Not just one trial
In an interview otherwise unconstrained by considerations of accuracy, Prime Minister Azarov did get one thing right. It would indeed be unwarranted to link Ukraine’s European integration with one trial alone. The unique opportunity offered by the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement may be lost due to a number of unresolved issues, not only the politically motivated prosecution of the President’s main opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Analysts recently published their monitoring report on Ukraine’s (non-) implementation of the EU’s eleven criteria for signing the Agreement. They found that with respect to four, some degree of progress had been made, though not enough to meet EU requirements. On five criteria there had been minimal progress and on two – none.
Not that you’d get an inkling of this after ploughing your way through Azarov’s “interview”. This in itself goes some way to explaining why electoral reform and balanced media coverage are one of the criteria where no progress was found. On the media front there has in fact been noticeable regress over recent months. After persistent attempts by tax authorities, communications providers and others to crush or at least marginalize the relatively independent TVi channel, the latter’s owner suddenly changed. The situation remains unclear, but the results are already being seen with monitoring less than a month after the takeover finding that the number of news stories presented from different points of view had halved. Serhiy Lyovochkin, together with Dmytro Firtash, now own one of the main television channels TV Inter; Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov would also seem to be amassing media publications, and three heavyweight analytic publications, including Forbes Ukraine, have just been taken over by a young oligarch, Serhiy Kurchenko, with close links to those in power.
Follow all State-owned or otherwise controlled media and you’ll get only upbeat noises from Yanukovych and Azarov about the Association Agreement. The hope may be that the EU will feel worried enough about Russia to accept Tymoshenko’s departure “for treatment” to Germany as sufficient “implementation” of the 11 criteria.
This seems unlikely, but also highly unwise both for Ukraine and the EU. Put most ponderously, all criteria are vital for democracy and rule of law in Ukraine.
The latest media ownership upheavals are almost certainly aimed at ensuring “loyal” coverage as the Presidential elections approach. This means distortion or concealment of news unfavourable to the President and his people; the blocking of the political opposition, of criticism altogether. All of this has one end: to con as many voters as possible. Intransigence over regulating electoral legislation and the seriously dangerous law on referendums makes it abundantly clear that means of influencing the outcome of the Presidential – or any – elections will not stop there.
Nothing needs to be predicted since it’s all happening already. The use of hired thugs during the Party of the Regions’ “antifascist” stunt diverted attention from other, more standard, methods of obstructing protest and ensuring “support”. Traffic police and other aw enforcement bodies are regularly used to stop protesters reaching their destination while public sector workers and students report being forced to attend pro-government events.
It probably suits the current regime to pin the fate of the Association Agreement on Tymoshenko. Even back in 2011 discussions about response to clearly politically motivated prosecution of opposition leaders had a disturbing tendency to founder on people’s personal likes and dislikes. After two years of concentrated efforts to present the former Prime Minister as a criminal, failure to understand the real issues at stake is common.
These issues are most definitely not about one trial alone. Nor are they necessarily politically motivated. There are at least two other trials at present which graphically demonstrate dangerous degradation of law enforcement bodies and the courts and do so in the public domain.
Three young men have been remanded in custody (in SIZO) for almost three years now since a bomb blast in an Orthodox Church in Zaporizhya on 28 July 2010. The explosion, which killed an elderly nun, came exactly one year after a court ruling against the supermarket chain which had a land dispute with the Church.
Why this possible motive has been of no interest to the investigators and the court can best be understood by recalling President Yanukovych’s response to the bomb on national television the following day. The heads of the Security Service, Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General were effectively told to “find” the culprits within the week. The Interior Minister announced publically before the week was out that all the culprits were in custody, the crime solved, and that the enforcement officers involved would receive awards.
The first young man – a former sacristan of the Church - was taken into custody the next morning, though formally detained only 13 hours later, immediately prior to his first “confession”. Anton Kharitonov gave four confessions in total; his brother – Serhiy Dyomin – two. The second was made after explosives experts rubbished his confession that he had prepared the homemade explosive device. They and a third young man, also a sacristan of the Church, were interrogated without proper lawyers present and all have retracted their confessions, saying that they were extracted through torture, threats and other forms of pressure.
Two recognized forensic psychology institutes assessed the interrogations and found severe psychological pressure. Judge Minasov ordered a third assessment which denied any pressure. The judge then rejected the application to have all psychologists called to explain such diametrically opposite assessments. He paid no heed to flagrant infringements at the investigation stage, and did not batter an eyelid when, almost two years into the trial, the prosecution changed the indictment, removing among other things specification of time so that the alibi which all three young men had would not be a problem.
No investigation has been made into their allegations of torture or any of the other infringements. On the basis of seven confessions from three men and no other evidence, the investigators sent the case to court, the Prosecutor demanded 14 and 15 year sentences which the Judge duly passed down at the beginning of April.
The President’s “personal control” over this case back in July 2010 brought it to prominence. It remains well-known precisely because the three defendants are widely believed to be innocent yet their conviction and long sentences were expected from the outset. Politically motivated trials are a major threat to Ukraine’s democratic development and impediment to European integration. Yet so too is a case where justice itself is hostage to an order issued by the President on national television.