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31.05.2010 | Halya Coynash

Lawless start to Euro-2012 (updated)

   

Wanton destruction of century-old trees in Kharkiv’s Gorky Park and lawless violence countenanced by both the city authorities and the police have outraged environmental, human rights and media organizations.  Leading environmental groups have called on UEFA to exclude Kharkiv from the cities hosting Euro-2012.  Football is quite simply not worth the price.

The decision to fell 503 trees in Gorky Park in order to build a road and hotel facilities on park territory was adopted by the Kharkiv City Executive Committee on 19 May with men sent to carry out the work the very next day.

Environmental and civic groups sprang to the Park’s defence and called the police after ascertaining that the workers had no documents except a copy of the decision taken the day before.  The police then temporarily stopped the felling.  

Unfortunately this brief observance of the law was nipped in the bud, the destruction of trees continued, and since 21 May the police have either done nothing while protesters are assaulted or have beaten and / or detained those endeavouring to protect the trees.

No preliminary work was carried out to mark the trees destined for felling and cordon off the area to ensure safety from falling trees, this being in flagrant violation of the law.

The Governor of the Kharkiv region, Mykhailo Dobkin issued a statement on 28 May in which he claimed that construction of the road is in the General Plan for the city, and that the decision to build it was taken by the City Executive Committee back in 2005. He asserts that “all relevant permits for the construction work have been obtained, including the necessary environmental services and the plan was approved by the Ministry for Regional Construction back in 2008. These permits, if they exist, have not been made public. There have been no public hearings, as required by both the Law on Planning and Construction Work, and the Aarhus Convention.  The authorities’ attempt to present a meeting of the City Executive Committee as “public hearings” is quite simply ludicrous.

The authorities appear to have opted for the use of force rather than public consultation and Mr Dobkin’s claims that the “so-called environmental activists” have been paid to carry out provocation and hooliganism” are clearly refuted by the events, some recorded on video, of the vigil kept by the Park’s defenders.  

Since 21 May, when the felling continued, young environmental activists have been trying to provide physical protection for the trees.  From 22 to 24 May more trees than even the decision from 19 May envisages were cut, and the felling is still continuing.  The workers are carefully removing all traces of the trees which environmentalists believe is a deliberate attempt to conceal the scale of destruction.

At 4 a.m. on 25 May around 100 police officers escorted the workmen into the park and encircled the area.  There were about 20 activists keeping vigil. They tried to protect the trees with their bodies, but were dragged away and beaten by police officers. This can all be viewed at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BADz2LuSJkk&feature=related

            Even more disturbing were the events of 27 and 28 May. At around 4 a.m. on Thursday, an excavator entered the area and its driver lowered the scoop right onto the feet of activists, holding it there for 3 – 4 minutes. An ambulance was called, as well as the traffic police. The ambulance took several activists to hospital, one, lawyer Oleksandr Solovyov, with concussion. The traffic police did not turn up at all.  See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6K4O5GaYIkg

            The scene on Friday morning, at around 7 a.m. must be viewed to be believed, and even then it’s no easy matter http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C32xe43uVi4.  Around 50 men of athletic build, with badges saying “municipal security” can be seen entering the area, having passed a considerable number of police officers. The strongmen, armed with their badges and muscles, formed a chain and began brutally pushing the tree defenders out, beating some of them. The muscles speak for themselves, not so the badges, and the men when asked can provide no identification or authority from an entirely unknown “municipal security” department.

What is much more baffling is why the police when they finally responded to the protesters’ calls for help detained 10 of the bodybuilders’ victims, i.e. those defending the trees. Those protesters, and later another three, including one representative of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, were taken to the police station. They have been charged under Article 185 of the Code of Administrative Offences (refusing to obey a police officer) despite total lack of resistance shown to anybody except some unnamed thugs with badges from an anonymous municipal service. 

Those detained were held in the police station for 8 hours.  Lawyer from the Kharkiv Human Rights Group [KHPG], Arkady Bushchenko, therefore asked that the court hearing be adjourned until Monday, since the detained park defenders were in no state to answer questions, and time was needed to become familiar with the material.

It should be stressed, and can, in fact, be seen clearly from the video, that none of the protesters showed resistance to the police. KHPG, which is representing the park defenders, has reason to believe that the authorities are planning to present fictitious witnesses who will assert that they saw resistance. It is to be hoped that they view the video footage before asserting anything so transparently false, and there are plenty of witnesses who can confirm the contrary.

Kharkiv journalists have issued a statement in solidarity with journalist colleagues injured in the course of their work, while the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, uniting 29 prominent human rights groups, including KHPG, has issued an open appeal to the Prosecutor General. Formal complaints have been registered over police behaviour and representatives from the Ministry of Internal Affairs came from Kyiv on Saturday to take statements.

The Head of the Kharkiv Police, Oleksandr Barannik justified the actions of the police in an interview to the BBC Ukrainian Service, claiming that the protesters had committed an offence and that once a work permit has been issued, the area becomes a building site and no civic organization has the right to get in their way.

Where is the permit?  A decision taken the day before by the Kharkiv City Executive Committee is clearly not sufficient authorization. None of the safety measures required by law were taken, and are only now being observed. Most importantly, no documents have been presented.

At present, one of the environmental organizations active in defending Gorky Park has asked its members to stop their vigil given the dangerous actions of the authorities. Other protesters have for now refused to move and are continuing to stand guard – not for money, but in defence of their rights and those of their fellow citizens.

The behaviour of the police, especially on Friday when they not only failed to protect peaceful protesters from a large number of aggressive assailants, but detained peaceful protesters, is deeply disturbing. It makes the claim by Mr Dobkin that the planned road should unite all those concerned about the appearance of a city aspiring to European identity seem grotesquely hollow.

 

Postscript:

On 1 June human rights sites published a response received from the Ministry for Environmental Protection which states clearly that the felling is illegal since the local Development for the Environment did not carry out an environmental impact assessment, nor were there any public hearings. On that same day a Kharkiv Internet publication demonstrated that the planned works were NOT in the General Plan for the city.

Yet at 4 a.m. in the morning of 2 June, some 50 thugs in black turned up at the site, together with workmen and police. While the police looked on and did nothing, the thugs assaulted those who tired to protect the trees. At the time, there were 15 tents and around 100 tree defenders.   

The trees have now been destroyed.

Court cases loom for those tree defenders arbitrarily detained by the police who clearly understand whose interests they were there to defend.  Not those of the public.

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