Ukraine rape victim searches for justice

Mar 23, 2012, 12:17 PM

Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – The 18-year-old woman, prosecutors say, was gang-raped by three young men, who tried to cover up their crime by strangling her with a cord, wrapping her naked body in a blanket and dumping her at an abandoned construction site _ where they set her on fire.

Amazingly, Oksana Makar survived.

But her quest for justice seemed doomed after the police released two of the three suspects whose parents had political connections in the provincial Ukrainian region.

Her case galvanized Ukrainians fed up with the official corruption that allows people with money and connections to avoid punishment, whether for violating traffic laws or more serious crimes. The protection also extends to their children, known here as “mazhory,” roughly translated as rich brats.

After a national protest campaign, the police arrested the two released suspects and charged all three with rape. The one who has remained in custody was also charged with attempted murder.

Makar remains hospitalized, with burns over more than half of her body and severe damage to her lungs. Her right arm was amputated to stop the spread of gangrene.

Her mother said she used to be a cheerful young woman with many friends in Mykolaiv, a shipbuilding city of about a half million residents some 500 kilometers (300 miles) south of the capital, Kiev. She liked dancing in clubs, boxing and bungee jumping.

That life ended on March 9 when Makar met two young men at a bar and they invited her to a friend’s apartment.

One suspect, identified as Yevhen K., told investigators that he and two friends had sex with Makar repeatedly, including at least one time that he admitted was rape.

A videotape of his interrogation, whose authenticity has been confirmed by authorities, was shown on Ukrainian television: “She yelled and swung her arms around and I raped her,” said the 23-year-old suspect.

After Makar threatened to call police, the suspect said he first tried to strangle her with his bare hands and then finish her off with a piece of white cable he found in the apartment. She lost consciousness.

The suspect said he and his friends wrapped Makar’s naked body in a blanket and dumped it into a pit at a deserted construction site. He said he then dropped a pillow case into the pit and set it on fire.

Afterward, he said, they went home and changed into new clothes. They bought vodka at a store and went to a food stand, where one suspect ordered tea and the other a beer.

“We sat down, had a smoke and then went our own ways,” said Yevhen K., the suspect accused of attempted murder as well as rape.

Makar was saved when a passing car happened to stall right next to the construction site. The three suspects were soon arrested, and two set free.

Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko has confirmed that the parents of two of the suspects are former government officials in the Mykolaiv region. Makar’s mother, Tetyana Surovitska, accused police of freeing them because of their parents’ connections.

“Where is justice?” Surovitska said in an interview with a local television channel. “Is it because I don’t have cars and apartments and connections and I cannot turn to anyone?”

She received overwhelming support not only in Mykolaiv but across the country from people tired of seeing government officials and their children go unpunished for violent crimes, including assault and deadly road accidents.

There have been dozens of cases of “mazhory” driving expensive cars while drunk and hitting pedestrians, sometimes killing them, and walking away, said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko. The same thing often happens in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.

“Unfortunately, this situation is typical of most post-Soviet countries when either connections or corruption is used: A high-ranking official makes a call or money is paid to a senior police official, and a person who committed a serious crime is set free,” Fesenko said.

“The Ukrainian justice system is dependent on those with power and money.”

Makar’s case clearly hit a nerve among Ukrainians, setting off several protests in Mykolaiv and elsewhere.

During one rally in Mykolaiv, dozens of activists protested outside the offices of prosecutors and police, demanding that they punish the perpetrators of the rape as well as the officers who released the two suspects.

Protests, organized on social networking sites, were also held in the Black Sea port of Odessa and the eastern city of Kharkiv. In Kiev, five members of the women’s rights group Femen, which stages topless protests, bared their chests on top of the entrance to the Prosecutor General’s Office and held banners reading “Death to the Sadists” and “Execute the Bastards.”

Meanwhile, dozens of Mykolaiv residents rushed to donate blood for Makar and sympathizers from across the country sent donations to her mother. Makar is in a hospital in the eastern city of Donetsk, where she was operated on this week by a burn specialist from Switzerland. She remains in grave condition.

The Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating Surovitska’s claims that the suspects were released illegally.

President Viktor Yanukovych is also looking into the case.

To Surovitska, the high-level interest is little consolation as she cares for her only daughter.

“She loved life so much, but they destroyed her body, her soul and her spirit,” Surovitska said in a phone interview. “They destroyed my child.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Ukraine rape victim searches for justice