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17.01.2014 | Halya Coynash

Signed into Dictatorship

   

It is now official: the president has signed a number of bills overtly aimed at crushing peaceful protest and freedom of speech, and silencing journalists, civic activists and all active members of civil society. 

The draft laws were voted on by the ruling majority on Thursday, in breach of all procedural norms.  The opposition was not present and the voting was by a show of hands with no real way of knowing how many MPs had voted.  The bills had not passed through any of the correct procedure or discussion despite having grave consequences for the country and being in serious violation of Ukraine’s Constitution and international documents to which Ukraine is a signatory.  

On Thursday evening Dzerkalo Tyzhnya quoted an unnamed “high-ranking source in the Party of the Regions” as saying that 95% of the members of that faction in parliament had not know what they were voting for.   Those few who objected were told by the speaker Volodymyr Rybak that at a private meeting the president had insisted on the laws being adopted. 

This unfortunately seems more than likely.  Yanukovych has clearly opted for a hard-line dictatorial approach and it is no accident that the main bill now signed into law (No. 3879 “On amendments to the Law on the Judicial System and Status of Judges and procedural laws on additional measures for protecting citizens’ safety”) apes some of the worst features introduced in Russia over recent years.  These include criminalization of libel, increased control over the Internet; and measures against something vaguely termed “extremist activity” which can include obstruction of state authorities.  A particularly obnoxious development is the introduction of the label “foreign agent” for any NGO which receives foreign funding.  This covers virtually every NGO and is clearly aimed at imposing extra control over civic activists and trying to push the idea that they are somehow acting against Ukraine’s interests. 

A statement from human rights organizations including the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union; the Kharkiv Human Rights Group and others is blunt: 

„Let us look truth in the eye – this means that the ruling coalition has declared war on civil society.

In view of this we would state that we have no plan to sign a capitulation agreement in a war which we did not begin. We will never agree to have the authorities push us into a social ghetto and pin a sign around our neck saying “foreign agent”, like the Nazis hung a yellow Star of David on Jews during World War II.

To agree in this case to take on the status of a “foreign agent” would on our part be an insult to the memory of our great predecessors – Oleksy Tykhy; Yury Lytvyn; Valery Marchenko; Vasyl Stus; Viacheslav Chornovil who gave their life in fighting for human rights in Ukraine.”

Another “innovation” is the special protection for the “privacy” of law enforcement officers and judges with this including criminal liability for publishing information “of an overtly offensive or disrespectful nature”. 

This, together with the amendments to the recent “amnesty law”, are clearly aimed at protecting Berkut riot police and other law enforcement officers who obey criminal orders, such as during the violent dispersing of peaceful protesters on Nov 30.   It is also likely to be used against courageous journalists, such as Tetyana Chornovol, who expose the sumptuous residences and corrupt dealings of people like the Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, the Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka and many others.

Judges who can be relied on to provide the rulings demanded by those in high places, for example, against political opponents can expect such “protection”.  Worth noting that on Friday the Kyiv Administrative Court of Appeal rejected the appeal by an Ukrainska Pravda journalist Olena Kovalenko against a court refusal to provide the list of ruling majority MPs who allegedly signed highly questionable laws during an even more irregular “travelling parliamentary session” on April 4.  The MPs’ signatures were deemed to be confidential information.  

There are indications that certain members of the president’s administration have resigned, including Serhiy Lyovochkin and probably the president’s press secretary, Darya Chepak.  Lyovochkin was one of those reported as having resigned following the bloody dispersing of protesters on Nov 30.  He stayed then, however, and although now he has ceased to be head of the president’s administration, a decree on the president’s site states that he will now become a presidential adviser.  It may or may not be coincidence that the resignation has also been announced of General Hennady Vorobyov, head of the army’s land forces.  The president would seem to be surrounding himself with those following a pro-Russian approach both in politics and in treatment of civil liberties.  

A large number of civic organizations have called for general mobilization, for people to come out in their masses on Sunday.  Since all that now remains is for the laws to be published, it can be assumed that some degree of enforcement of these new draconian laws will be seen on Jan 19. 

This is a full-frontal offensive against Ukrainian civil society.  The president has demonstrated contempt for the Constitution which he is called upon to protect and the opinion of the international community which was unanimous in calling for a veto on these laws. 

Support is vital during these next weeks and months.  Calls to veto the laws and statements of condemnation have been ignored and this seems unlikely to change.  On the other hand, these measures have been brought in with one clear aim: to crush opposition, freedom of speech and information in order to ensure victory in the 2015 presidential elections.  Help in ensuring that the information channels are not blocked, and Ukraine’s journalists and civic activists are not muffled is still possible, and vitally important.  

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