Applauded and Banned
On Tuesday evening President Yanukovych stated on Ukrainian TV that he “applauded” those who had come out in support of European integration. He even clapped his hands.
Such respect for freedom of peaceful assembly is indeed laudable, making it all the more imperative that the president – and the EU – give their attention to the rapidly increasing number of cities in Ukraine which have banned all protest actions. Since these bans are expanding with each new court order, the need is urgent.
As of Nov 26, bans have been imposed, with varying pretexts, in Cherkasy; Luhansk; Dnipropetrovsk; Mykolaiv; Odessa and, if Mayor Gennady Kernes had his way, in Kharkiv. Since the Kharkiv courts have seldom failed to oblige when asked, it may just be a matter of time before Kharkiv also has a fully-fledged ban. At present there is a legally meaningless “directive” from Kernes banning all mass events, supposedly because of the number of flu cases in the city.
Kernes’ concern for the public’s health is something new. Over the last three years Kharkiv has closed down a dangerously large number of its anti-tuberculosis clinics, forcing patients with highly contagious illnesses to travel long distances. Unlike Kernes and his political allies, tuberculosis patients are unlikely to have their own chauffeurs and have to use public transport.
The authorities wisely did not attempt to ban protests altogether in Kyiv and Lviv where tens of thousands are protesting against the suspension of preparations for signing the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, In an attempt, however, to minimize the chances of a repetition of the Orange Revolution, courts obliged the city authorities by banning the use of tents. These have long been a part of Ukrainian protest actions and there is no especial justification for the ban which has been repeated in other cities.
It is not clear whether the authorities fear that the wave of protest will continue, but there has been a noticeable increase in the duration of such court bans. If the Odessa court order, issued at 2 a.m. on Nov. 25 only banned all peaceful protest until the New Year, the Cherkasy City Council managed to get themselves a whole extra month, with the ban on all demonstrations running until January 25, 2014.
The date is curious for another reason. In justifying the application to the courts for a ban, acting mayor of Cherkasy, Viktor Bilousov claimed that there was a serious risk of provocation and that these could obstruct the course of the election re-run in the 2 Cherkasy oblast problem constituencies. Bilousov may have been taken with his own eloquence, but someone should have checked the calendar. The elections are scheduled for Dec. 15, 2013; the ban extends to Jan. 25 next year.
The president would also be well-advised to see how peaceful protesters have been treated around the country. In Dnipropetrovsk, for example, there were clear signs of close coordination between the police, the city authorities and a gang of thugs probably paid to beat up the European integration supporters. The thugs appeared at the site of the Dnipropetrovsk EuroMaidan in the early hours of Tuesday morning just after the remaining 25 protesters were informed by an official of a blanket ban on such protests. The police, present throughout the protest, drove off just before the court order was read out. They appeared again only after around 40 athletic thugs attacked, knocking down and kicking the protesters and destroying the tents. Five of the protesters were beaten unconscious and taken by ambulance to hospital. A similar degree of questionable coordination and violence was seen a day earlier in Odessa.
There have already been scuffles and confrontations during the Kyiv EuroMaidan, and the Kyiv Prosecutor’s Office has initiated various criminal investigations. Responsibility for such instances may well be shared, and any situation involving crowds of people carries the risk of getting out of control. The potential human cost of a real escalation is huge, and for that reason investigation into the strange activities outside the President’s Administration on Nov 24 seems particularly warranted. Radio Svoboda reported then that people were being lined up and sent off in the direction of Independence Square where a massive demonstration was taking place in support of European integration. The people gathered, many of them of an interesting appearance, all refused to say what they were doing, while those forming the groups responded very aggressively to the Radio Svoboda journalist’s questions.
The European Court of Human Rights has twice this year found violation by Ukraine of the right to peaceful assembly and has pointed to an almost total lack of legislative regulation. It is, put most bluntly, a free for all, with the courts in the vast majority of cases allowing applications from the authorities to ban peaceful protest. Words about applauding people’s right to freely express their views on European integration are manifestly not enough.