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‘Destructive activity’ Ukraine’s Security Service busts ‘anti-vax network’ suspected of crimes against national security

Source: Meduza
Ostap Stakhiv / Instagram

The Security Service of Ukraine (the SBU) claims to have thwarted a purported “anti-vaccination” ring that’s supposed real aim was to destabilize the socio-political situation in the country. Allegedly, this network operated in various regions of Ukraine and Russian handlers are possibly responsible for coordinating its efforts. On November 16, media reports emerged that SBU operatives were searching the home of prominent Lviv anti-vaxxer Ostap Stakhiv as part of the case. Stakhiv’s arraignment, which was initially adjourned because he was allegedly seeking medical treatment and therefore failed to appear in court, took place on November 18. A Lviv district court remanded Stakhiv in custody for two months pending trial, setting bail at almost $38,000.

In a statement released on November 16, the Security Service of Ukraine announced that it had “blocked the destructive activity of an anti-Ukrainian network” operating under the guise of an “anti-vaccination” campaign.

The SBU formally charged two suspects in the case — identified only as an “anti-vaxxer leader” and a Russian national — with crimes against national security. Specifically, of attempting to overthrow the country’s constitutional order, a felony that carries a maximum punishment of ten years in prison. The SBU did not disclose the suspects’ names in its statement, but it did share a redacted photo of a document showing that the unnamed Russian national as a man from the city of Krasnodar. 

The security service stated that they have “overwhelming evidence” of the suspects’ illegal activities. According to the SBU, messages exchanged by the two suspects reveal their search for weapons and accomplices to help them seize power in Ukraine, as well as plans to create “territorial communities” in the country with “their own police forces” and “economy.” According to preliminary evidence, the network’s activities were possibly masterminded and financed by Russian handlers.

Security Service of Ukraine (SBU)

Citing sources in law enforcement, the Ukrainian news outlets Liga.net and Zaxid.net reported that as part of the criminal case, on November 16, SBU officers raided the home of 36-year-old Ostap Stakhiv — a prominent anti-vaccination campaigner from the western city of Lviv. Videos posted online show dozens of Stakhiv’s supporters gathered outside his apartment as officers attempted to conduct the search. The crowd blocked Stakhiv’s front door and claimed there was a bomb planted in the apartment, Zaxid.net reported.

Following the search, Stakhiv complained he was feeling unwell and was taken to the city’s emergency hospital — with around 20 of his supporters in tow. The hospital’s management called the police after members of Stakhiv's entourage refused to wear masks and provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19. According to Zaxid.net, Stakhiv was seen by doctors and then released. 

As reported by BBC News Ukraine, Stakhiv didn’t show up to his arraignment hearing on November 17; his lawyers presented the court with paperwork alleging that he was undergoing treatment at a hospital in the neighboring Zakarpattia region. The judge adjourned the arraignment until November 18, giving authorization for Stakhiv to be detained and brought before the court, so long as his doctors didn’t object. 

On Thursday, a district court in Lviv jailed Ostap Stakhiv for 60 days pending trial, setting bail at 998,000 hryvnias (nearly $38,000). Stakhiv’s lawyer claimed that law enforcement officers had abducted his client from the hospital in Zakarpattia. In turn, an investigator presented a doctor’s note certifying that Stakhiv was medically fit to appear in court. Stakhiv denied the charges of planning to overthrow the constitutional order. 

On social media, Ostap Stakhiv describes himself as a “journalist, blogger, human rights activist,” and the founder of an organization called “Prava Lyudyny” (“Human Rights”). Before the coronavirus pandemic, he tried to get into politics and made several unsuccessful election runs, including at the local level and for the national parliament. According to Ukrainian media reports, Stakhiv is known for orchestrating “provocations” and organizing paid demonstrations. 

According to Zaxid.net, Stakhiv gained national notoriety during the pandemic for denying the existence of the coronavirus and speaking out against vaccination and public health restrictions. His Facebook page and YouTube channel, which boast more than 70,000 subscribers, have been blocked repeatedly. On November 3, 2021, Stakhiv organized an anti-vaccination rally outside of the parliament building in central Kyiv. His supporters are planning to hold another demonstration in the capital on November 24. 

Media reports have connected the SBU’s accusations against Ostap Stakhiv to complaints raised by Lviv City Council deputies, including Ihor Sholtys, a member of the Holos (Voice) party. On November 9, municipal deputies asked the SBU to bring charges against Stakhiv for spreading false information about vaccinations. Sholtys in particular argued that Stakhiv’s activities constituted an attempt to overthrow the constitutional order, and claimed that his efforts could be coordinated from Russia.

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Translation by Eilish Hart