Ukraine: Address Attacks against Activists and Human Rights Defenders

Kiev

More than 50 attacks on activists and human rights defenders in Ukraine have been recorded by local human rights organizations in just the last nine months, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and Frontline Defenders said today. Those under attack include people working to defend the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, protect the environment, and campaign against corruption.

The four organizations criticized the lack of effective investigations into these incidents and of prosecutions of those responsible, which heightens the risk to human rights defenders and sends a message that the authorities tolerate such attacks. Recently, Ukraine’s prosecutor general suggested that civil society activists brought the attacks on themselves by criticizing the authorities, giving an impression that human rights defenders can be openly targeted.

In most cases, the attacks have struck individuals or groups that campaign against corruption in the local community, shine a light on the operations of local governments and businesses, or defend people’s rights. The purpose of such attacks is clear: to silence activists and human rights defenders and to discourage others from speaking out against injustice or standing up for human rights.

Two recent examples of vicious attacks that have yet to be effectively investigated took place on September 22, in Odessa and Kryvyi Rih. Oleh Mikhaylyk, an anticorruption activist, was shot in Odessa, in southern Ukraine, and remains in the hospital. He had campaigned with the Syla Lyudei (People’s Power) movement against illegal construction in Odessa. In Kryvyi Rih, unidentified assailants broke into the home of Artem Moroka after he criticized the local police on Facebook. The assailants severely beat him, breaking his nose, Moroka told Ukrainian human rights monitors.

On June 5, environmental activist Mykola Bychko was found hanged in the woods near the village of Eskhar in Kharkiv region. The local police started a suicide investigation, but they have yet to investigate the possibility that Bychko was killed in connection with his activism. At the time of his death, he was documenting the pollution of a local river, allegedly caused by a nearby waste treatment plant.

A lawyer representing Bychko’s family criticized the local police for ignoring the possibility that the death was an intentional killing and accused them of intentionally delaying the investigation. The lawyer told Freedom House that police lost relevant evidence from the site where Bychko’s body was found, such as the rope with which he was hanged. The authorities have also not pursued reports that Bychko had received threats related to his documentation work, for example by questioning people linked to the waste treatment plant.

On July 31, an unidentified assailant threw acid on Kateryna Handzyuk, a local council member who monitored police activities in Kherson. Police initially arrested a man and coerced him into signing a “confession,” allegedly promising in exchange to resolve existing problems he had with the authorities. His sister said, however, that the man was not in Kherson on the date of the attack and had several witnesses to support his alibi.

After he spent 19 days in detention, the police released him without charge and apologized. At the same time, they arrested five other suspects, four of whom admitted their involvement in the attack. Initially, police did not investigate the attack as an attempted “contract murder” but as a simple “attempted murder,” which Handzyuk’s lawyer said has caused a significant delay in establishing who ordered the attack.

The conduct of these investigations raises concerns that those responsible for the attacks, including those who ordered them, may not be brought to justice.

The Ukrainian authorities should take effective steps to prevent further threats and attacks against activists and human rights defenders; ensure prompt, thorough, impartial, and independent investigations into such threats and attacks; and bring those responsible to justice through fair trials.

The Interior Ministry, the National Police, the prosecutor general’s office, and other relevant institutions should explicitly recognize the important work of human rights defenders in protecting Ukrainian citizens’ rights and uncovering corruption. The authorities should publicly denounce any threats and attacks against human rights defenders. They should take decisive measures to ensure that even critics of the government work in a safe and enabling environment in which they can exercise the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association and conduct their activities without fear of reprisals.

Ukraine is rated Partly Free in Freedom in the World 2018, Partly Free in Freedom of the Press 2017, Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2017, and receives a democracy score of 4.64, on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 as the worst possible score, in Nations in Transit 2018.

For more information, please contact:
Tanya Cooper, Human Rights Watch (English, Russian), +380 95 9280776 (Ukraine mobile), [email protected], @TanyaCooper_ (Twitter), +1-917-443-2721 (US number).

Maria Guryeva, Amnesty International Ukraine (Ukrainian, English, Russian), +380 67 328 1038 (Ukraine mobile), [email protected].

Freedom House, Washington, DC, [email protected], +1-202-747-7035.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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