Hundreds of Ukrainians rallied outside parliament yesterday to demand the interior minister be fired in the wake of police scandals including an alleged rape.
The protesters, mostly young people wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus, lit flares and destroyed an old police car as they demanded the departure of long-time minister Arsen Avakov.
Some held placards reading “No to the police state!” and “Avakov must be fired!”
“It is a terrible situation when law enforcement agencies, who live off of our taxes, torture Ukrainians,” activist Dana Vynogradova told the protesters, adding: “Avakov must go.”
Many Ukrainians have been disappointed by the failure of a Western-backed effort launched in 2015 to reform the notoriously corrupt and often ineffective police force.
Outrage has been building after a police officer allegedly raped a 26-year-old woman at a police station in the town of Kagarlyk outside the capital Kyiv.
The woman was allegedly forced to put on a gas mask and handcuffed before being raped several times.
Two officers were detained over the incident last month.
Critics have also accused police in Kyiv of failing to do their duty after a brazen shootout last week between gangs linked to rival bus companies left three people wounded.
Avakov, who has been interior minister since 2014 and kept his post after the election last year of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, defended himself before lawmakers in parliament yesterday.
He said that the authorities had reacted immediately to the “shameful” rape allegations and that steps would be taken to prevent further abuses.
“I ask you not to condemn the entire police force because of several bastards,” he said.
Ukraine’s new pro-Western government launched the police reform after coming to power in 2014, backed by international aid, including $15mn from the United States.
The patrol police – which accounts for 15% of the country’s force and is tasked with patrolling the streets and monitoring traffic – was overhauled.
But other departments were left largely intact, with official figures released in 2016 showing that 92% of the rest of the police – or 65,000 out of 70,000 people – retained their positions.
Borys Malyshev, an analyst with the Kyiv-based Centre for Political and Legal Reforms, said this has prevented any real changes from taking place.
“No new police values have been created,” he wrote on Facebook last month in response to the rape case.
Abuses of people held in police stations is “a deep and systemic problem”, he wrote, and the cases that become known to the public are only “the tip of the iceberg”.
Avakov is one of Ukraine’s most influential men, with close ties to the country’s powerful oligarchs.
“Avakov’s dismissal is not enough for the reform to take place, but it is a necessary condition for the start,” anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin told AFP.
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