Police, activists argue over Ukrainian dissident’s torture as president plans return

LITHUANIA-UKRAINE-UNREST-BULATOV

Ukraine’s president will return Monday from a short sick leave that had sparked speculation he was taking himself out of action in preparation to step down or for a crackdown on widespread anti-government protests.

Viktor Yanukovych’s office made the announcement about the president’s return the same day as protesters seeking his resignation held one of their largest gatherings in recent weeks. About 20,000 people assembled at the main protest site in Kiev’s central square on Sunday.

Mr. Yanukovych’s sick leave was announced Thursday, with his office saying he had an acute respiratory illness. Some opposition leaders were skeptical about it, however, and thought Mr. Yanukovych was disappearing from the limelight in preparation for imposing a state of emergency amid the deepest turmoil in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution in 2004-05.

Also Sunday, a protester who said he was kidnapped and tortured was flown out of Ukraine after a dramatic stand-off between opposition leaders and police at the clinic treating him and a last-minute ruling by a Kiev court.

Dmytro Bulatov, one of the activists behind the Avtomaidan movement that has helped spearhead protests, was driven to the airport by ambulance and took a flight to Riga.

He will travel on to Lithuania for treatment, that country’s foreign ministry said.

Mr. Bulatov said he was seized and held for eight days by unidentified captors who cut off his ear and drove nails through his hands after the deadly clashes in Kiev last month.

His case has caused international outrage, with the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton saying she was “appalled by the obvious signs of prolonged torture” on Mr. Bulatov. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has offered medical treatment.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara caused shock when he dismissed Mr. Bulatov’s torture story and said he was in fact “in good condition” and only had “a scratch.”

The 35-year-old activist stumbled into a village outside Kiev on Thursday, saying he had been dumped in a forest by his kidnappers.

“They crucified me, nailed me, cut my ear off, cut my face,” Mr. Bulatov said in shocking images shown on Channel 5 television, his face swollen and covered in caked blood.

“I can’t see well now, because I sat in darkness the whole time,” Mr. Bulatov added, still wearing his blood-stained clothes.

The interior ministry said it was looking into his disappearance but asserted that the injuries may have been “staged.”

While he was away, the police identified Mr. Bulatov as one of the organizers of major clashes with riot police in Kiev.

In the last few days, officers with a formal order for Mr. Bulatov to appear in court have been prevented from entering the private clinic where he was being treated by protesters picketing outside.

Pro-opposition tycoon Petro Poroshenko and other protest leaders said they were planning to “liberate” Mr. Bulatov and later went to the clinic, as riot police gathered outside.

The standoff lasted until a Kiev court gave the go-ahead for Mr. Bulatov to leave the country to receive medical treatment, although it was not clear whether charges were being dropped.

Mr. Bulatov’s disappearance had caused great concern because it followed other cases of apparent kidnappings of prominent activists from the opposition protests in central Kiev.

One of the activists, Yuriy Verbytsky, was found dead in the forest while another, Igor Lutsenko, survived a severe beating and was hospitalized.

With a report from Agence France-Presse

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