«Berkut” zeal – probably xenophobic, certainly excessive
Special Unit Berkut officers stopped two journalists on Monday evening – one, prominent TV presenter and journalist for “Ukrainska Pravda”, Mustafa Nayem, was even taken to the police station on very dubious grounds. The other – Chief Editor of the journal Korespondent, Vitaly Sych, was stopped on the street outside his office with a colleague. The officers insisted not only on searching the two men, but the car which entailed calling its owner, Mr Sych’s sister.
While probably unconnected, news of the first incident came after a day of media reports about two journalists being interrogated or summoned for questioning by the Security Service over a criminal investigation dating back to 2008. One had, on 10 December, been kept at the SBU for around 10 hours.
The behaviour of the Berkut officers, even with the xenophobic remark made during the incident concerning Mustafa Nayem, raises serious questions. In an interview to Telekritika, Co-Chair of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, Yevhen Zakharov, called the actions unlawful and not within the scope of Berkut duties.
Mustafa Nayem described the events of Monday evening at length in an article for Ukrainska Pravda “Xenophobia must not become the face of Ukrainian nationalism” and in various interviews.
He and a female colleague were sitting in her car in the TV Channel 5 parking area at around 9.30 on Monday evening, waiting for the engine to warm up. The Berkut patrol car drove up and two officers got out. One began shining a torch into the car and then first at his colleague, then at Mustafa.
He asked only the latter to get out of the car and show his documents, which Mustafa did after first asking to see the man’s identification. His colleague, Tetyana Danylenko, also got out of the car and demanded an explanation. The man answered “We are not touching you, but have the right to check his documents”. Tetyana Danylenko was incensed by the response and the conversation continued in heated tones.
Mustafa Nayem is an experienced journalist and accustomed to showing his ID with the word Press in a highly visible place. He is convinced that the officer saw the ID very clearly, yet the officer demanded that he show it again. During the discussion, since Mustafa with justification pointed out that he had already shown it (worth remembering that this was all taking place on the street in freezing conditions), another officer (the head of the group, it transpired later) appeared and asked what was happening. He was told: “I’ve got a person of Caucuses nationality here [i.e. who is or looks like a person from the Caucuses, but this is the offensive phrase typically used). He doesn’t want to show his documents.”
Mustafa Nayem, who up till that point had cooperated fully, was understandably outraged and calmly stated: “After what you said, I refuse to show you my documents”.
When the officer asked why not, Tetyana Danylenko said: “Because his appearance does not give you the right to demand his documents”.
“We will work out ourselves what your rights are”, they were told and Mustafa was taken to the police station. They took his mobile phone away from him until after he entered the police station. After arriving there, the officer who’d detained him wrote a report there and then in the car.
Within some 15 minutes a Member of Parliament, Oles Doniy appeared, and he was obviously not the only person informed of what was happening. The Head of the Podilsk Police Station, the driver and head of the Berkut unit apologized. Mustafa notes that by then there had clearly been a call from headquarters and he cannot say whether the apologies were sincere, however they were made. The Head of the Kyiv MIA phoned and promised that there would be an official enquiry into the incident. The man who actually detained him, however, has refused to apologise.
The official statement issued by the MIA Public Relations Department categorically denies that Mustafa Nayem was detained because of his “eastern type of face”. The account given is that the Berkut officers had received information about a robbery committed by a man and woman, and that they therefore noticed and used their torches to examine the car occupied by Tetyana Danylenko and Mustafa Nayem. The account differs radically from that of the two journalists, regarding when and why they got out of the car, whether identification was shown and what happened to the mobile phone. It does not, however, explain why the officers only asked for Mustafa Nayem’s identification given that they were looking for a man and woman suspected of committing a robbery.
In his account of the incident Mustafa Nayem stresses that he has never had any conflict with the police and has over 14 years of work as a journalist become quite accustomed to providing ID without any problem. He is, however, insisting that the officer who he says treated him in the above-described manner and has refused to apologise be dismissed.
He goes on to say: “I could go to court or file a complaint to the police in my own name, however what happened does not concern me alone. It is a problem of xenophobia in society as a whole, and in the law enforcement agencies in particular”. He says that his situation is not unique, it is happening all the time, and the only difference is that those other victims of such xenophobic behaviour do not write about it in “Ukrainska Pravda” and receive such coverage.
“If Viktor Yanukovych and the heads of the MIA ignore my demand to dismiss the above-mentioned Berkut officer, it will mean only one thing – the authorities are on the side of xenophobia.” He points out that the present regime criticised those in power over the last 6 years for radical nationalism and fascism. “Let them confirm their criticism with action now”.
Following so much inaction when a response was clearly called for, over the assault by a Presidential guard on Serhiy Andrushko, the crushing of peaceful protest in Kharkiv and many others, it would be unwise to hold ones breath however Mustafa Nayem’s call can only be supported.
Many human rights activists have stressed in the last few days that the problem is indeed widespread and is exacerbated by faulty policy within the MIA. The practice of “checking documents” of people whose appearance suggests that they are not Ukrainians is racist, It is also simply a source of unlawful earnings for police officers who take bribes from those whose papers are not in order, or those who have no reason to trust the police and courts, even when all is entirely legal..
Unfortunately ethnic profiling is also encouraged by a profoundly flawed system where fulfilment of duties and assessment are largely dependent on statistical readings, such as the number of potential illegal migrants stopped.
This system has become more entrenched under the present MIA leadership, and is leading to fictitious statistics being produced, including to European bodies, regarding the “fight against illegal immigrants” and numerous violations of fundamental rights.
Whether in fact this was the reason for the outrageous treatment of Ukrainian journalist, Mustafa Nayem, on Monday evening is not entirely clear, given the questionable behaviour with regard to another journalist that same evening.
What is not in any doubt is the need for adequate response from those whose silence only perpetuates a dangerous sense of impunity among those who behave with lawlessness.
Extended version of a report first published at http://www.kyivpost.com/news/opinion/op_ed/detail/92915/