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Jailing political opponents in Ukraine
One from the archives (January 2011)
Ukraine’s authorities stepped up arrests of political opponents over the winter holidays, amid growing international concern that the nation is sliding down an authoritarian path one year into the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.
In recent days, Ukraine’s law enforcement authorities arrested more than a dozen nationalist activists on suspicion of hooliganism, and are investigating a handful of participants from last fall’s tax protests.
This post-New Year’s surge in activity by Ukrainian law enforcement doubles the number of oppositionists currently behind bars.
Last year, nearly a dozen allies of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko were arrested, and investigations into her and allies continue at high pace.
The president and his team continue to steadfastly deny allegations that the arrests and probes are politically motivated, despite recent conclusions reached by the European Union, U.S. and leading international democracy watchdogs – all of which in recent weeks expressed growing concern over anti-democratic tendencies, including the muzzling of media and use of the judiciary as a political persecution tool against oppositionists.
Ukraine suffered from deteriorating levels of press freedom, instances of election fraud, and growing politicization of the judiciary.”
– Freedom House.
In its annual assessment of the global state of democracy released on Jan. 13, Washington-based Freedom House downgraded Ukraine from “free” to “partly free.”
It’s a status last held by Ukraine before the pro-democracy 2004 Orange Revolution when massive protests by citizens overturned a rigged presidential vote in favor of Yanukovych.
Yanukovych is widely regarded to have beat Tymoshenko fairly in last year’s presidential contest. But one year into his rule, “Ukraine suffered from deteriorating levels of press freedom, instances of election fraud, and growing politicization of the judiciary,” Freedom House concluded.
Two weeks after the United States raised similar concerns, a senior European Union official warned Yanukovych’s administration on Jan. 11 that closer integration with Brussels rests on adherence to the core EU principles of democracy and media freedoms.
Wrapping up a two-day visit to Kyiv that included meetings with Yanukovych, his political opponents, independent journalists and human rights activists, Stefan Fuele, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, said that Brussels – the 27-nation bloc’s administration capital – shares concerns expressed recently by the U.S.
In the Dec. 30 statement, the U.S. raised the spectre of “selective” prosecution of Ukraine’s political opposition as media freedoms are curtailed.
European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele, after a news conference in Kyiv on Jan. 11. (Joseph Sywenkyj)
“I certainly share [this] impression” Fuele said, noting he raised the issue in talks with Yanukovych and others. “I do not want to speculate at this time on repercussions” that could follow should Ukraine stray from democracy, he said.
Fuele stressed that Brussels was eager to pursue closer ties with Ukraine, that it could be flexible in talks over free trade and associate membership agreements. But he stressed that the EU could not compromise on core “values” such as democracy.
The international scorecards on Yanukovych’s first year in office are in. They paint a negative picture – not only in straying from democracy, but also in failing to improve Ukraine’s horrible investment climate and tackle rampant corruption.
Released on Jan. 12, the 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, compiled by the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal, dropped Ukraine from 162 to 164 out of 179 countries between Uzbekistan (163) and Chad (165).
The Global Corruption Barometer released in December by Transparency International, a Berlin-based corruption watchdog, ranked Ukraine’s judiciary system – which Yanukovych claims to have reformed last year – as the most corrupt in the world.
[Viktor] Yanukovych has guaranteed Ukraine the last position among European countries in the ranking of economic freedom.”– Hyrhory Nemyria, a former deputy prime minister under Yulia Tymoshenko.
Hyrhory Nemyria, a former deputy prime minister under Tymoshenko, accused Yanukovych in a Jan. 12 statement of hurting Ukraine’s image by exhibiting “authoritarianism” and “incompetence.”
“Yanukovych has guaranteed Ukraine the last position among European countries in the ranking of economic freedom (made by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal), the largest decline of democracy among all the countries of Europe in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy 2010, and a fall of 42 positions down in the ranking of freedom of speech, conducted by the Reporters Without Borders,” he said.
In their statements, the US and EU raised concern that the so-called anti-corruption investigations by Yanukovych’s law enforcers were “selectively” targeting Tymoshenko and other opposition groups and that widespread allegations of corruption involving the current administration were being ignored.
The Dec. 30 U.S. statement came after prosecutors launched more than a dozen criminal investigations against members of Tymoshenko’s 2007-2009 government, including herself. They are suspected of misspending money while in power.
Some were arrested last summer and have yet to be tried. Others, such as the nation’s former top cop, ex-Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, were arrested just ahead of the New Year.
Others face investigations. Yanukovych announced before the holidays on Dec. 23 that “up to 30” criminal cases had been initiated against former Tymoshenko and members of her government.
Late last year, Ukrainian prosecutors formally charged Tymoshenko with misspending $300 million in state funds while serving as prime minister in 2009.
Tymoshenko, who lost last year’s presidential election to Yanukovych, denies wrongdoing and insists the charges against her are intended to divert attention from corrupt dealings of Yanukovych’s administration.
Two Ukrainian human rights organizations came to her defense late last year, urging Yanukovych to end political persecution.
Opposition politicians and democrats insist that Yanukovych trampled Ukraine’s constitution in a bid to monopolize political power since his Feb. 25 inauguration.
The only election held under his watch – the local contests on Oct. 31 – fell short of democratic standards, international observers charged.
The Moscow-friendly Yanukovych is also accused of bringing Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit of influence, and of trying to establish a Kremlin-style authoritarian regime.
Yanukovych has repeatedly denied such allegations. His administration describes the investigations as legitimate attempts to combat corruption.
Sources said that, during meetings with journalists and human rights activists, Fuele was presented with evidence that media were being muzzled and that alleged corrupt dealings involving presidential allies were not being investigated.
