Protesting against illegal land sales comes with potentially deadly consequences in Ukraine
On Saturday afternoon, Oleg Mihalik was among hundreds of protestors who tore down the fencing around what they say is an illegal construction project despoiling the seafront in Odessa, southern Ukraine. Seven hours later he was lying in a pool of blood after being gunned down.
Mihalik was shot as he was returning to his home in the city centre, just over 100m from the headquarters of Odessa Regional Police.
He managed to stagger to the front door where a neighbour found him and called an ambulance. Doctors found at the hospital that the bullet had gone through his arm into his chest, just missing his heart.
On Sunday afternoon, as preparations were being made for surgery on the 43-year-old, his relations, friends and fellow activists gathered outside the police headquarters, demanding to know what was happening with the investigation and angrily pointing out that this was the latest brutal attack on those protesting against corruption in the city.
A senior officer at the station insisted that all efforts will be made to catch those responsible. No motive has been established yet for the attempted murder.
Mihalikâs wife, the mother of his two children, was with him in hospital while friends outside the police station were trying to find out whether he was out of danger.
âHis condition was very serious, but it might be stabilising,â says one of these friends, Mikhail Golubev, âwhich is good news.â
He counts the numbers of activists he personally knows who have been assaulted in the past two years: the number comes to six. No one has yet faced justice in any of these cases.
âOleg was a peaceful guy who was very concerned by the abuse of the environment, how our natural heritage is being sold off illegally, about things like poaching,â Golubev says.
âHe was not some young radical â" he never got involved in fights. We have now come to accept that we will be targetsâ.
Golubev, a former professional chess player, continues: âI can, I suppose, be wounded or killed, the possibility is there.
âThis makes it very difficult for my family. We have very powerful, very dangerous men with power and influence in this place, but we cannot just stop the work we are doing.â
Odessa has become particularly notorious, even by Ukraineâs low standards, for grand-scale larceny of public land as well as public money by a powerful and entrenched alliance of organised crime, politicians and oligarchs.
Successive governments in Kiev have declared they recognise the problems in the port city and have tried to rectify the situation.
We have very powerful, very dangerous men with power and influence in this place, but we cannot just stop the work we are doing
But they have failed. In one of the most highly publicised examples, President Petro Poroshenko appointed the former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, as governor of Odessa with a brief to clean the place up.
The two men subsequently had a bitter falling-out, with Poroshenko first sacking Saakashvili, then stripping him of his newly bestowed Ukrai nian citizenship and then attempting to arrest and deport him.
In the days before armed police seized him in December last year, Saakasvili told me at his office in Kiev: âI was sabotaged in Odessa. At first the local mafia feared me, but then they began talking to their corrupt friends here in the capital and realised they had nothing to fear because all my efforts would be undermined.â
The effectiveness of Saakashviliâs tenure as governor is a matter of debate.
But Mihalik and his fellow demonstrators, whom I meet at their protest at Langeron Beach on Saturday, say they know only too well that the corrupt elite have little to fear in carrying out massive fraud with impunity and retaliating against those who try to stand up to them.
Among those present is Svetlana Pidpala, an environmentalist and activist. She has campaigned against public and green spaces being illegally sold off to be turned into apartment blocks and shopping malls, and has become a target of the vested interests.
Last year she was viciously assaulted outside her home by two men on a motorcycle who punched and kicked her to the ground.
âThey came from behind and after that all I can remember is being repeatedly hit and the pain that came with it,â she recalls.
âLuckily, there were people who came running to help, otherwise it could have been worse.â
The people who ordered the attack on her have not been caught, and she has little hope that they will be.
âYou learn some facts of life here, and one of them is that these people will get away with it,â she says.
Vitaly Ustimenko is also present at the demonstration. The journalist and activist is part of an organisation seeking to expose corruption. It is in talks with the groups that will choose judges for anti-corruption courts being set up in Ukraine at the insistence of the US, European Union and the International Monetary Fund, which is keeping the countryâs ailing economy afloat.
One of the projects he and a colleague, Oleg Pashak, are involved in focuses on examining the unexplained wealth of countryâs judges and prosecutors.
Three months ago Ustimenko, 25, was st abbed in the head, shoulders and legs outside the television station where he works.
âI was told the weapon used was one of those hand-made ones you find in prison,â he says. âThe police came quite quickly â" in fact, the chief of police came in person.
âThey say they are carrying out an investigation, our lawyers are monitoring the investigation and we are providing documents. They havenât caught anyone, and at the moment I get police protection.â
The police in Odessa have been accused of colluding with shady businessmen and the local mafia â" allegations the force strongly denies.