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Return to Selective Justice Feared in Ukraine over Prosecution of Anti-Corruption Activist

Halya Coynash

A prominent anti-corruption campaigner is facing criminal charges that seem ominously reminiscent of the selective prosecutions seen under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.  While Vitaly Shabunin did indeed punch Vsevolod Filimonenko, the circumstances and effect are by no means straightforward. Questions must also be asked as to why criminal charges have been laid in this case, when they so very often are not despite much clearer grounds, including the involvement of politicians or members of the authorities.  Given all of the above, and other measures directed against Shabunin and his Anti-Corruption Centre [AntAC] over the last year or more, there is no chance of such questions going away without adequate answers.

Initial charges

Shabunin had announced on August 15 that he expected to be charged the following morning with “causing deliberate injury of medium severity to a journalist carrying out his legitimate professional activities”. 

The Ukrainian authorities are often accused, and with cause, of not reacting adequately when journalists are attacked, so the charges at first glance seemed like a move forward. 

This, firstly, was not the reaction of journalists, like Mykhailo Tkach, who has been trying to no avail to get the SBU [Security Service] assailants of him and his colleague prosecuted, with all efforts blocked by the prosecutor’s office.  He is cynical about the motives, and clearly sees the new prosecution as punishment of Shabunin for his criticism of the authorities.  

The second reason is not unrelated.  Most journalists are emphatic that Filimonenko is no journalist, and believe that he was acting as a paid provocateur.  As well as claiming to be a journalist, Filimonenko works as a voluntary aide to Serhiy Melnychuk, a member of Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party, a person who himself has a very mixed reputation.

There was outrage from many prominent journalists, including two who are currently members of parliament – Viktoria Syumar and Mustafa Nayyem, as well as from civic activists.  This prompted the Kyiv Prosecutor’s Office to back down and bring the lesser charge of causing bodily injuries of medium severity.  The message on Facebook suggests that they are still checking whether the more serious charge of violence against a journalist could be laid.

The incident in question took place on June 8 this year.  Shabunin had received a summons to the military recruitment office.  This was at best a baffling misunderstanding, since Shabunin had long not been liable on health grounds.  At worst, it was part of an ongoing campaign against the anti-corruption activist, and one in which Filimonenko has been involved.

Filimonenko had posted a video of Shabunin being handed the summons, claiming that Shabunin had been evading mobilization. 

He was then waiting with one of his companions videoing the encounter when Shabunin drove up.  The activist immediately stated that he did not permit Filimonenko to video him and continued walking.  Filimonenko ran after him and can be heard on the video saying something about Shabunin’s accusation that he had upset Shabunin’s colleague Oleksandra Ustinova. 

Shabunin asserts that he was outraged at Filimonenko’s behaviour towards his young colleague whose friend was killed in the fighting in Donbas.  She had been hounded, he says, by Filimonenko at the airport, with the latter asking her how she could be going on holiday when men were dying. 

It was when Filimonenko spoke of Ustinova that Shabunin punched him once in the face. 

The scene was initially posted on YouTube with no sound and Filimonenko claimed that he had asked Shabunin why the latter was not fighting.  That does not appear to have been the case.

Only Shabunin is facing charges, though there were, in fact, two attacks that day.  After Shabunin left the recruitment office, he was surrounded by journalists, and by Filimonenko.  Shabunin tried to go up to him, accusing him of hounding his colleague.   Filimonenko kept running away, and then suddenly used a pepper spray straight in Shabunin’s face.

Both men called ambulances and the police, however the assertion from Shabunin’s colleagues that Filimonenko rejected hospitalization appears borne out by his appearance and energy as he ran around the crowd of journalists before spraying Shabunin.

Later Filimonenko himself posted a new video of the incident.  He is seen looking worse than he had during his pepper spraying and apparently lying in a hospital bed. He claims that he was the victim of an attack and calls the pepper spraying attack “self-defence”.

For criminal charges to be brought there must be a forensic examination.  Given the counter-attack by a man who did not look badly hurt, it seems relevant when this was obtained. What, if anything, will come of this criminal investigation is unclear, but Shabunin has now been ordered by the court, under a personal undertaking, to not leave the city for two months.  Nothing is said about Filimonenko’s attack on Shabunin.

Ongoing offensive

Suspicion about the willingness of the prosecutor to take on specifically this case, unlike many in which civic activists or journalists have been assaulted, is only exacerbated by previous examples of pressure on AntAC.  In March 2016, the Prosecutor General’s Office obtained a warrant allowing its investigators to remove documents and other items from the NGO, and also to demand access to confidential information from its  bank.  All of this was supposed to be part of an investigation into the disappearance of money donated by US and European partners for reforming the prosecutor’s service. 

The investigation seemed overtly nonsensical and was eventually abandoned. 

It was, however, one of a series of developments which have been viewed by AntAC itself, other civic organizations and, seemingly, international partners, as attempts to put pressure on an NGO fighting corruption.  

One of the thrusts of much of the campaign has been to try to discredit those fighting corruption, by essentially accusing them of corrupt dealings.  AntAC itself reported that the offensive had even included a fake US report about an alleged investigation into suspected fraud by Shabunin, as well as a film shown by a People’s Front MP in parliament on May 23. 

Shabunin and his colleagues have asserted that the SBU is complicity in the campaign to discredit them and that this is because AntAC has applied to the court to force the SBU management to reveal their income declarations. 

A Skhemy Investigative Journalist probe found evidence that the SBU had indeed commissioned one of the many actions aimed at discrediting the NGO.

On August 2, AntAC reported that they had been informed that a criminal investigation had been initiated back on June 9, 2017.  This, the State Fiscal Service stated, was based on a report from a third party regarding an alleged criminal offence by AntAC staff.  There were basically no details at all, and the NGO interpreted the move as aimed at getting access to their documents in the hope of finding something incriminating. 

Ant-AC’s view that this as well as the  numerous attempts to discredit the NGO are forms of pressure aimed at crushing an organization fighting corruption is widely shared.  In a statement issued on August 2, Transparency International in Ukraine demanded an end to “pressure on anti-corruption organizations”.  It called the criminal proceedings against AntAC  the latest attempt at such pressure and condemned as unacceptable “political persecution of civic anti-corruption organizations and the harassment of individual anti-corruption activists”.

Comments from civic activists and journalists following the criminal charges laid against Vitaly Shabunin have echoed this interpretation.

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