Ukraine activist's story fuels torture fears

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KIEV, Ukraine -- The bloody images of Ukrainian opposition supporter Dmytro Bulatov, who says he was abducted and tortured for more than a week, have fueled fears among anti-government activists that extrajudicial squads are being deployed to intimidate protesters.

Mr. Bulatov, 35, in charge of a vocal protest group before he disappeared Jan. 22, recounted a gruesome ordeal, saying his unidentified kidnappers beat him, sliced off part of his ear and nailed him to a door during his time in captivity.

"There isn't a spot on my body that hasn't been beaten. My face has been cut. They promised to poke my eye out. They cut off my ear," Mr. Bulatov said Friday in a video from his hospital ward. "They crucified me by nailing me to a door with something and beat me strongly all the while."

The government has faced two months of major protests that started after President Victor Yanukovych backed out of an agreement to deepen ties with the European Union in favor of Russia. The demonstrations quickly grew into discontent over heavy-handed police, corruption and human rights violations. Some opposition leaders believe that the government will do anything to save itself, including sending brutal squads of torturers to quash the demonstrations.

Prominent opposition figure Oleksandr Turchynov accused the government of being behind the attacks on Mr. Bulatov and other activists. "Ukraine has experienced a merger of law enforcement bodies and criminal structures, which function as a single entity that uses criminal structures to kill and intimidate and to set cars on fire," Mr. Turchynov told reporters.

The Interior Ministry said it was investigating Mr. Bulatov's story, but it also accused him of failing to cooperate. Oleh Tatarov, deputy chief of the Interior Ministry's main investigative department, said Mr. Bulatov's kidnapping could have been staged in order to create a provocation.

Later Friday, the ministry dispatched investigators to Mr. Bulatov's hospital to interrogate him, saying that besides being a kidnapping victim, he was also suspected of organizing mass disorders. Opposition lawmakers and Mr. Bulatov's supporters feared he was about to be arrested and rushed to the hospital to shield him from police. The standoff continued late into the evening.

Mr. Bulatov's group, car owners known as Automaidan, began by picketing residences of top government officials and their allies, but soon took an active part in protests that have rocked Ukraine. The group, which derived its name from Kiev's Independence Square -- known as Maidan -- blocked streets and monitored police cars.

Mr. Bulatov went missing Jan. 22, prompting friends to organize a campaign for his release. They pleaded with top government officials for assistance, offered a $25,000 bounty to anyone who could help locate him and even consulted psychics, fellow activist Oleksiy Hrytsenko said.

Mr. Hrytsenko grew more worried about Mr. Bulatov's fate because Automaidan members' cars were being torched, and their activists detained, harassed and threatened.

Mr. Bulatov was dumped in a forest Thursday night after eight days in captivity and made it to a house outside Kiev, where he got help and was able to call friends, an Interior Ministry statement said. He went missing one day after Igor Lutsenko, another prominent opposition activist who had also disappeared, was found after having been taken to woods and beaten severely by unknown attackers.

Mr. Lutsenko was kidnapped from a hospital where he brought fellow protester Yuri Verbitsky for treatment of an eye injury. Mr. Verbitsky was also beaten severely like Mr. Lutsenko and was later found dead.

Investigative journalist Tetyana Chernovil, an active protest leader, was also badly beaten outside Kiev in late December.

Mr. Lutsenko says he spent some eight hours spread on the floor of what looked like a garage in an unknown location, as about 10 attackers beat him in a way to leave few visible marks but cause severe pain. "They are very professional about beating people," he said in a recent interview on a Ukraine TV channel.

The reported beatings and intimidation stoked speculation that special security teams were roaming Ukraine and hunting down opposition activists. "The Ukrainian authorities have now introduced real death squads to the political scene of the country," political commentator Vitaly Portnikov wrote.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement Friday that she was "appalled by the obvious signs of prolonged torture and cruel treatment" of Mr. Bulatov. She also condemned the death of Mr. Verbitsky: "These are but two cases of the continuous deliberate targeting of organizers and participants of peaceful protests. All such acts are unacceptable and must immediately be stopped."

Mr. Yanukovych took indefinite sick leave Thursday, stalling negotiations between authorities and the opposition in a bid to find a way out of the political crisis.

The president told opposition leaders it was now up to them to make concessions, since he already accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and approved scrapping harsh anti-protest legislation that sparked last week's violence. Mr. Yanukovych also signed into law a bill offering amnesty to protesters, but only if they vacate scores of government buildings they have seized across the nation.

The mysterious kidnappings of activists also leave unclear the motives of the attackers, because each time they have only served to energize the protests. "I would like to tell you that we will not be frightened. We have no intention to stop," Mr. Bulatov said.


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