Human rights defenders and social activists suffer from violence and impunity – research

Human Rights Information Centre has recorded more than 50 cases of obstruction of the activities of human rights defenders and social activists that occurred between March 2014 and March 2017 in its report “Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Government-Controlled Territories of Ukraine: Three Years After the Euromaidan”.

Tetiana Pechonchyk

As noted by Tetiana Pechonchyk, Chair of the Board of the Human Rights Information Centre, “we did not aim to record all cases of hindering the activities of human rights defenders and activists who work in defense of public interests, - it is important to identify those dangerous trends that are taking place now”.

This refers to legislative restrictions on freedom of association and freedom of movement, the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly, the use of physical violence (murder, beatings), damage to property, criminal and administrative harassment, threats, discrediting campaigns and other forms of pressure.

According to the Human Rights Information Centre, activists who are fighting against corruption, advocate for environmental and land rights, as well as LGBT-activists have suffered from persecution and impediment to their activities most of all.

The initiation of criminal cases, threats and searches are a form of “silencing activists”. So believes Dmytro Sherembey, Chairman of the Coordinating Council of the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV.

Activist counted that the proceedings initiated against him and his business organization have taken 400 work hours due to the need to visit interrogations and court hearings: “Not a single case concerning the defamation of public activists or threats against us was opened. But the case against us on the basis of one entry in the social network, which was made a year ago, was initiated literally in a day… Our position is such: there is not a single case, which will force us to remain silent and inactive. And Ukraine only changes due to the activity of citizens”, - noted Sherembey.

Maxim Kornienko (on left) and Mykhailo Berchuk (on right)

Human rights defenders and public activists are faced with various forms of obstruction of their activities. Thus, Maxim Kornienko, Director of the Coordinating Center Human Rights Defender, was sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest only for monitoring a trial against two representatives of the Roma community in the Volchansk District Court of the Kharkiv region. The judge disliked the monitoring.

Activist Mykhailo Berchuk was beaten twice, but police can not establish the identities of the attackers, despite the fact that the attack occurred in the city center, during a day and the license plate of the attackers’ car was recorded. Activist considers the attacks to be related to his active fight against pollution of the environment by local enterprises on the production of oil and mayonnaise.

Activists who worked in the conflict zone in Donbas have also faced obstacles and discreditation. For example, in December 2016, personal information of activists, who visited the uncontrolled part of Donbas to carry out their work, was published on the website of PBS-News. In particular, Nina Potarska, who visited the so-called “DPR” and “LPR” to conduct a study on the socio-economic situation there and documented information about the lives of women in conflict areas, since she was preparing  a report for the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Nina Potarska started receiving threats after publication of her personal information on the Myrotvorets website. She appealed to law enforcement agencies with the support of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, but no effective investigation was conducted. “We regard this as a psychological pressure on activists and journalists. As early as in 2016, we filed a complaint with the law enforcement agencies. But some magical things are happening with our statement and documents – they either disappear, or appear. The investigation has not yet begun…”, - said the human rights defender.

The situation when the government applies pressure and violence against people who criticize the power, protect human rights and advocate for public interests happens in many countries. We need to look for legal methods to counteract this in accordance with international standards, - emphasized Harry Hummel, Associate Policy Director of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee. “I heard many stories about harassment of freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly in Ukraine. And today, human rights need to be protected, the investigation regarding victims must be conducted or ceasing of stigmatization of activists in the media”, - added Hummel.

“Without rapid and effective reforms, effective investigation of all cases of harassment and attacks on human rights defenders, and the cessation of the disgraceful practice of discrediting civil society, the Ukrainian government will definitively lose its support and the opportunity to rely on it as a partner”, - added Tetiana Pechonchyk.

The authors of the report, in their recommendations to the authorities, particularly note the need to abolish the latest amendments on the electronic declaration for anti-corruption activists and increase the effectiveness of investigation of attacks on human rights defenders and activists acting in the protection of public interests.

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