By Heather McGill, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Ukraine
Ukrainians have taken to the streets in their tens and hundreds of thousands to protest against a last-minute change of course by their government. On 21 November the Cabinet of Ministers announced that it was putting the brakes on the Association Agreement with the EU, which it was due to sign in Vilnius, Lithuania, today.
Signing the EU Accession Agreement was seen by many as a carrot to entice Ukraine to embrace significant human rights change. But its absence must not stop progress towards human rights for people in Ukraine.
By Sunday 24 November at least 100,000 people had gathered on two central squares in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. The authorities publicly supported the demonstrations. A day later, President Yanukovych applauded the protesters, and stressed that there was no alternative to building Ukrainian society in line with European standards.
However, in stark contrast to this official line, local authorities and police across the country are failing to live up to international human rights standards. The right to freedom of assembly has been restricted in 13 cities and police have used force against peaceful protesters in Kyiv, Odessa and Mikolayiv, according to the Ukrainian Helsinki Union for Human Rights.
EU pressure has already nudged Ukraine to adopt laws that significantly improve human rights, such as the new Criminal Procedural Code. A proposed new law to reform the Prosecutor General’s Office and a establish a State Investigation Bureau could signal a major step towards ensuring torture and other ill-treatment by Ukrainian police does not continue to go unpunished. This pressure must not let up and Ukraine must continue to improve its human rights situation. Recent events show how police impunity and freedom of assembly are closely linked.
In some cities the local authorities have issued a blanket ban on demonstrations – the mayor of Kharkiv used the pretext of a flu epidemic to curtail all public gatherings in the city. Local activists have defied the ban and are protesting in surgical masks.
However, protesters in other cities have faced beatings and prosecution.
In Odessa the local authorities resorted to more extreme measures to stop the protests. One demonstration, on Odessa’s Primorsky Boulevard, attracted as many as 2,000 people on Saturday 23 November. At 4am the following morning, a court hastily banned the demonstration, even though only some 40 people remained.
Oleksiy Chorny, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, a political party, was beaten by Odessa police officers, sprayed with tear gas in a confined space and then sentenced to five days of administrative detention. His crime? Police alleged that he shouted anti-government and anti-constitutional slogans and slapped him with charges of swearing in public and hooliganism. A second demonstrator has also been sentenced to three days of detention. Both men have yet to serve their sentences.
Oleksiy Chorny told Amnesty International what happened as they carted him away from the scene: “Two police officers detained me. They did not introduce themselves or explain why I was being detained. They pushed me inside the police van … punched me in the stomach so that the marks would not show and pushed my head to the floor. Then they thrust me into a cubicle [inside the van] and beat me on the head, shoulders and back with batons. After this they sprayed tear gas into the cubicle and shut the door. I could hardly breathe.”
The opposition activist was convicted on the basis of written statements by three witnesses despite the fact that a police video shown in court contradicted these statements. The judge failed to question the contradictory evidence and refused Chorny’s request to present witnesses in his defence.
On 25 November, a group of seven young men were returning to Lviv – a city in western Ukraine, only 80km from the EU/Poland border – in a van after taking part in a demonstration outside the Cabinet of Ministers the previous day. At around 12pm they were detained and beaten by riot police. One of them, 28-year-old law graduate Oleg Matyash, has been charged with hooliganism for hitting a policeman on the helmet with a rubber baton during a confrontation at the protest on 24 November. He could face three to seven years imprisonment.
His companions claim that they were all standing peacefully in the crowd at the time of the alleged incident. During an interview the police officer stated that he did not seek medical assistance because he was not hurt. Oleg Matyash, however, was treated in hospital for concussion and soft tissue injuries on his head and face, as well as bruising. A local police station initially refused to register complaints filed by the seven men, and only did so after a group of parliamentary delegates arrived and demanded that the complaint be registered.
What happened to Oleksiy Chorny and Oleg Matyash are just two recent examples of violations of freedom of assembly and police ill-treatment in Ukraine.
If President Yanukovych is serious about building a society that embraces European values – and international standards – he must back up this pledge with concerted action to uphold the right to freedom of assembly and all human rights. He should start by ensuring that the allegations of Oleksiy Chorny and Oleg Matyash are promptly, independently and effectively investigated.
With or without EU agreement, Ukraine must eradicate torture (News story, 19 November 2013)Ukraine and the EU: Time to put people first (Briefing, 19 November 2013)