Remarks by Halya Coynash, Kharkiv Human Rights Group
Ukraine at the Crossroads Conference
Thank you very much for the opportunity to be here and address this conference.
I am speaking here 10 days after the trial ended of former Interior Minister and opposition leader, Yury Lutsenko. He was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for what even witnesses for the prosecution said was standard practice within his ministry; after a trial with serious irregularities and in the face of international condemnation. The very same day a top EU official was reported by the Ukrainian media as promising that the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement would be signed this year. The official’s address in full clearly stated that the agreement is contingent on respect for rule of law. This was not the message which most Ukrainians received.
There have been problems with messages from the West for 2 years. Breaches of the Constitution are scarcely breaking news in Ukraine, but what newly elected President Yanukovych did in March 2010 was big. With an electoral system which allowed people to only vote for parties, not for individuals, the Constitution clearly stated, and the Constitutional Court had reiterated, that only party factions could form coalition governments. The President flouted this in order to get the numbers needed through turncoat MPs to bring in his government and the West remained silent.
In fact, it was worse than silent. The message from the US and EU was quite clear: just get yourself a Constitutional Court OK and we will say nothing. Never mind that the Constitutional Court judgment from 18 months earlier had already stated it was not OK.
Just organize another judgement. Which is precisely what President Yanukovych did and has been doing ever since.
The West’s policy is different now, but the message then was truly catastrophic. It would be well to be very clear what messages are now needed and why. Especially since we need to also consider how that message is to be passed to the vast majority of Ukrainians who have access to propaganda filled television and little else. Who therefore see Yanukovych + Co. shaking hands with world leaders or EU officials and do not hear the criticism.
It is also important to decide when messages are needed. Any idea that we should wait and see what the parliamentary elections bring, however many international observers are present, is,, in my view, misguided.
Western democracies became implacable over the arrest of Tymoshenko. They are right not to budge, however the stand is somewhat belated and not necessarily understood by a lot of Ukrainians. It is also being distorted by the current regime.
The evidence of similar selective use of criminal prosecution and unacceptable methods of quashing dissent had been overwhelming for a long time. The last 2 years have been marred by dodgy elections in October 2010, political persecution, harassment or other forms of pressure not only on political opponents, but on people upholding economic rights, civic activists. We are seeing serious degradation of an already far from glowing judiciary, major encroachments on freedom of speech and some highly dangerous laws.
Freedom of peaceful assembly has been consistently violated over the last two years. The courts almost always allow applications to ban peaceful gatherings. Such bans are enforced, often with heavy-handed methods by the Berkut riot police. There have been a disturbing number of cases where peaceful protesters have been jailed on administrative offence charges for anything from 3 to 15 days.
This is not necessarily consolidated repression supported at the centre. One of the disastrous messages to society has been that thuggish rules or lack of them now apply.
Kharkiv’s leaders understood rapidly what that meant. The crushing of peaceful protest over entirely illegal tree-felling by the authorities in Gorky Park in May 2010 was widely condemned even at parliamentary level and in the President’s Administration.
And so what? Despite clear evidence to the contrary, all so-called investigations into the events in Gorky Park found that the police the Prosecutor, etc, had acted correctly, and the Mayor of Kharkiv was supposedly re-elected despite just as much evidence that the election was rigged..
The clear signal to the public in this case, as in so many, is that words about infringements of the law and human rights will remain just that. Words.
Nor will they necessarily be heard. In Kharkiv last summer the main news channel with news that was critical of the authorities and two others were taken off air. The reasons varied from fairly absurd to grotesquely idiotic. There was a lot of noise, even a stern statement or two from beyond Ukraine. It changed nothing, and two of the channels are effectively still available only on the Internet.
Those channels were associated with the former Governor of the Kharkiv region, head of the regional Batkivshchyna party branch (Tymoshenko’s party) and the probable real winner of the 2010 Mayoral elections, Arsen Avakov.
Avakov was the most likely successful candidate in this year’s elections. He is now the most probable next candidate for political asylum since a criminal investigation against him has been initiated, and it is hard to believe he will choose to trust the law enforcement bodies and judiciary by returning to Ukraine.
The case against him is as dodgy as those against Tymoshenko, Lutsenko, Ivashchenko and others. I won’t waste your time here by proving that. The speed with which Western governments condemned the sentence against Tymoshenko showed that nobody was in any doubt regarding the prosecutions and real motives.
It is not so clear in Ukraine to a large measure because of the grip the regime has on television in particular. The manipulation of information about the Tymoshenko case was extraordinary on the State-owned UTV1, as well as others close to the regime. Distortion is also, incidentally, evident on the Ukrainian version of the international news channel Euronews.
The West could help enormously by being aware that positive or woolly comments, handshakes, pats on the back etc will be reported, and criticism omitted – the sugar coating, so to speak, without the medicine. With the elections approaching, it is vital to at very least avoid propaganda coups for the country’s leaders, if not take real measures against some of them.