Touching on the issues during his Jan. 11 press conference, Fuele said: “In the 21st century, democratic government cannot exist without an independent judicial system and media. This is a question of moral leadership.”
Tymoshenko’s camp along with nationalist and grassroots groups have announced protest rallies in Kyiv on Jan. 14, Jan. 17 and Jan. 22.
According to Oleksandr Danylyuk, who helped organize large rallies nationwide against adoption of a new tax code in late 2010, selective criminal prosecutions extends to members of the nationalist Tryzub organization, which supported the months-long grassroots campaign.
Police on Jan. 10 arrested more than a dozen Tryzub members for illegal possession of firearms after an explosion on New Year’s Eve destroyed a statue of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Zaporizhia. Tryzub took credit for decapitating the bust on Dec. 28, but it has denied blowing the same statue up days later.
Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych
Danylyuk said law-enforcement agencies have also gone after a half dozen tax code protesters.
“It’s a witch hunt,” he told the Kyiv Post on Jan. 11. “The police expected the ‘suspects’ would testify that protest organizers gave them money to damage public property. We have information that the police put pressure on some people to say that opposition deputies paid them to raise a ruckus,” he said. “It is a public relations exercise to discredit the government critics.”
Police on Jan. 13 searched the apartment of Olena Bilozerska, a journalist, seizing her computer, camera and other electronic equipment.
Police spokesmen said Bilozerska is suspected of posting a video to the Internet on New Year’s Eve showing fire being set to the pro-presidential Party of Regions office in Kyiv.
Berkut riot police weeks earlier stopped and questioned journalists from Korrespondent magazine and the Ukrainska Pravda website. Some media experts linked the incidents with a state-run campaign of media intimidation.
Yanukovych spokeswoman Hanna Herman has denied the allegations and reiterated the president’s support for a free press.
A person who commits an illegal act will have to deal with the consequences. This applies to former and current government officials.”
– Oleksandr Lavrynovych, Justice Minister.
But a study published early this year by Kyiv-based media watchdog Telekritika found mounting evidence of censorship and slanted coverage by leading television channels.
News programs are increasingly putting a positive spin on Yanukovych’s administration, ignoring allegations of corruption linked to his team, the study found. In turn, opposition groups are routinely reported on in negative fashion.
Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych on Jan. 10 denied instructions have been given to bully journalists or to punish political adversaries.
“A person who commits an illegal act will have to deal with the consequences. This applies to former and current government officials,” Lavrynovych said during an official visit to Poland on Jan. 10. “[Tymoshenko] is involved in a number of criminal cases dating back to 1999, including some in European countries and America. Her trial will be fair and impartial.”
Volodymyr Yavorskiy, executive director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, doesn’t think so.
“In the majority of the cases, the former officials gained no benefit from the decisions they made.” He added that charges of “misuse of official position” against many former officials are vague.
“Many of the cases show signs of being selective against members of the former government, but similar activities are being carried out by the present ministers with impunity,” he said.
As an example, Yavorskiy cited the violation by government officials in picking a company to audit the activities of Tymoshenko’s government without conducting a tender, as required by law. The auditor was paid millions of dollars with public funds, he said.
The High Court for Civil and Criminal Cases, headed by Leonid Fesenko, a former deputy in the pro-presidential Party of Regions, would hear complaints against the alleged infraction. But few think the new court is impartial.
Mykola Pshonka, the prosecutor general’s brother, was appointed deputy chairman of the court in December, when Fesenko pledged to council deputies in his native Luhansk: “While I am in charge of the high court, none of you will have any problems.”
Pre-trial detention abuses rampant
Officials in Europe and the U.S. have for years said pretrial imprisonment is a serious problem in Ukraine, where scores of politicians, including Yulia Tymoshenko, and their acquaintances have faced arrest and pre-trial imprisonment during the early 2000s.
According to human rights groups, the regular practice of using lengthy detainment to pressure political opponents, as well as regular citizens, has been revived under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.
Experts say that, unlike in established democracies, where the accused are guaranteed a speedy and fair trial and the presumption of innocence, Ukraine treats alleged wrongdoers as guilty until proven innocent.
According to Ukraine’s criminal procedure code, a relic of Soviet “prokuratura”-style justice adopted in 1961, law enforcement agencies may detain a suspect for three days without a warrant, after which an arrest order must be issued. Ukraine’s courts may extend detention without an arrest warrant for an additional 10 days and thereafter grant extensions in increments of two months for a maximum of 18 months.
Yevhen Zakharov, head of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, said law-enforcement agencies continue to jail suspects without bail arbitrarily to extract evidence used against detainees.
“Courts often extend detention, at the behest of prosecutors, to allow police more time to obtain confessions,” he said.
European, U.S. and United Nations officials have said pre-trial detention procedures in the current code create conditions for secret persecution, which contradict European human rights practices, and lead to protracted criminal cases.
• The European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission, in opinions published during the 2000s said the current code does not provide for competitive examination of evidence during the pre-trial investigation and restricts the rights of an individual without sufficient guarantees against arbitrary actions.
• The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe during the 2000s repeatedly urged Ukrainian officials to redraft the code in line with the standards of the Council of Europe, which are backed up by the European Convention on Human Rights and the practices of the European Court of human rights.
• The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention made the same recommendations, saying in its February 2010 report the perceived lack of independent and effective control over the detention process by the judiciary, and unlawful restrictions on pretrial detainees, such as denying them contact with their families before trial, remained key problems.
• The U.S. State Department in March 2010 echoed the same concerns its annual Human Rights Report, which said Individuals often remained in pretrial detention for months or, in some cases, years.
(Published January 14, 2011)