UKRANIANS have become used to heinous crimes in which suspects get off lightly, but the case of Oksana Makar shocked even those already cynical about the country’s justice system.
Makar, 19, was gang-raped, half-strangled and then set on fire in early March. She died three weeks later – but before she did, her mother videotaped her. As she waves the stump of her amputated right arm in the video, posted to YouTube, Makar says she hoped her attackers would themselves be raped in prison.
Police had released two of the three suspects from custody – rumours that the two men were the sons of government officials sparked protests on the streets of Mykolayiv, the town where Makar lived.
President Viktor Yanukovich intervened within days. An investigating team from Kiev, the capital, visited Mykolayiv, the men were re-arrested, and at least four law enforcement officials were sacked.
The three accused, all in their early 20s, have been charged with murder, police said. One of them is the son of a former high-ranking regional official.
Ukrainians have long complained that their Soviet-era justice system is manipulated – through bribery or political pressure – by rich, powerful and well-connected people.
Eduard Bagirov, head of the pressure group International League for Protection of Ukrainian Citizens’ Rights, said: “There are judges who take bribes; there are judges who take orders from the leaders of Bankova [the presidential administration]. It is like a cancer whose metastasis has invaded the whole body.”
Andriy Portnov, the key presidential adviser on judicial affairs and one of the main pilots of proposed legal reforms to help Ukraine join the European Union, admitted to corruption in the legal system.
Ukraine has no jury system; most cases are heard by either a single judge or two judges working together. Though accompanied by assessors, these judges – there are about 8,000 of them – regularly come under pressure to hand down a certain verdict, many independent lawyers and rights activists say.
Portnov believes one of the main problems is that law enforcement and justice officials retain the Soviet-era habit of wanting to please officials up the bureaucratic ladder.
He said: “Judges today have sufficient guarantees to be independent but a judge is only independent to the extent he really wants to be. Unfortunately, post-Soviet mentality sometimes means that a person wants to please somebody else.”
That, Ukrainian social commentators say, leads to a kind of in-built impunity for the privileged and wealthy, and their children, known as the “mazhory”, which roughly translates as “the superior ones”.
Last July, Ukraine was held spellbound by security camera footage which showed a young man dragging a woman by her hair around a restaurant in the eastern city of Luhansk.
The assailant turned out to be Roman Landik, 37, the son of a national parliamentary deputy and a prominent figure in the region himself. Landik was convicted of hooliganism and given a three-year sentence suspended for two years. The court said it took into consideration the fact he had paid compensation to the victim, a 20-year-old model.
Independent lawyer Natalya Petrova said that the case, though shocking, was proof that the system is improving.
She said: “If that had happened some years ago and he had gone abroad, he would have remained there at his leisure. But he was arrested and brought to trial.”