Ukrainian activist's torture stirs protesters' fears over use of hit squads

US and EU back 'people of Ukraine' as opposition voices fears of civil war and claims government was behind torture of an abducted activist

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 February, 2014, 11:22am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 9:48am

The United States and European Union traded unusually sharp barbs with Russia yesterday over Ukraine's future amid concerns that Kiev could resort to military intervention to end anti-government protests.

The angry exchanges came a day after bloody images emerged of Ukrainian opposition supporter Dmytro Bulatov, who says he was abducted and tortured for more than a week.

Neither side pulled any punches yesterday, with US Secretary of State John Kerry saying what happens in Ukraine is crucial for Europe's future while his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, blasted wilful and two-faced Western interference.

"Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine," Kerry told political, diplomatic and military leaders at the Munich Security Conference.

"The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight," said Kerry, who later met Ukrainian opposition leaders including former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko in Munich.

Klitschko warned of "a spiral of escalation" and told journalists that in Ukraine "we must avoid the start of a civil war".

He also said he would support sanctions against the government of President Victor Yanukovych because "it is the only language understood by today's dictators of Ukraine".

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy told another panel that the Ukrainian people had to have the right to choose their own future, a future with Europe.

The West and Russia have been at loggerheads over Ukraine since Yanukovych ditched an EU association accord in November under pressure from Moscow, which wants to bring its former Soviet satellite back into the fold.

His decision sparked off massive anti-government protests, which have turned increasingly violent after he rushed through a series of curbs on protests.

Lavrov yesterday accused the West of stoking the violence in Kiev in a clear example of double standards.

"Why are many prominent EU politicians actually encouraging such actions although back home they are quick to severely punish any violations of the law?" Lavrov told the conference.

Bulatov recounted a gruesome ordeal, saying his unidentified kidnappers beat him, sliced off part of his ear and nailed him to a door.

"There isn't a spot on my body that hasn't been beaten. My face was cut. They promised to poke my eye out. They cut off my ear," the 35-year-old said.

Prominent opposition figure Oleksandr Turchynov accused the government of being behind the attacks on 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," Turchynov told reporters. "The authorities are using criminal structures to fight against the opposition and its own people."

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara on Saturday dismissed Bulatov's injuries as “a scratch”.

“Physically this man is in a good condition. The only thing he has is a scratch on one of his cheeks,” Kozhara told Al-Jazeera television on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

“It looks like the alleged story that he was kidnapped and tortured is not absolutely true,” he said, adding: “The investigation is going on.”

The foreign ministry later issued a statement saying that Kozhara had been misunderstood.

The comments “do not reflect the real attitude of Minister Kozhara on this tragic situation”, it said.

“The minister is profoundly sorry for what happened to Dmytro Bulatov and wishes him a speedy recovery.”

The Interior Ministry also said it was investigating Bulatov's story, but it also accused him of failing to co-operate.