Ukraine has some of the largest remaining forests left in Europe, about 15.9% of the country having forest cover, which are also ecologically important habitats for increasingly endangered wildlife such as bears, wolves, lynx, and bison [2, 4].
However, these forests are gravely threatened by rapidly increasing rates of illegal logging, which has gone from an estimated 10.4 thousand m3 in 2010 to 17.7 thousand m3 in 2018 .
Over 40% of Ukrainian timber is suspected of being illegally cut, enabled by Ukraine’s widespread corruption at every step of the wood supply chain among politicians and forestry officials, many of whom are under major criminal investigation. State-owned timber enterprises exploit loopholes such as ¨sanitary fellings¨ to prevent tree disease spread, marking timber for furniture as firewood, or simply offering bribes for everything even if activities are legal or zoned [4, 7].
70% of Ukrainian wood exports are sold to billion-dollar firms in the EU, distributing over $1.7 billion worth of profits among some of Europe’s richest individuals who themselves are never formally accused of any crimes or corruption . Although the EU has laws requiring importers to conduct due diligence in checking that the wood is legal, weak enforcement, especially in countries bordering Ukraine, renders the laws effectively a joke. Moreover, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent auditor that supposedly regulates legality and sustainability in the wood trade, has also been complicit in the corruption as illegal Ukrainian timber traders routinely receive FSC certification easily .
In July 2015, after many years of delays and judicial procrastination from the prime minister, the Ukrainian government finally put a ten-year moratorium on unprocessed timber exports, though this has not done anything to stop illegal logging because the ban simply gives Ukraine control over processing facilities and who inspects the timber for export [3, 18]. EU demand for cheap timber has actually continued to exacerbate the issue as the EU itself pressures Ukraine to revoke the ban with threats to withhold financial support . On May 27, 2018, arsonists supported by politicians ignited a devastating 600-hectare forest fire at the Oleshky Forest, a nationally protected forest where logging is legally prohibited so that they could sell the remaining pine trunks for huge profits. Legal loopholes make it so that local authorities are allowed to collect leftover timber from burnt areas, and suspiciously, the fires only burned the pine needles and left the trunks in great condition for furniture building.
Similar incidences would continue to occur all around the region of Kherson, affecting everyone living in both small towns and large cities. In retaliation, hundreds of angry protesters gathered in front of the Kherson governor’s office on July 6th to demand justice against the regional authorities responsible for and profiting from the tree poaching.
Many of the protesters were from the Kordon veterans organization, whom politician Kateryna “Katja” Handziuk criticized for also just fighting for the right to poach the forest too along with denouncing council head Manger and governor Gordeev for their complicity and weak attempts at addressing the protestors . Handziuk was the advisor to the mayor of Kherson as well as a civic activist well-known for being very different from typical bureaucrats in her outspoken, critical, and unorthodoxly ¨aggressive¨ style as well as being an informal person “of the people,” often supporting many causes helping locals. While other politicians lived in fancy houses, she lived in a modest apartment in a low-income neighborhood . Her political career revolved around exposing corruption among the government and police, publishing her investigations on social media and on MOST, a citizen journalism website she founded in 2012.
Owing to her anti-corruption stance, she had many enemies such as government officials and businesspeople who often led smear campaigns attempting to undermine her as a corrupt person herself without any supporting evidence . Consequently, she had been very accustomed to receiving frequent death threats and surveillance . She was not afraid of physical attacks, and though her bravery meant that she did not crack under the immense pressure on her shoulders, it also meant that she did not take the constant attempts to silence her seriously [10, 13].
On July 31, 2018, Handziuk saw several men lurking outside her apartment building as she was walking toward her car just a few meters away on the way to work that morning . Suddenly, a young man rushed toward her and poured a liter of sulfuric acid all over her back, dissolving and burning her hair and skin, fusing with her clothes as the acid streamed down her body. As she tore the clothing off, her skin ripped off as well. Over 40% of her body was covered in severe burns . The assailant escaped between buildings and his accomplices picked him up a few blocks away before driving away in a Jeep Cherokee to a rental house. Along the way, the acid thrower hid his clothes and the acid bottle, all of which were later recovered by police .
