Brutal protest suppression, but another Ukrainian spring is coming

Seven years ago the Orange Revolution erupted. History of the events already resembles a folk tale. Some adamantly believe that the Revolution was a set-up, that there was a price for going out to protest and that the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko[1] was a media stunt. I know others who wholeheartedly believed in change and went to the protests every day, engaged in discussion or, like my hairdresser, simply brought fried chicken legs for their politically active offspring. Most likely, your version of events (and perhaps the events themselves) will differ, depending on your political convictions and perhaps your location in relation to the river Dnipro.    

The truth, seven years on, is almost irrelevant. The government that had the weight of expectation to be the change did take some positive steps to improve social security and the rule of law, but what they are mostly remembered for is the Tymoshenko gas scandal.[2] The opposition wasted no time in using that to their advantage in gaining votes and the minimal steps of progress have swiftly been undone.[3]  Violations of human rights, corruption and “street law” continue to operate. And the citizens are on their way to breaking point again.

One recent event made waves in public consciousness and lead to a strong reaction. On June the 26th, two police officers and a taxi driver allegedly pulled Irina Krashkova, a 29-year-old woman into a car in the village of Vradiyivka in Mykolayiv region and took her to a nearby forest. According to the victim, the men then raped, beat and left her. She was able to find her way to the nearest hospital and give evidence to the police.[4] Whilst two of the men were detained, one of the police officers, Dmitro Polishchuk, allegedly had an alibi of being on duty at the time.[5] Later it became evident that the police department had a back exit, which the officer could have used to avoid the security cameras. [6] The very same officer is the godson of the head of Internal Affairs in the Mykolayiv region. It was also made public that one of the officers was the nephew of a country prosecutor.[7]

On the 30st of June 2013, over 300 residents of Vradiyivka approached the regional police department, demanding the arrest of the police officer. The reaction was triggered by the inadequacy of police investigations and corruption, as the aforementioned officers have been suspected to be involved in more crimes.[8] Later that evening the protest moved to the regional court building. The situation heated, as none of the public officials agreed to face the protesters. The next day, the regional police department was stormed and tear gas was used to hold the protesters back.[9]  A number of activists were taken to hospital. The very next day, evidently as a reaction to the public outrage, the officer in question was detained. On the 22 of July, forensic evidence confirmed the involvement of all three in the crime. [10]

Another reactionary response was that the President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych decided to personally monitor the case.[11]The Interior Minister removed Valentin Parsenyuk from his post as head of the regional police department.[12] An investigation into the functioning of the police department is still on-going. The government is painting the story as an isolated incident, one that is being investigated, but if one looks at reports of prominent Ukrainian NGOs,[13] what has come out is only the very tip of the iceberg.

Over the next 2 weeks protests erupted in fourteen cities and towns all over Ukraine.[14] The common thread in all the protests was outrage at corruption and collusion between the police and the judiciary – the message “All Ukraine is Vradiyivka” was painted on signs and placards. For instance, on the 18th of July, residents of Zaporizhya went out to voice their support for the human rights activist Rayisa Radchenko, who was forcibly detained in a psychiatric hospital. [15]

On the same day, the protesters from Vradiyivka reached the Independence Square at the center of the capital. A number of residents organized the “Vradiyivs’ka hoda”[16], a walk from the village to the center of the capital, in order to raise awareness of the campaign.  One of the protesters, Skobel’skaya Irina, found out about the campaign though social media. Her and her husband joined the walk at Fastov and walked to Kyiv, in a group of about 30 people; another group walked from Kirovograd. They met in Kyiv, at the Independence Square at about 4 pm on the 18th of July. The minister of internal affairs, Vitaliy Zaharchenko, briefly met a number of activists and members of the opposition that morning, but since the opposition organized the affair, the Vradiyivsky protesters were not involved.

