war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

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“The State always nurtures the desire for control”

An interview given to the newspaper "Without censorship" by Yevhen Zakharov in which he touches on human rights and political issues of the present day

What in your view are the most pressing issues confronting human rights activists these days?

Yevhen Zakharov:  I would divide violations into more and less dangerous. There is interference from the state which has a significant impact on the future. For example, one threat lies in constant attempts to restrict the freedom of the information flow and control of the Internet.

Another serious danger I see as being violence from the law enforcement bodies, meaning the use of torture or beating. When such thing take place, they generate an attitude towards ill-treatment as something permissible which can be applied for a good purpose. Having once allowed such treatment of criminals, one can very quickly move towards other people. It’s not for nothing that in Russia they talk of the Chechen syndrome.

A further serious problem is that of the enormous rift between rich and poor. There is a principle described in Rawls’ work “A Theory of Justice” that inequality is good for everybody.  The meaning of this is that if one person has become rich, then all others should be at least a little better off as a consequence.  There is none of that in Ukraine. At least a fifth of the population live in very difficult circumstances. In comparison with developed countries the gap is over 5 – 10 times. A country cannot be prosperous when many people can only just survive. From here the inability to study properly and get medical treatment follows. Colossal problems are presented by the lack of an independent judiciary and the violation of the right to privacy.

The State always nurtures the desire for control.  It can reach the point where a person’s whole life enters the state’s information database. Everything is heading in that direction. They want to make the tax number the single universal code for a person. They’ll gather data under that number about income, property, credit history, trips, family, show much money the person has saved, after the introduction of electronic medical cards – the person’s state of health. Everything will be known!  It will take one minute to receive a full dossier on a person, and this is what one calls a police state.

- In Soviet times the system was opposed by people whom the thinking part of society listened to. Why is the voice of human rights defenders not as significant as it was before?

The point is that previously human rights activists formed the embryo of civic society. They were the single channel through which people who didn’t support the regime could pass on the signal that the regime was not as it should be. Also they were persecuted, and seen as martyrs, and therefore enjoyed the support of a particular part of the population.

These days outside of the state there are many different channels, say, business or journalism where a person can find self-fulfilment.  Human rights activists have found their niche and represent a kind of intellectual opponent of the authorities. They are the force which forces the state to recognize what constitutes the public interest and forces them to comply with this. In that capacity they are heeded, although not of course to the extent that one would wish. In general the objective in human rights work is to minimize organizational violence committed by the state. The problem is that the state is constantly trying to broaden this zone. The state and civic society are there adversaries, and human rights organizations, as a particular avant-garde points out what is inadmissible.

In actual fact everything depends on the general level of society in the country and the level of violence which is generally considered to be acceptable.
In Belarus it is considered normal if a journalist is imprisoned for his/her professional activities. In Ukraine such things are already impossible. Yet the President of one African country, Banda, confiscated all televisions in the country, and watched it himself, since neighbouring countries were talking about what a dictator he was. In North Korea up till now they execute people for criticizing the leader. It is all relative.

Human rights activists are like geese – they make a lot of noise when they sense danger. Each time when something happens that is beyond what society would deem admissible, human rights activists protest. Their task is to increase the expanse of freedom, limiting the extent of unwarranted interference.

- Maidan aroused in people the hope that Civic society would develop. Has there been any real change since then?

First of all people’s thinking has changed. The fear has disappeared. Many have begun asserting their interests where before they were frightened to try. Could one even imagine before the struggle against illegal construction or the tariffs on communal services? People go on demonstrations, organize alternative hearings. There have even been cases where people have succeeded in preventing the increase in those tariffs.

You have from the outset consistently spoken out against the “political reform” [the constitutional amendments of December 2004].  What are the dangers and what would you suggest doing?

The main danger is that politicians work on the principle of expediency, and totally ignore principles of law. The Constitution is constantly violated. Abuses have reached an absurd level when it’s considered that all that is today profitable is allowed. The presumption is that we’re the majority, that’s how it will be.

Yet there are fundamental things which must not be violated or else all goes wrong. One can argue for a long time about which system is better. I for example believe that a presidential republic is closer to for Ukrainians’ mentality. The people need to know who the hetman is and we don’t yet have normal parties for a parliamentary republic. Whatever they create, it ends up the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but that’s not even the main point.

Yes, the Constitution needs to be changed, but you can’t infringe procedure as happened here. Kuchma at the last moment pushed through this time bomb and as a result now we have contradictions ripping the country apart. I think that the present government cannot co-exist with this society since those methods which are now being applied won’t work.  The public simply won’t tolerate them.

Already now with the return to power of the Kuchma clan violations are increasing in the area of freedom of speech, and business enterprise. The Azarov style of control is returning when the tax bodies have planned numbers of fines and from there begin to look for infringements. It seems to me that the contradictions cannot be ironed out, and they will constantly increase. There is one choice – to get the political reform  quashed via the Constitutional Court, otherwise things will get even worse.

As a participant in the discussion of the Declaration of National Unity, why in your opinion has it remained on paper?

For all political forces, especially the Party of the Regions, they were words which meant nothing. The President is quite different from them, and he treats the words must more seriously. Yushchenko really wants everything to be according to the law. The Declaration for him was an attempt to unite the nation. He worked on the assumption that for the sake of this main thing, one could ignore secondary differences. For him consolidation was natural, for all the others it was a political game and no more. Yushchenko is at core a democrat, and whether it is possible to be a democrat president in a country without democratic institutions and traditions is a big question.

What do you think, has the level of awareness in society reached the stage where democratic transformations are inevitable?

The likelihood of a move back is small. If there are no strong external influences, then Ukraine will gradually become a democratic state. A quick start is already impossible, unfortunately, time has been lost. In the country at the molecular level, in the subconscious a corruption-based attitude to reality has become entrenched. This is very difficult to break. When they say that in Ukraine tax evasion is the national sport, this is true.

Disregard of the law is widespread, from crossing the road against the lights and not paying in public transport to more serious things. I don’t think that one can imagine any kinds of patterns which could ensure the swift change in social relations while retaining the former worldview. The problem is that our collective subconscious is democratic, while our upbringing in the majority of cases is Soviet, although people are generally wiser than politicians. They vote all the time against the authorities whatever they’re like. That is a good antidote against dictatorship. Ukrainian individualism which is so often criticized turns out in this case to be useful.

It is another issue that in terms of development of the Internet, we are second to last in Europe, with only Belarus worse. In Ukraine there are places where there isn’t even central television, only the radio.

There is terrible inequality in access to information. Very much depends on where a person lives: in the capital or in a rural area. The difference is massive. However the European vector will be retained because rich people keep their money in western banks and will never reject the chance to travel abroad and spend holidays there. It’s another matter that the transformations will drag on for a long time due to the problems with human rights that we have mentioned.


Interview taken by Vladimir Chistilin

The newspaper “Bez tsenzury” [“Without censorship”]

7 November 2006

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