However, her attackers underestimated her greatly. She survived the initial attack and made it to intensive care at a nearby hospital, where she refused to be silenced and gave interviews from her hospital bed. Handziuk went through 14 surgeries and skin grafts until she ran out of skin yet still appeared on television, saying, “Yes, I know I look bad, but at least I am being treated. I’m sure that I look better than fairness and justice in Ukraine, because they are not being treated by anybody today.”
She succumbed to her injuries and passed away 3 months later on November 4 [8, 9]. Immediately suspecting that the incident attempted to terrify anyone acting against the government, friends and supporters led continuous campaigns uniting under the call “Who orderered the assassination of Kateryna Handziuk?” so that direct public attention would guarantee that her case would not be dropped. Subsequent police investigation (by officers suspected of being paid to keep silent) was very unprofessional, however, and at first concluded that the assassin was one of her neighbors whom had been on vacation at a beach resort far away.
Handziuk herself did not recognize him as the assailant . Journalists and activists pushed Ukrainian authorities to investigate six male suspects, whom were Donbas War veterans. 27-year-old soldier Victor Gorgbunov was allegedly given $300 to buy sulfuric acid from a small village near Kherson, 23-year-old Nikita Grabchuk poured the acid on Handziuk, and 24 and 28-year old Vladimir Vasyanovich and Vyacheslav Vishnevsky had been watching to give the signal to attack. Their commandor, 41-year-old Sergei Torbin, claimed that Handziuk was a corrupt pro-Russian bureaucrat and an enemy in the eyes of any Ukrainian soldier . Investigators later found that two of the men were likely involved in the forest arson. Their cell phones were detected near the arson’s epicenter at the time of the fire . Torbin paid the soldiers $500-$800 for the attack, all of whom pleaded guilty and expressed remorse over not knowing how horrific the chemical burns would be . The men were charged with murder, but because they had only been trying to injure and not kill her, the commander was sentenced to merely 6.5 years in prison, the acid thrower sentenced to 6 years, the getaway drivers sentenced to 4 years, and the acid buyer to 3 years. “These five people get a very light sentence – 3 to 6 years for a horrible murder. Our friend died during 96 days, experiencing most terrible suffering. And these men got the sentence that one gets for robbing someone of a mobile phone,” Oleksii Kovzhun of the Who Ordered the Killing of Kateryna Handziuk Facebook group told EU-OCS.
Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the board of the Center for Civil Liberties, called the sentences “ridiculous” adding that they made a deal with the prosecution in return for testimonies, but “nobody knows what was in those testimonies” . Handziuk’s supporters maintain that the investigation has unanswered questions and that her death was really motivated by her speaking out against the fires, outraged at politician Igor Pavlovsky, suspected of being the true mastermind of the crime who “was convinced that he was untouchable” and did not even bother trying to hide from justice. All over Ukraine, supporters formed an Initiate Group putting together the “Handziuk List,” recording 55 names of people violently targeted for their political activism. They found that the attacks are systematic because regional and central powers make deals and ensure that police do not investigate who orders the attacks . Various politicians whom activists suspected really ordered the killing were not arrested until Febraury 2019. For example, Andriy Gordeev, the Kherson governor at the time, as well as Yehven Ryshuck, his deputy, were investigated because it would have been impossible to plot the illegal logging fire without their help, and they also profited greatly from it. They were released because there had not been enough evidence to charge them with anything. Council head Manger was also arrested and accused of organizing and paying for the assassination, but was released on the same day after paying a $96,000 bail as there was allegedly not enough evidence to convict him for murder despite other politicians having already come forward with proof of his involvement. He was later dismissed from his position . Manger’s middleman arranging the five veterans’ attack, Oleksiy Levin, fled the country before he could be questioned . He has been previously convicted several times for arranging other murders in Kherson . He was later captured in Burgas, Bulgaria on January 24, 2020, and was sent to jail for 40 days before being released on bail in February . Handziuk’s supporters continue to protest against both the illegal timber trade as well as against the government corruption attempting to obscure the murder case.
This continues to be a growing challenge, however. As of 2020, Manger has been actively working on turning Oleshky and various other forests into regional council parks that would help local authorities monopolize illegal logging in Kherson . The illegal logging continues today despite a joke of a law, #2531-VIII, enacted in January 2019 increasing accountability and giving more severe punishments to loggers and especially officials for timber smuggling .