On October 3, 2018, press conference Violence, Restrictive Laws and Impunity: a Threat to Civil Society and Freedom of Association in Ukraine was held in Kyiv.
Violence, bloodshed and discriminatory legislation have become the go-to anti-civil society measures in Ukraine in 2018. With the year not yet over, more than 50 activists and dozens of journalists from every region of the country have fallen prey to systematic armed assault, arson and disruption of property, beatings and harassment. The perpetrators and those who order these crimes remain unpunished while law enforcement does nothing. Meanwhile, the government is trying to enforce discriminatory legislation, which, following Russia’s example, is supposed to restrict civil society, making its representatives similar to foreign agents in status. Human rights organizations Freedom House, Human Rights Information Center and Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union consider this a direct threat to Ukrainian democracy and human rights.
According to Freedom House President (Washington, DC) Michael J. Abramowitz, over the past 12 years he has been witnessing more restrictions on political rights and civil liberties all over the world, because governments regard civil society as their enemy. “Unfortunately,” he says, “we are seeing similar trends both in Russia and Ukraine. The paramilitary, the right-wing groups and other illegal formations see beatings, killings and intimidation as the best ways to silence dissenters. Not just activists but also journalists are becoming targets of these attacks. Moreover, the attacks come at the hands of state security forces as well. We are also seeing legislative initiatives aimed at suppressing civil society by putting its representatives on the list of “foreign agents”. This must change, because civil society is the governments’ ally and the driving force behind the countries’ development. Governments should protect socially minded citizens.”
Tetiana Pechonchyk, Head of the Board at the Human Rights Information Center, mentioned that her organization is a member of the Coalition for the Protection of Civil Society, which had been established in the spring of 2018 after the Parliament’s refusal to abolish mandatory electronic declarations of assets for anti-corruption activists. “We are seeing an increase in the number of attacks on civil society activists,” she said. “We are documenting these attacks since 2014. Since the beginning of 2018 alone we have detected at least 53 such attacks, among them not only beatings, but even murder that can be tied to the work of the activists.” According to Tetiana Pechonchyk, anti-corruption activists and those combating organized crime are suffering from violence the most, as well as environmental activists, representatives of the LGBT community and participants of feminist movements. Attacks on pro-Ukrainian and left-wing activists were also recorded. “Some of these crimes were committed by local criminal groups, which often become one with the authorities and law enforcement,” said Tetiana Pechonchyk. “Behind the rest of the attacks can be members of radical ultra-right groups.”
Oleksandr Pavlichenko, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union (UHHRU), reminded the audience that his organization provides legal aid to civil society activists that fell victim to the attacks. “There’s a problem with classifying such crimes,” he said. “For instance, the assault on Kateryna Handziuk had been initially classified as hooliganism. Law enforcement, instead of accepting help from those who are trying to get to the truth, would just stop investigating a case properly. Thus, after the death of activist Mykola Bychko in June 2018, the police only began the investigation after a riot of a whole village, and before that they had attempted to classify the death as “suicide”. Then the police tried to intimidate the most active residents of the village, naming them witnesses and summoning them for interrogations. Our law enforcement does not determine the purpose of assaults, and so they fail to find the right strategies of investigation for locating the criminals and bringing them to justice.”
According to UHHRU analyst Olena Semyorkina, the Coalition for the Protection of Civil Society tried to persuade the MPs not to vote in favor of the discriminatory legislative amendments, but they still supported those. “The problem lies in the lack of transparency in law adoption,” she said. “While public discussions for decision making are held at the level of oblast councils and local self-government bodies, such opportunities are absent at the parliamentary level.”
In addition, the People’s Front faction is proposing to introduce the concept of “foreign agents”, arguing that it is necessary for reasons of national security. “We consider this yet another restriction for the media and civil society associations,” said Olena Semyorkina. “Such restrictions of the freedom of association are a dangerous trend. In 2008, the PACE passed a resolution on this issue, where Ukraine was mentioned along with Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Romania and Hungary. Such initiatives violate Ukraine’s commitments before international organizations.”
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