VILNIUS – A Ukrainian protester whose account of torture has shocked Europe arrived in Vilnius late Sunday, hours after a Kiev court ruled that he could leave the country for treatment.
Dmytro Bulatov left Ukraine following intense pressure by Western leaders after he appeared on television, his face swollen and caked in blood, and said he had been kidnapped and tortured over his role in protests that have rocked the country.
Bulatov is a leader of the “Automaidan” movement, which has organized protest motorcades outside President Viktor Yanukovych’s sprawling country estate near Kiev and has been targeted by police.
The 35-year-old father of three said he was “crucified” by unidentified kidnappers who drove nails through his hands and cut off part of his ear while they held him for eight days following clashes in Kiev.
“They crucified me, nailed me, cut my ear off, cut my face,” Bulatov said on Channel 5 television shortly after his release in his only public comments so far.
“I can’t see well now, because I sat in darkness the whole time.”
His bloodied face sparked outrage, with the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton saying she was “appalled by the obvious signs of prolonged torture.”
The United Nations and the United States also voiced concern, while Germany and Lithuania both offered him medical assistance.
An ambulance took Bulatov directly from Vilnius airport to a hospital in the city after he arrived late Sunday by air from Kiev via Latvia, according to an AFP journalist who witnessed the scene at the airport.
Lithuania, an ex-Soviet Baltic state, vowed last month to provide free medical assistance to Ukrainians injured in violent protests in Kiev, and Bulatov will be the third to take up the offer.
“We are ready to help all injured Ukrainians, and we do not separate them into opposition and others in this case,” Lithuanian Health Minister Vytenis Andriukatis said on Sunday.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara on Saturday dismissed Bulatov’s account and said his injuries were just “a scratch,” but the ministry later retracted the comments saying that they wished him a “speedy recovery.”
The interior ministry said it was looking into his disappearance but asserted that the injuries may have been “staged” and a criminal investigation into his role in the anti-Yanukovych protests is ongoing.
Over the last few days, protesters outside Bulatov’s clinic physically prevented police from entering with a formal order for Bulatov to appear in court on charges of “organizing mass disorder” in Kiev. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.
Pro-opposition tycoon Petro Poroshenko and other protest leaders had said at a demonstration in Kiev earlier on Sunday that they would “liberate” him.
They then traveled to the clinic as riot police gathered outside, but a confrontation was averted when a Kiev court gave the go-ahead for Bulatov to leave the country despite the pending charges against him.
“Following a request from prosecutors, the Kiev court has authorized him to go abroad,” Lilia Frolova, the deputy prosecutor general, told reporters.
“This decision was taken after receiving requests from Bulatov, his family, some lawmakers and international institutions,” she added.
Bulatov’s disappearance caused particular concern because it followed other cases of apparent kidnappings of prominent anti-government activists.
One of the activists, Yuriy Verbytsky, was found dead in the forest, while another, Igor Lutsenko, survived a severe beating and was hospitalized.
Automaidan’s members have come under immense pressure, and some have gone into hiding or left the country.
After Bulatov’s departure from Kiev was confirmed, Poroshenko said: “I think we just saved his life.”