Many residents of the capital went out to show their support that evening, forming a group of about 500 people. At 23:30, the lights on the square were turned off as a team of Special Forces “kettled” the protesters.[17] They began to take individuals by their hands and feet and to beat others. A number of journalists were injured. In particular, three Channel 5 journalists were beaten, their cameras broken.[18] The two tents that the protesters put up, containing their belongings, were also destroyed. The belongings were never returned to the individuals. Many protesters were detained and imprisoned or fined for taking part.[19] The leader of the protest was in custody for a period of a ten days for organizing an unsanctioned protest.[20] Irina’s husband was also detained, taken by his hands and feet and thrown into the van, under the excuse that he was crossing a road in a prohibited place. According to her, another 11 people were detained. The actions of the police were based a court decision, denying a request of the citizens to assemble. The court decision in question is based on an outdated Soviet law[21] that requires permission to be granted for peaceful protests that was in place during the transition period following the declaration of independence of Ukraine. The law is clearly for a different purpose, is in contravention with Article 39 of the Ukrainian Constitution and is now invalid.  Therefore, since the decision is not prescribed by law, it is in contravention of Articles 11 and 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Despite the decision against Ukraine in the case of Vyerentsov v Ukraine under similar facts, behavior of state organs in suppression of peaceful protests continues to be viewed as a norm. The courts of first instance continue to prosecute its participants. The positive obligation of the state organs to guarantee protection and opportunity for peaceful protest clearly stated by the Plattform "Ärzte für das Leben" (Doctors for the Right to Life) v. Austria case is thus being ignored.

The protests continued for a week. The following Saturday morning, the police returned to the Square and detained more of its participants.[22] They were given no warning. Irina was taken to the regional police department, for allegedly “violating public order,” with no mention of what actions she had taken to be accused of such. She was held there for over four hours without food or water. She was then told to go to a court hearing, for which she had no time to prepare. Irina was told to represent herself, because she is a human rights activist, which was a violation of her right to an adequate defense, a fundamental feature of a fair trial as stated in Krombach v. France, no. 29731/96, § 89, ECHR 2001-II). She also had no opportunity to investigate the accusations against her. This is clearly in contravention with the ECHR case-law on the right to fair trial, as the accused was not provided with “adequate time and facilities for the preparation of [her] defense”.[23] Irina refused to attend the hearing.

Irina and her husband own a family business. I asked her what motivated her to leave that behind and take what is now almost a month in activism.  She told me that her son has now been in prison for seven years. He was falsely accused of murder and is serving a life sentence with no opportunity for review. Despite having found new evidence in support of her son, she fought a long and unsuccessful battle with the judiciary system to review her son’s case. She hopes the protest movement will bring about some change to the system that has affected her family so much.

The sheer scope of the public reaction that is so strong, and so widespread, shows a real dissatisfaction with the injustice of the state organs. It also shows a desire for change.

The state suppression of the protests on the other hand, shows a desire to control and channel political engagement of the public. It shows a desire to scare back to the status quo.

It shows no desire to comply with international human rights obligations.

The organisers of the Vradiyivsky protests are now planning an all-Ukrainian mass protest campaign to begin on the 10th of October 2013.[24] Irina will be there, and I hope I will see it too. Seven years on, there is another bushfire of hope in the Ukrainian consciousness. In the words of Pablo Neruda, “you can kill all the flowers, but you cannot keep the spring from coming”.






















[21] see The Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of 28 July 1988 on the procedure for organising and holding meetings, rallies, street marches and demonstrations in the USSR (the 1988 Decree) that states The executive committee of the Soviet of people’s deputies shall ban a meeting, rally, street procession or demonstration if the goal of the event in question is contrary to the Constitution of the USSR, the Constitutions of the Republics of the Union or of the autonomous republics or poses a threat to the public order and safety of citizens.” and The Resolution of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine of 12 September 1991 on temporary application of certain legislative acts of the Soviet Union that provides that “ … before the relevant legislation of Ukraine is enacted, the legislation of the USSR shall be applicable within the territory of the republic in respect of issues that have not been regulated by the legislation of Ukraine and in so far as they do not contravene the Constitution and legislation of Ukraine.”


[23] See Can v. Austria, 30 September 1985, § 53, Series A no. 96; Connolly v. the United Kingdom (dec.), no. 27245/95, 26 June 1996; and Mayzit v. Russia, no. 63378/00, § 78, 20 January 2005



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