By Victoria Ivanova
Civil unrest in Ukraine — sparked by the government's decision to halt negotiations with the EU and to not sign an Association Agreement during the Third Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November — quickly adopted a much wider agenda. The attempt to introduce legislation to curb civil liberties illustrates a breakdown in the rule of law in Ukraine, and is central to the current crisis.
On 16 January 2014, Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) passed a series of laws significantly curtailing civil liberties – in particular criminalising peaceful protests – as well as creating highly oppressive administrative procedures for media and non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funding.
The newly-passed laws, similar to those recently passed in Russia, caused outrage both nationally and internationally. Ukrainian lawyers commented on their illegality, pointing to the procedural improprieties associated with their passing.
‘The parliamentarians voted with their hands instead of using the procedurally-prescribed computer voting system, while the raised hands were counted approximately,’ explains Ukrainian lawyer Igor Golovan. Lawyers also noted that the laws violated the Ukrainian Constitution and international legislation.
Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the IBA, commented, ‘Ukraine is a party to all core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression and assembly. It is also a member of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides additional robust protection of these rights and is directly applicable in domestic legislation by virtue of the Ukrainian Constitution. The introduction of anti-protest laws was clearly designed to chill the protest movement in Ukraine. Ultimately, the right to protest is a fundamental freedom that must be protected in a democratic society which adheres to the rule of law.’
‘The current crisis in Ukraine is not about territorial divisions – EU v Russia, or Western Ukraine v Eastern Ukraine – it is about a major split in the population’s commitments’
Lawyer and human rights activist
Following the introduction of the new laws, anti-government groups took control of regional administrative offices across most major Ukrainian cities. Violent clashes between street activists and Ukraine’s riot police, Berkut, gained renewed strength, leading to deaths and injuries.
Talks to end the conflict between opposition leaders and President Yanukovych remained unsuccessful, leading Verkhovna Rada to pass an amnesty law on 29 January. This amnesty law undertakes to exonerate protestors associated with the recent unrest, as long as they vacate all administrative premises within a two week period.
The opposition claims that Verkhovna Rada again failed to observe proper procedure when passing this legislation: in this instance voting was electronic, but some parliamentarians pressed others’ voting buttons. This kind of procedural failure is not unprecedented in Verkhovna Rada, and has led to some members of parliament being dubbed ‘button-pressers’.
The opposition also argues that the wide drafting of the amnesty law effectively annuls its presumption of freeing from criminal liability those who took administrative buildings by force, while also permitting the arrest of protestors not directly associated with any forceful action. During the same parliamentary session, Verkhovna Rada first repealed most of the laws passed on 16 January, but then effectively voted four of them back in.
Michael Reynolds, IBA President
IBA President Michael Reynolds comments: ‘The IBA welcomes the government’s decision to repeal some of the recently-adopted legislation that sought to stifle the Ukrainian people’s legitimate right to protest.’ He adds, ‘However, we urge the Ukrainian Government to abolish these laws in their entirety, as they represent a regressive step for a state committed to democracy and the rule of law. Further, the IBA calls for the release of recently-arrested peaceful protesters.’
Currently, 116 activists from the opposition movement EuroMaidan are being held in jail.
As a resolution to the conflict does not appear to be forthcoming, the line between legitimate protest and criminal action continues to be blurred. A prominent opposition figure, Dmitriy Bulatov, was discovered on 31 January in a critical condition after having been violently beaten and lacerated by a group of unknown individuals; he had been missing since 22 January. Bulatov is the leader of the AutoMaidan group, a grass-roots association that formed to picket government officials’ residences, exert pressure on security forces associated with violent attacks on peaceful protestors and to capture ‘Titushki’, civilians, who the opposition claims have been planted by pro-government factions to disrupt and discredit opposition protests.
On the same day that Bulatov was discovered, the Ministry of Domestic Affairs issued arrest warrants targeting AutoMaidan activists (including Bulatov), as well as leaders of other opposition groups, for ‘organising actions of mass unrest, which led to grievous bodily harm or death.’ On 1 February, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council opened a criminal case against the Batkivshchyna Party for allegedly having schemed a coup-d’etat.
There have been reports that media representatives and activists are being subjected to persistent harassment and are receiving death threats. The Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, resigned on 28 January and President Yanukovych has just returned from a period of sick leave. The country remains deeply divided, with no foreseeable resolution. As lawyer and human rights activist Oleksandra Dvoretska comments, ‘The current crisis in Ukraine is not about territorial divisions – EU v Russia, or Western Ukraine v Eastern Ukraine – it is about a major split in the population’s commitments, between those who don’t want to come to terms with the lack of accountability on all levels of power, and those who have conveniently adapted themselves to the current power constellation and its corrupt, feudalistic logic’.