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21.06.2010 | Halya Coynash

Kharkiv produces prisoners of conscience, not-so-public hearings

   

Two events in the last few days should have been breaking news. For the first time since 2004 Amnesty International declared two Ukrainians nationals, sentenced by a domestic court over their peaceful protest in Kharkiv, prisoners of conscience. How many arrests, you wonder, are needed before they hit the headlines?

            The other event was, admittedly, more typical. Environmentalists have long complained about carefully orchestrated “public hearings” where the public are relegated the role of extras. This time, however, the public hearings were in Kharkiv, a post-dated attempt to legitimize flagrant disregard for the law and basic rights by the authorities.  The latter first sent men with saws to wreak destruction in Kharkiv’s Gorky Park – without the necessary permission, public discussion and, incredibly, without even basic safety precautions. When the public objected, in peaceful but decisive manner, the authorities, now aided and abetted by the police, used force to crush opposition ( cf. (http://www.kyivpost.com/news/opinion/op_ed/detail/68933/ ).

            The news that the Acting Mayor of Kharkiv, H. Kernes, had belatedly organized public hearings was cautiously welcomed, although with few, if any, illusions, remaining, civic society began mobilizing. A call went out throughout the country asking for concerned citizens to join Kharkiv residents in defending their right to their park and their right to be heard.  Very many people heeded the call and by early on Saturday, 19 June, there was a large crowd of people waiting to register for the public hearings on the fate of Gorky Park.

            One of the first to register, and receive his yellow ticket, was the Editor of the publication “Civic Education”. He is heard here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awXK3cAXHVs expressing his bemusement, despite being one of the first in line, to find a crowd of people ahead of him entering the hall, all clutching their yellow tickets.  It was quite clear, since registration had only just begun, that these people had received their mandates earlier.  Most were teachers and pre-school workers from the district.  Given their reluctance to speak to the media, and clear lack of interest or knowledge of the topic of the debate, one can safely assume that they had received instructions to be there – and, of course, to vote for continuation of the park’s destruction. According to Oleh Perehon from the environmental group “Pechenihi”, there were numerous irregularities, and even the 20 people in the hall who voted against the Acting Mayor’s resolution were counted as one vote.  The very large number of people registered, but unable to get into the hall, were not allowed to vote.  It should be mentioned that Acting Mayor Kernes himself stated at the beginning that there were 2,341 people registered, but then changed his story, saying that there were conflicting accounts of the numbers.  It is apparent from the video and photos that the numbers were high, and there are good grounds for believing that the result would have been different had their voices been heard. 

            That, however, was not the point of the exercise.  Imitation was needed, and was provided by public hearings in which the public were not needed, being replaced by local teachers, probably intimidated into turning up and voting en masse. According to Deputy from the Kyiv City Council, V. Sorokin, of the 17 members of the organizing committee, only 3 were members of the initiative group, while the rest were from the Kharkiv City Council.  And the public were on the street outside …

            Oleh Perehon told the publication “Ukrainska Pravda” that it was possible to appeal against this travesty of public participation with the Prosecutor, and to prove that the majority of people had been against the authorities’ resolution.

            It is by no means guaranteed that the Prosecutor will not prove as malleable as local teachers and the police however the appeal must be lodged. It is entirely certain that Ukraine risks serious trouble over non-compliance with the Aarhus Convention on Public Participation over such overt disregard for the views of its own citizens.   It would be well for those in higher places to understand that now – the democratic gloss has already worn dangerously thin. 

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