Euro 2012 fans escape serious police abuse, but what human rights legacy for Ukraine?

By Max Tucker, Amnesty International’s Ukraine campaigner, in Kyiv

Euro 2012 ended on a high in Kyiv Sunday as winners Spain put on a glittering show worthy of the extravagant fireworks display that followed. Ukrainians partied noisily in the streets late into the night, thrilled that their country had hosted such a prestigious celebration of football.

Before the tournament, Amnesty International had raised a number of human rights concerns in the country, noting particularly that an often violent and corrupt police force posed a significant threat to affluent Europeans visiting for the football.

We detailed numerous cases where police electrocuted, suffocated or savagely beat their victims in order to extort money, extract a confession, or simply because of the detainee’s ethnicity or sexual orientation.

In the event, Euro 2012 fans were spared such treatment. So how did the Ukrainian authorities manage to bring this brutal, ill-equipped and underfunded force into line to effectively police a major sporting event? The answer, of course, is they didn’t.

According to sources within the police force, officers were instructed not to make any physical contact with European fans: “don’t touch them.”

Ukrainians reporting public order offences (urinating, vandalism, verbal abuse) were asked “who is doing it, Ukrainians or foreigners?” If the answer was “foreigners” the police refused to turn up. Fans brawling outside the Olympic stadium in Kyiv were surrounded by police, but not dispersed – the officers simply waited for the fight to end.

Meanwhile, police business continued as usual for ordinary Ukrainians, even in the host cities. On 8 June in Donetsk three young women were allegedly beaten and sexually molested by police in an attempt to compel them to confess to theft from a Swiss national.

Alexander Kudimov, Head of Donetsk-based NGO ‘Rule of Law’, told us that after he helped the women formally complain about their treatment, the police made a statement to local media accusing him of working as their pimp. The father of two of the women was threatened and the third woman was attacked in her home by an unknown man who warned her to drop her complaint.

In the same city on 17 June Donetsk police allegedly raped a man with a police baton and savagely beat him after he was detained for drinking on the street. His brother told us that officers demanded US$20 for his release. He has undergone multiple surgeries in an attempt to repair his internal organs and is still in hospital with concussion. Of the five officers alleged to have tortured him, only one has been arrested – the other four continue to work as police officers.

While a stern top-down instruction to police may have been enough to keep officers on a leash when it comes to foreign fans, it is clear that far more drastic action needs to be taken to spare Ukrainians from violent abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to serve and protect them.

Since last October we have been pushing the government to create an independent institution dedicated to investigating crimes by police officers, and it seems that, perhaps with the help of Euro-inspired international media coverage, this idea is finally gaining some traction.

On 31 May we discussed a police complaints body with Andriy Portnov, Head of the President’s Office for Judicial System Affairs. His office was instrumental in the passage of Ukraine’s new Criminal Procedure Code, due to come into force in October. The new code is widely regarded as a great improvement on its predecessor, an unhealthy hangover from the Soviet era.

He put us in touch with the NGO working on draft legislation for a State Investigation Bureau, currently still a vague concept provided for in part by the new code.

Bringing in expertise from Denmark, which introduced a new police complaints body in January, we are now working together in an effort to shape this Bureau into an effective institution that can rein in the current epidemic of police criminality.

Although it is still much too early to tell what the State Investigation Bureau will look like when it is eventually presented to parliament, this opportunity presents a glimmer of hope for Ukraine.

The current government, and whoever governs after the October elections, has a chance to show they are serious about turning Ukraine’s parasitic police force into one of public service. A genuinely independent organization to investigate police crimes would be a big step in the right direction.

Read more:

Ukraine: Authorities must start to implement police criminality law ahead of Euro 2012 (News story, 14 May 2012)Ukraine must stop police criminality or Euro 2012 fans risk abuse (Press release, 30 April 2012)
Ukraine: Euro 2012 Jeopardised by Criminal Police Force (Media briefing, 30 April 2012)