There have also been seriously dangerous laws passed over the last two years. The President has ignored calls to boycott some, while others, mainly the notorious changes to the judicial system were at his initiative. Lobbying is a near meaningless term with the ruling majority able to pass any law and protests from the public ignored.
The changes to the judiciary have spelled disaster for judicial independence. In a country where corruption has long been rampant among judges, and politicians also not averse to exerting pressure, you now have the High Council of Justice ready to bring any overly-independent judge into line.
Most disturbingly, individual laws and the law as a whole are increasingly being used as a weapon, together with the tax police, police or just about any other body. This is scarcely concealed as we saw with measures to bring the last judicial body not fully under the regime’s control to heel. The President of the Supreme Court, Vasyl Onopenko, was, shall we say, dissuaded from standing for office again through various means which included a dodgy criminal investigation against his daughter, reduction in charges and eventual suspended sentence against his son-in-law, Yevhen Korniychuk, one of the four most obvious victims of political persecution. And publicly threatened criminal prosecutions against judges of the Supreme Court,
It’s possible that those in power really can’t think any other way, but there is a also feeling that they want this mafia-style system of rule to be obvious. The absurd charges against some Tax Code protesters after the huge protests in November 2010 were probably not for want of anything better to pin on them. If the law is foreseeable, breaking it can be avoided. One protester spent 7 months in detention effectively accused of inciting people to damage a car, although even the video suggests that he was not involved. Seven others were also kept in custody for some time and are facing trial for having – in conspiracy, no less – damaged the granite stone on Independence Square by erecting the same protest tents that protesters, including from the party now in power, have been using for years. The intended conclusion is clear: the only way of avoiding trouble is to keep your head low and avoid protests.
Some of the same techniques have been seen more recently with the protests over reduced pensions by former Chornobyl clean-up workers. The authorities resorted to various dubious methods aimed at dividing the protesters, creating a loyal organization and discrediting those who refused to go along with this. Measures have included totally unfounded criminal investigations.
One possible ray of hope is that the decisions to initiate criminal cases were revoked by a Kharkiv judge last month. Perhaps there remain judges with some integrity.
The pressure on them, however, is great. The Prosecutor General’s Office has already tried to get certain judges dismissed. The logic is devastating: if they disagreed with the Prosecutor, they acted in breach of their oath.
Security Service measures which first set alarm bells ringing in 2010 are still continuing. Both a recent investigation into alleged spying for the US and ongoing “prophylactic” talks with civic activists are depressingly reminiscent of Soviet times.
There are an awful lot of such Soviet echoes in general, including disturbing hints that those receiving foreign grants are working against the State, and that such grants should be stopped. The ideological coating has disappeared and the measures, including from the President’s Administration, are really aimed at keeping a grip on control. The first clear evidence of the President’s Administration’s snooping techniques came before the 2010 local elections. There continue to be such reports, which are tacitly confirmed by other measures, such as the Security Service conversations with civic activists, for example, from Democratic Alliance, which have often focused on projects aimed at monitoring elections, sources of funding, etc.
All of these are effectively election ploys – the methods used by those who want to secure the results of the elections rather than playing by democratic rules. They make advice to hold fire until after the parliamentary elections seem especially unwarranted.
The above are just some of the many causes for concern and grounds for taking action, both at government level and through supporting all fair means of ensuring that Ukrainians make an informed choice in October this year – and that their choice is heeded. Any measures from the West which begin and end with Yulia Tymoshenko and a few other former government officials would be woefully inadequate. Failure to make it clear what is preventing the Association agreement, etc, would also be disastrous.
That’s the note to end on, but I will take one more moment of your time.
Victims of lawlessness need something you and I can provide: attention. One Kharkiv man, Yakiv Strogan, spent 4 months in late 2010 trying very publicly to get a criminal investigation against police officers who had tortured him trying to extort money. He even spoke of this at parliamentary hearings. A week later he was arrested by officers from the same police station and charged with attempted murder which they had somehow forgotten to mention for FOUR MONTHS. The Prosecutor is going along with the police and the Judge is clearly dragging the trial out since there was no attempted murder but an acquittal could spell trouble.
Yakiv Strogan has already spent 14 months in detention, he is hardly allowed to see his lawyer and no court hearing is even on the horizon.
If any journalists or others would like to help fight this kind of black hole of Ukrainian justice, I can provide more information and some ideas.
Attention is needed for one victim of lawlessness, and to break the impunity that guarantees more and more victims. There are a lot of people in Ukraine who are trying to do this – they could do with support.
(There are occasionally rays of hope, and this is one of them. LITERALLY on the day I had finally appeals and covering texts in Ukrainian and English, we learned that the court had released Strogan on a signed undertaking not to leave Kharkiv see http://www.khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1331591480