war crimes in Ukraine

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Open threats and covert plans as ‘hostage law’ deadline nears

Halya Coynash
Repressive measures and overt blackmail as the deadline for compliance with a so-called ‘amnesty law’ approaches have coincided with ominous reports of plans for extending police powers to curtail peaceful protest if the conditions are not met.

Ukraine’s enforcement bodies are stepping up repressive measures and overt blackmail as the deadline for compliance with a so-called ‘amnesty law’ approaches.  Put most crudely, this law proposes to drop criminal charges against EuroMaidan protesters if all other EuroMaidan activists throughout the country give up their protests and go home.  In the meantime, there are ominous reports of plans for extending police powers to curtail peaceful protest if the conditions are not met. 

The  law was pushed through by president Viktor Yanukovych on Jan 29, against an unusual degree of resistance from generally subservient Party of the Regions MPs.  It was condemned by lawyers, human rights groups and others from the outset as a ‘hostage law’.  The last few days have made it clear that this term should be understood quite literally.  The weekend brought last numbers of new arrests of activists in the regions.  A number of extremely questionable criminal prosecutions against AutoMaidan activists  (who have used their cars to protect injured protesters from possible abduction, bring supplies to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, etc) over alleged ‘hooliganism’ have been changed to the much more serious charge of ‘organizing mass disturbances’. 

Just in case anybody be slow on the uptake, both the Kyiv regional chief prosecutor Mykhailo Vityaz and deputy chief police investigator Oleh Tatarov spelled it all out at press briefings.  Vityaz, for example, explained that the law must be enforced by Feb 17 and then felt the need to “point out that the crimes that they are accused of are serious crimes and the punishment envisaged involves long terms of imprisonment.’  He did not see it as necessary to explain why many of these so-called ‘crimes’ were until just days earlier deemed ‘hooliganism’.

The threats are likely to intimidate some protesters, however the decision announced on Feb 11 by the Maidan National Council that the conditions of the law could only be fulfilled after those detained have been released was to be expected.

Media reports of Cabinet of Ministers plans published on Tuesday and the fact that they supplement highly worrying government decrees slipped in on Jan 22  arouse the disturbing suspicion that the rejection of the conditions was fully expected.  

Dzerkalo Tyzhnya cites its own sources within the Interior Ministry in reporting that ‘a list of territories and streets in Kyiv where additional measures to protect citizens’ safety shall be applied’ has been passed to the Cabinet of Ministers for adoption. The list would be a supplement to Cabinet of Ministers Decree No. 12 from Jan 22 which allows police bodies who have received “information about possible infringements of public order; the threat of extremist activities; violation of legislation during rallies; meetings; street processions and demonstrations” to temporarily restrict transport on various roads, etc., as well as citizens’ access to particular buildings or areas.  That decree and others also increase the range of methods which Berkut riot police can use, and remove all previous restrictions on the use of water cannons in freezing temperatures.

The list effectively allows the police to block access to all parts of the centre, including those areas, such as Hrushevsky St, where the protesters now have barricades.  The plan would be to impose a ‘special regime’ in Kyiv.  Dzerkalo Tyzhnya writes that “the document is of a secret nature. The meaning of the term ‘additional measures to protect citizens’ safety’ is not explained.”  Their source asserts that the document is an attempt to formalize police officers’ right to block the capital’s streets; to restrict freedom of movement in the capital; and to detain people who the police believe ‘pose a threat to citizens’ safety’.  As the experience over the last four years of court bans on peaceful assembly has demonstrated, what is a danger to public safety can be understood broadly enough to cover any peaceful protests. 

This ‘special regime’ would, according to the newspaper’s source, be imposed when the deadline for compliance with the Jan 29 law had passed. 

It should be said that even if this report from an unnamed source were inaccurate, the Cabinet of Ministers resolutions of Jan 22 have already dangerously extended police powers and increased the likelihood that these will be used to suppress peaceful protest.

The ‘deal’ offered in the Jan 29 law was always suspect and the chances that the EuroMaidan protesters would agree to give up and go home for the sake of a promise which might easily be broken, were remote.   If the regime was buying time, then this could be, as some analysts have warned, because the Sochi Olympics will then be coming to an end.  Russia would no longer need to fear a boycott were it to play a more active role in suppressing protest.  Even if this scenario is too pessimistic, the government decrees of Jan 22 make it worryingly clear that any time ‘bought’ by the obviously doomed ‘hostage law’ will not have been wasted.  

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