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Prison officials in Vinnitsia, Ukraine, should immediately withdraw a lawsuit against a prominent Ukrainian human rights organization, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Lenin district court in Vinnitsia, a city in southwestern Ukraine, will hold preliminary hearings on July 28, 2008 in a lawsuit filed by the Strizhav Prison No. 81 against the Vinnitsia Human Rights Group on June 26. Prison officials accuse the organization of damaging the “honor, dignity, and professional reputation” of the prison and the prison staff. The basis for the lawsuit is two press releases published by the Vinnitsia Human Rights Group alleging torture and ill-treatment of detainees at Strizhav Prison No. 81. Officials from the prison denied the allegations.

“The prison is suing the Vinnitsia Human Rights Group to try to stop its legitimate work of reporting allegations of torture,” said Jane Buchanan, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The case could set a dangerous precedent of government officials looking to suppress activities and speech critical of them.”

The Vinnitsia Human Rights Group has been documenting human rights abuses, including torture and ill-treatment in detention facilities, since 2001. The lawsuit cites two of the organization’s recent press releases as having infringed on the honor, dignity, and professional reputation of the prison and its staff. In the press releases, the Vinnitsia Human Rights Group claims to have received information about severe beatings and suicides of several detainees in Strizhav Prison No. 81, as well as one other facility in Ukraine. The organization called on government officials to investigate the allegations and to allow for greater access for nongovernmental organizations and lawyers to the prisons. While the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office has made some initial inquiry into the allegations, it has not yet conducted the effective inquiry as required by the international law.

“Raising public awareness through legitimate criticism of government actions is a fundamental part of human rights work,” Buchanan said. “We know the Ukrainian authorities don’t always welcome allegations of abuse. But governments trying to prevent torture should encourage reporting of complaints, not retaliate against human rights defenders.”

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs. The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that, “Citizens also take part in the conduct of public affairs by exerting influence through public debate.” States also have obligations specifically relating to protecting and ensuring the right of human rights defenders to do their work. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders states that everyone has the right to promote the protection and realization of human rights and that individuals or groups have the right to articulate criticism and make proposals for improving the work of government bodies, among other rights.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantee free speech. Government officials are expected to be more tolerant of criticism than private citizens, especially when it concerns the carrying out of their official duties.

Human Rights Watch said that while freedom of expression is subject to regulation in order to protect the rights or reputations of others, reporting allegations of torture and calling on the government to respond is protected speech.

The Strizhav Prison No. 81 lawsuit also cites independent media stories reporting a physical attack on Dmitro Groisman, director of the Vinnitsia Human Rights Group, which took place on May 23. Late in the evening an unidentified man waiting in the stairwell of Groisman’s apartment building approached Groisman as he arrived home and asked for him by name. The man began to punch Groisman and was joined by a second man who also punched and kicked him. An investigation was opened into the attack and is pending. One article named in the suit states that during the investigator’s official questioning of Groisman following the attack he was asked who might wish to harm him. Groisman replied that he believed someone from the Vinnitsia prison system might have such a motive.

The lawsuit also cites an official letter from the Ukrainian representative to the European Court of Human Rights responding to one of the Vinnitsia Human Rights Group’s press releases. The representative calls on the Strizhav Prison No. 81 officials to address the allegations of abuse or risk applications to the European Court of Human Rights from detainees.

Although Groisman is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, Strizhav Prison No. 81 demands a public retraction and 100,000 hryvna (US$21,700) in moral damages from him, and compensation for legal costs.

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