A senior Ukrainian regional official has appeared in court over the murder of activist Kateryna Handziuk, seven months after attackers doused her with acid outside her home in the southern city of Kherson.
Vladyslav Manger, the head of the Kherson region's council, attended a preliminary hearing after prosecutors accused him of paying accomplices to organise the murder of Ms Handziuk, who was an adviser to the mayor of the city and an outspoken critic of police and political corruption.
Mr Manger denies wrongdoing and says the case is a "political order" as Ukraine gears up for national elections this year. He was expelled last week from the party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who hopes to oust incumbent Petro Poroshenko in next month's presidential election.
The Kiev court will continue his detention hearing on Wednesday.
"At the beginning of July 2018, prompted by personal hostility fuelled by Kateryna Handziuk's active civil work, which harmed his vested interests, Vladyslav Manger decided to organise the premeditated murder of Handziuk in a way that caused the victim particular physical and emotional suffering," Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko said in reading out the charge.
Mr Lutsenko accused Mr Manger of paying several accomplices a total of at least $5,600 (€4,960) to carry out the attack, which took place on July 31st.
Several other suspects are also in custody, including those accused of pouring sulphuric acid over Ms Handziuk’s head and body as she left home for work.
She suffered burns to at least 35 per cent of her body and underwent more than 10 operations before finally succumbing to her injuries in November.
Despite her condition, Ms Handziuk made a video appeal from her hospital bed to urge the Ukrainian authorities to protect activists and journalists in the face of violence and intimidation.
“Yes, I know that I look bad now,” she said last September, speaking with difficulty and with her raw wounds clearly visible. “But at least I’m being treated. And I’m sure I look better than justice and the judicial system in Ukraine, because no one is making them better,” she added.
“There have been over 40 attacks [on activists] in the last year. Who ordered these attacks? Who is covering up for those who ordered them? Why are investigations being blocked?”
Crime and corruption
Her death prompted the European Union and United States to demand tough action from Ukraine's leaders against crime and corruption, which still blight the nation five years after its people demanded change in the Maidan revolution.
Ukrainians expect this year’s election battles to be fierce and dirty. Ms Tymoshenko’s party has accused Mr Poroshenko of using the security services to besmirch his rivals and called on Mr Lutsenko – a close ally of the president – to step down until after the vote.