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Fighting terrorism or pluralism?

15.06.2012    source:
Halya Coynash
There are disturbing echoes in a recent National Defence and Security Council Decision of the so-called fight against extremism in neighbouring Russia where the terms “terrorism” and “extremism” are used in a dangerously imprecise and loose manner.

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President Yanukovych has issued a decree ordering implementation of a National Defence and Security Council Decision ostensibly aimed at heightening measures against terrorism in Ukraine.  The “manifestations of terrorism” listed in the Decision in the light of increasing encroachments on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly cannot fail to arouse concern.

The Decision’s assertion regarding a “heightened terrorist threat in Ukraine” will be addressed later. First, let’s see what is understood as terrorism.

“The main reasons for terrorism are radicalism; extremism; politicization of issues concerning inter-ethnic, ethno-faith relations; the spread of public intolerance and confrontation, particularly with respect to socio-political relations; as well as the negative impact of international terrorist and religious-extremist organizations.

Radically disposed forces are attempting to use difficulties linked with the accumulation of many unresolved social problems for their narrow corporate aims.

Displays of a terrorist nature cause considerable harm to the life and health of citizens and render ineffectual the efforts of the country’s leadership aimed at modernizing society.”

There are clear echoes here of similar moves in neighbouring Russia where the terms “terrorism” and “extremism” have over recent years been used in a dangerously imprecise and loose manner.  The range of words or deeds which are, according to Ukraine’s Defence and Security Council, “terrorist” is also disturbingly broad.  It is not difficult to imagine how “the spread of public intolerance and confrontation, particularly with respect to socio-political relations” could be used against the opposition during an election campaign.  The third paragraph above, with the inexplicable “displays of a terrorist nature” seem particularly suited to abuse.

The Decision envisages preparation by 31 August of a Concept Framework for Fighting Terrorism and other measures which deserve scrutiny precisely because of the all-purpose definition given of terrorism. The Cabinet of Ministers is also instructed to draw up amendments to laws enabling, among other things, dissolution of “terrorist” organizations, and extra powers to law enforcement bodies.

So what is this heightened risk of terrorism in Ukraine?

In November 2011 President Yanukovych stated that opponents of the authorities were amassing weapons for attacks on bodies of power.  This was widely reported, unlike the demand from a prominent member of the opposition BYUT faction in parliament, Mykola Tomenko that the Security Service and Police provide evidence.

Almost immediately Ukraine’s increasingly subservient media began reporting that the police were finding huge numbers of weapons held by members of the public.  The lack of any connection between the President’s very serious, and totally unsubstantiated, allegations and firearms held by individuals was never addressed, , with the second news story quietly replacing the first.

Worth noting also that on 23 November 2011 the District Administrative Court in Donetsk banned a protest by former Chornobyl clean-up workers “due to the threat of a terrorist attack”.  The court accepted the vaguest of statements from the police as cited by the City Council in applying for the ban.  No terrorist attack was reported, nor was it ever clear how a demonstration by former Chornobyl clean-up workers outside the Regional Pension Fund could be linked to any such “threat”.

The Dnipropetrovsk bombing which injured 27 people on 27 April 2012 has supposedly been solved with the police asserting that the bombs were planted to extort money.  The bombing occurred as world attention was focused on imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko’s allegations that she had been beaten in prison and ever louder calls for a boycott of Euro 2012 in protest at politically motivated prosecution of opponents.  The enforcement bodies and the President declared that the crime had been solved and the perpetrators arrested just days before the Euro 2012 Championship was due to begin. These details and others have spurred rumours and sceptical commentary regarding the case.

The arrests in March this year in Odessa have unfortunately received considerably less press after a first flurry of superficial reports. We learned then that criminal proceedings had been initiated under Article 161 § 1 of the Criminal Code (inciting racial and religious enmity) against the leaders of an Islamic organization called Direct Path.  The Prosecutor claimed that members of the organization had distributed literature aimed at inciting inter-ethnic enmity as well as “carrying out prohibited religious activity”, and that an Egyptian and Syrian, , both with Ukrainian citizenship, had been remanded in custody. The reporting was typically sloppy with some publications claiming that weapons and / or explosive devices had been found at the men’s homes, others reporting officials as saying that such information “was being checked”.  The men appear to still be in custody, yet the ongoing investigation appears to be only about incitement to enmity, an article with no link to terrorism, attempted murder etc.  

The reports also claim that an “expert assessment” has found that a brochure entitled “Violation of Monotheism” contains calls to religious enmity.  It is asserted that the material pushes “the ideology of the Islamic fundamental Vakkhabit movement which uses radical political means with respect to members of other religions”. It is difficult to know what exactly is meant by this, and it is also disturbing that the same vague and unclear term “vakkhabit” is being used as in Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation despite very little definite information. Vakkhabism appears to be a movement within the Sunni tradition which calls for a return to the faith’s origins. Uzbekistan the charge of being part of this movement is often laid against Muslims whom Karimov’s regime has long been persecuting. 

Over recent weeks the Security Service has carried out searches of the homes of people it considers to be linked with Direct Path. The NGO Human Rights Movement of the Crimea can name and provide the written statements regarding 14 such searches, and believes the figure to be higher. All pertain to the investigation over Article 161, incitement to racial enmity.  Somebody has provided a supposedly expert assessment of religious literature finding that it incites religious enmity.  It is not clear why, nor what qualifications the person giving the assessment has. With so little transparency, it is hardly surprising that many Ukrainian Muslims feel that they are under attack. .. 

Intelligence services in all countries are reticent in how much they reveal to the public – and rightly so if divulgence would further endanger human lives.  In Ukraine where the authorities initiate criminal investigations, conceal or divulge information for their own ends, confidence is strained.  We remain with a very blurred picture of what, if any, is the real threat of terrorism in Ukraine, with a National Security Council Decision which defines terrorism in disturbingly broad terms – and parliamentary elections on the horizon. 

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