50 years ago two Portuguese students raised their glasses in a toast to freedom. Hardly news, one would think, were it not for two details. One was that the two students paid for the toast with their freedom, both receiving 7 years imprisonment. The other that this case prompted one London lawyer,. Peter Benenson, to understand that helpless outrage was not enough. The rest, as they say, is history – the beginnings of Amnesty International.
History has no happy endings, and governments, especially in the post-Soviet world, have been infinitely resourceful at retaining control over society. Still back in Soviet times they understood how to avert the bad press that politically-motivated charges brought. Why court unwelcome international attention with arrests for protests when charges of rape, drug possession, theft etc are so very easily orchestrated?
The thinking is devious but not incorrect. Even if suspicions are aroused, those accustomed to a law-based system will hesitate to assume the role of judge when they don’t know all the details.
Those who know of the rule of law only from books will understand very quickly that it’s better not to stick your neck out. They know that where needed the Prosecutor, the police, tax inspectorate or other regulatory bodies will prove endless malleable. And Lady Justice conveniently blind, deaf and dumb.
Most worryingly, other countries will tend to do little or nothing until it is, effectively, too late. Until, as in Belarus, a dictatorial regime openly sentences people to long terms of imprisonment for peaceful protest.
Europe’s last dictator, they preferred to believe. Even without the glaring abuses of the law in neighbouring Russia, several criminal prosecutions over the last six months in Ukraine would make it hard to share such optimistic assessments of the dictator’s exclusivity.
The criminal proceedings and the highly dubious grounds for remanding in custody former Minister of Internal Affairs and leader of the People’s Self-Defence party, Yury Lutsenko, have, it is true, elicited statements of concern. Far too muted at present, one feels, given the clear discrepancy between the charges and his remand in custody. The charges laid are staggeringly trivial. He is accused of using public funding to pay for Police Day festivities in 2009. Despite the entry into force on 9 May of the Public Information Act nobody has yet questioned the refusal to explain where the money came from for President Yanukovych’s 60th birthday festivities, nor why his sumptuous mansion outside Kyiv is only on access to the very select public. Whether or not Lutsenko should have spent money on festivities, not more pressing needs, there is no suggestion that he pocketed the money. He is also accused of having unwarrantedly promoted his driver to the rank of police officer, with ensuing (modest!) benefits. Not good, but considering that the headlines in the Ukrainian media in the days before Lutsenko’s first court hearing have suggested he could face a 12 year prison sentence, something seems at very least missing.
There is, indeed, one last charge, but don’t look for a heinous crime there either. He is alleged to have unwarrantedly ordered surveillance of the driver of a former Security Service [SBU] head under investigation at various times over Yushchenko’s poisoning.
This last “crime” is easy to condemn, but difficult to find shocking in today’s Ukraine, where criminal investigations are being pulled out of the closet and aired after 10 years silence, others begun or closed with breathtaking speed. With a Prosecutor General who has openly stated his total loyalty to the President, and changes to the judiciary which the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission has warned compromise judicial independence, it would be difficult to expect much else.
The public accordingly expect very much less than independence, and not only with regard to the prosecution of Yury Lutsenko.
Ukraine is not Belarus and there have been no prosecutions for peacefully demonstrating against the new Tax Code as many thousands of small business owners did last November. Why dirty your hands when the police, Prosecutor and courts can find other “sins”?
Serhiy Kostakov has been held in custody since 1 December 2010. It is alleged that on 22 November he damaged a car driving along a street which the Tax Code protesters had blocked. One unique feature of this case is the lack of any proof aside from the assertion of the car’s driver. Worth mentioning too that back on 26 November drivers reported having been stopped by police and asked to give testimony about the blocking of the roads during the protest. Presumably one person at least was forthcoming).
Seven other people are facing criminal charges for allegedly causing damage to the granite stone of Maidan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square] in Kyiv. They are supposed to have driven metal stakes into the square to erect tents during the Tax Code protests. The fact that four were provably not involved was of no concern to the investigators. Or to some judges since six of the men were only finally released from custody pending trial in April this year.
The message to people planning to exercise their constitutional right to peaceful assembly is depressingly clear.
Other rights and what can happen to you if you allege their violation can be seen in a case presently being examined by the court. Yakov Strogan had a fight with a neighbour in August 2010. Soon after police officers turned up and effectively abducted Strogan, subjecting him to days of torture in an attempt to extort money from his wife.
Such criminal behaviour from certain police officers has become endemic, but not all victims are willing to speak out. Yakov Strogan did and very loudly, even during parliamentary hearings on 2 December. A week later he was again arrested, this time on charges of attempted murder, with the charges, new “witness” statements and forensic tests all emerging nearly four months after the run-in with the neighbour.
The message requires no deciphering.
Little of this is seen with the main television channels all vying to provide only that information which the regime wishes presented, and in best manipulative coating.
Deafening silence from the majority of the Ukrainian public cannot be interpreted as indifference to fundamental rights being eroded. The phase from Stalin’s times: if there’s a person, an article (of the Criminal Code) can be found, has changed form, not essence. These days the traffic or tax police are sure to oblige. Or they’ll find some regulatory body, or talk with your boss, your lecturer, etc. Where there’s fear and lawlessness, levers can be found.
Any silence from the international community is, however, deafening. And a betrayal to those young lads who drank to freedom and the man who understood the power of voices in defence of the persecuted.
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