Meet Vitalina, a woman human rights defender and an LGBTI activist

Vitalina Koval from Ukraine is one of those people who amaze you immediately with her sense of purpose and her bravery. Confident with who she is and what she believes is right, she always gets straight to the point. When she tells you she wants equality for everyone in her country, she means it and is determined to achieve it. “One day, I would like to see a Pride march in my home town [Uzhgorod, western Ukraine]”,says Vitalina who is openly lesbian and actively involved in LGBTI activism in Ukraine.

In March 2018, Vitalina was attacked for speaking up for human rights at a protest held on International Women’s Day in Ukraine. Six people from a group advocating hatred and discrimination called “Karpatska Sich” doused her with red paint causing chemical burns to her eyes.

Meet Vitalina

I felt pain, shock and fear: "I could go blind!". People tried to provide the first aid immediately. They gave me tissues, and water to wipe the paint. It didn't help. These long minutes it hurt and I couldn't get the thought that I could lose my sight out of my head.

Vitalina Koval

Fortunately, there was no permanent damage to Vitalina’s eyesight.

From the hospital, Vitalina headed straight to the police station, still covered in paint. When she arrived, her attackers were sitting in the reception after being detained by the police. The police officer made Vitalina state her home address – loudly – within earshot of her attackers. She felt scared and unsafe. When submitting her complaint, the police did not want to initially acknowledge that Vitalina had been targeted for her sexual orientation, which qualifies as a “hate crime”. The police eventually agreed after Vitalina insisted for several hours.

The launch of the police investigation didn’t stop members of “Karpatska Sich” from issuing threats on social media to others who attended the 8 March protest. Fearing for her safety, Vitalina decided to leave Uzhgorod and moved to another city.

LGBTI rights in Ukraine: stopping halfway?

Vitalina’s situation is just one of dozens of similar attacks documented by Amnesty International since 2017.

Groups advocating hatred and discrimination that portray themselves as patriotic and nationalist disrupt public discussions, threaten journalists and attack those participating in public actions. And they do it with near-total impunity. Those responsible for attacks are hardly ever held accountable.

Ukraine has made significant progress since its first-ever “Kyiv Pride” march in 2013, from being a marginal gathering of 50 people on the outskirts of the city to being an event that attracted 10 000 people to Kyiv city centre in 2019. Local Pride marches in other major cities also emerged.

However, this progress is fragile, and the authorities’ failure to address the problem of attacks from groups advocating hatred and discrimination may undermine everything that has been achieved so far.

A distant hope

In the beginning, Vitalina felt very lucky. Unlike most similar cases, her case was brought to court. However, only two out of four assailants were charged and the discriminatory motive of the crime was not considered.

Sadly, after three years of criminal proceedings, the discriminatory motive was dropped by the investigators without explanation and the court ruled to free the assailants from criminal liability on formal grounds – the statute of limitations of the crime they were charged with had expired.

When I learned about the court decision, I felt disappointed with the judicial system. This paves the way for new crimes – those who attacked us feel impunity.

Vitalina Koval, LGBTI activist from Ukraine

Fortunately for Vitalina, her lawyer managed to challenge the fact that the investigation failed to consider the discriminatory motive behind the attack against her, and a new investigation has been opened. This gives a glimmer of hope that the perpetrators will not escape justice. Vitalina believes that not giving up is the only way for a better future for LGBTI people in Ukraine.

Hate groups are counting on us to stop fighting for our rights. But we, human rights activists, are stubborn people, and we are not going to back down.

Vitalina Koval