handziuk’s father, blaming Venediktova for sabotaging the investigation of the case. In Ukraine, initiating criminal proceedings is another way of putting pressure on activists for their objections to authorities.
Three criminal proceedings had previously been started against Sternenko. The activist believes they are also revenge of the local government.