Prisoners of conscience and rights of LGBTI: human rights in Ukraine
Amnesty International Report highlighted the spheres of the most frequent human rights violations in Ukraine: Donbas conflict, trail in Crimea, impunity for war crimes, investigating violations during Euromaidan, discrimination against LGBTI people, violation of freedom of speech
The Amnesty International Report 2015/16 documents the state of the world’s human rights during 2015. Ukraine's year began with intense fighting in the east of the country between separatist proRussian and Ukrainian forces and ended with sporadic fire interrupting a precarious ceasefire.
In January and February, heavy fighting resumed in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas, as Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk sought to advance and straighten their frontline. Amid heavy military losses, Ukrainian forces ceded control over Donetsk airport and the area around the town of Debaltseve. More evidence emerged of Russia heavily backing separatist fighters with manpower and military weaponry, although it continued to deny direct military involvement. In February, an internationally mediated agreement was reached between the Ukrainian government and the de facto authorities of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics; a fragile ceasefire ensued.
In September, both sides pulled back heavy weaponry, but mortar and small gunfire exchanges were still occurring at the end of the year, resulting in further casualties. According to UN figures, the death toll exceeded 9,000 by the end of the year, including approximately 2,000 civilians. Over 2.5 million people were displaced, including 1.1 million outside Ukraine.
On 8 September, Ukraine referred the situation in Donbass to the ICC, when it lodged a declaration accepting the Court’s jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on its territory from 20 February 2014. However, Parliament failed to ratify the Rome Statute. Right-wing groups, which had received negligible electoral support following the EuroMaydan protests in 2014, were implicated in a series of violent incidents. In July, armed paramilitaries from the nationalist organization Pravy Sektor () were involved in a shoot-out with police in the Zakarpattya region, resulting in three deaths. In August, during a protest organized by the non-parliamentary right-wing Svoboda party in front of Parliament, four National Guard officers were killed by a grenade. Several Svoboda activists were arrested.
Local elections were held in October and November in government-controlled territory. However, voting was postponed until later in the year in the city of Mariupol, and was not held in several towns and villages across eastern and southern Ukraine due to security concerns.
On 20 September, activists opposed to the Russian occupation of Crimea established checkpoints at the land border with Crimea, halting the overland delivery of food and other goods from mainland Ukraine. On 20 November, four electric power lines that provided over 70% of electricity to Crimea were blown up by unknown individuals, causing a blackout across the peninsula. Repair teams dispatched by the Ukrainian authorities to restore the line were blocked by anti-occupation activists. On 8 December, the blockade was lifted but power lines were not fully operational before the end of the year. Ukraine’s GDP contracted by over 12%; its currency lost over half of its value in US dollar terms, bringing further hardship to a majority of Ukrainians. Living conditions in the separatist-controlled areas continued to deteriorate markedly, with restrictions on the movement of people and goods tightened further by the authorities in Kyiv.
A Pride march was held in Kyiv on 6 June, following extensive negotiations between organizers and the authorities. Before and after the march, President Petro Poroshenko spoke out strongly in support of LGBTI people’s right to freedom of assembly. However, the police agreed to provide protection just one day before the event.
Dozens of right-wing activists broke through police lines and attacked the march. Ten participants and three policemen were injured, and 25 attackers were arrested and later released. Pride organizers received threatening messages on their mobiles and online.
Four criminal cases against antiLGBTI protesters were opened and were still ongoing at the end of the year. In August, a court in Odessa banned a proposed Pride march, citing the “threat to public order” and participants’ safety. Instead, the organizers held a smaller, indoor LGBTI festival on 15 August, during which several masked men hurled firecrackers and smoke bombs at the organizers’ office. On 12 November, Parliament introduced amendments to labour laws, prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. The move, requested by the EU as part of the visa liberalization process with Ukraine, had long been resisted by the Ukrainian legislature. The amendments were signed into law by the President on 23 November.
There was no effective investigation into six cases of suspected enforced disappearances of Crimean Tatar activists in 2014 and one confirmed case of abduction, torture and killing. This was despite a plethora of evidence, including video footage, strongly suggesting that pro-Russian paramilitaries from the so-called “Crimean self-defence force” were responsible for at least some of these crimes. Freedoms of expression, assembly and association continued to be curtailed under the de facto administration in Crimea, after its occupation and annexation by Russia in 2014.
Those expressing pro-Ukrainian sympathies faced harsh reprisals. The Crimean Tatar community was particularly affected: its public events were regularly banned, Crimean Tatar-language media outlets were forced to close down and their leaders were subjected to regular house searches and faced criminal prosecution and detention on politically motivated charges.
The Crimean Tatar Mejlis, a representative body elected by members of the community, faced further reprisals. Its current leader, Ahtem Chiygoz, was arrested on 29 January and accused of having organized “mass disturbances” on 26 February 2014. The de facto authorities repeatedly warned that the Mejlis could be designated as an extremist group under Russian law. The two previous Mejlis leaders, Mustafa Dzhemiliev and Refat Chubarov, remained officially barred from their homeland.
On 28 October, the de facto Prosecutor of Crimea announced that Chubarov could return, after a court in the city of Simferopol had ordered his arrest on 6 October for “calls against the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”. The Crimean Tatar-language TV channel ATR was forced to stop broadcasting on 1 April, when the deadline for its reregistration under Russian laws expired. It had applied for re-registration at least four times and was consistently denied it arbitrarily.
ATR resumed broadcasting from mainland Ukraine, but its reporters were no longer able to work in Crimea openly. On 9 March, Aleksandr Kravchenko, Leonid Kuzmin and Veldar Shukurdzhiev were arrested at a small street gathering in Simferopol intended to celebrate the 201st anniversary of the birth of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, at which they used national symbols such as yellow and blue ribbons. They were taken to a police station, released after three hours and sentenced to 40 hours of community labour each, for violating rules of public assembly. They subsequently faced harassment by members of the anti-extremism police unit, including arrests and informal interrogations.
Kuzmin also lost his job as a history teacher. Contrary to international humanitarian law, Crimean anti-occupation activists Oleg Sentsov and Olexander Kolchenko were put on trial outside Crimea. They were tried under Russian law in a military court in the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, and sentenced to 20 and 10 years’ imprisonment respectively, under disproportionate terrorism-related charges. Their trials were unfair and based on testimony allegedly extracted under torture. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation on 24 November.
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