VRADIYEVKA, Ukraine - It was an ordinary summer evening for 29-year-old Irina Krashkova, a single mother in this quiet farming town. After a day running errands, she went dancing with her girlfriends at the local bar.
As she walked home, she said, two policemen pulled up beside her. One was 1st Lt. Evhen Dryzhak - a feared man about town, described by locals as a heavy drinker who beat and insulted townsfolk and forced them to pay his bar bills.
What happened next shattered Krashkova's peaceful life, filled with days breeding ducks and playing checkers with her 12-year-old son Dimitry. The cops, Krashkova said, forced her into the car and drove her to the woods. There, with the help of a friend, they allegedly beat her so severely they fractured her skull. The officers then took turns raping her, Krashkova said.
The case brought attention to Ukrainians' growing outrage over the perceived impunity of officials and their powerful friends - from lawmakers to businessmen to small-town cops. Reports of police abuse ranging from horrific violence to quiet bribery have risen sharply since the 2010 election of President Viktor Yanukovych. The opposition accuses him of moving Ukraine down an authoritarian path and trampling democratic institutions and the rule of law.
Even after Krashkova fingered Dryzhak as the leader of the attack, the burly officer continued to walk the streets of Vradiyevka for a week - showing up at work and buying raspberries at the local market. He even interviewed witnesses in the case. The horror of the crime combined with years enduring abuse from Dryzhak and his fellow officers to send a current of rage through the town. Hundreds of residents stormed the police station in protest.
It was only then that Dryzhak was arrested. His alleged accomplices, police Lt. Dmitry Polishchuk and their friend, were detained soon after the attack. All three say they are innocent and refuse to testify.
Krashkova's case bore shocking resemblance to one in Mykolaiv, the capital of the region that includes Vradiyevka. Last year, a young woman was raped, set on fire and died after two weeks in the hospital. Three suspects were detained, but one with powerful regional connections and his friend were quickly released. They were jailed again only after protests erupted across the country. One suspect has been sentenced to life, while two others received prison terms of 14 to 15 years.
Krashkova's case, too, has become a national cause. Hundreds of activists rallied Thursday against police abuse and impunity in the center of Kiev and erected tents to maintain a round-the-clock protest. The protest was forcefully dispersed by riot police.
Ukrainians say they are tired of seeing the powers-that-be, their kin and their cronies avoid punishment for crimes big and small - from bribe-taking to ignoring traffic rules to committing rapes and murders. People complain that they are defenseless against the giant corrupt government machine, in which law enforcers and officials cover up one another's crimes.
The Associated Press does not generally identify victims of sexual assault, but makes an exception where the victim has publicly identified herself.