(Moscow) - The Ukrainian authorities should immediately return materials and equipment seized from the prominent human rights activist Dmytro Groisman and the organization he leads, and allow the group to resume its lawful human rights activities, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should investigate the unlawful interference in the work of the organization, the Vinnytsya Human Rights Group (VHRG), and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.
Police searched Groisman's apartment and the group's office in Vinnytsya on October 15, 2010, in connection with an alleged investigation into pornography distribution. The organization, of which Groisman is coordinator, documents human rights abuses, including torture and ill-treatment of people in detention and in psychiatric facilities. The organization also assists refugees and asylum seekers as an implementing partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
"The police used this spurious investigation to seize materials related to human rights work and asylum claims," said Rachel Denber, acting Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This is harassment, plain and simple."
Groisman was not home during the search. The officers presented a warrant to Groisman's wife, dated September 22, authorizing the search as part of an investigation into the alleged distribution of pornographic materials.
During the eight-hour search, the police seized all DVDs, flash drives, audio, and video materials they found, including family videotapes, as well as a computer and Groisman's wife's personal laptop. The police also confiscated Groisman's bank cards and folders containing information about several of his organization's current refugee cases, on which Groisman was working from home. The folders included refugee interviews, draft court appeals, copies of migration documents, photographs, migrant registration documents, and other confidential materials.
The search warrant made reference to a link to a video posted by Groisman in May 2010 on his private blog. The video, which was also posted on numerous websites including YouTube and at least one major Ukrainian news website, was an exposé on several Russian opposition politicians compromised by sexual activities.
In his blog posting, Groisman expressed his opposition to Russian government officials' use of information about the private lives of oppositional figures to discredit them. The court order authorizing the search noted that a criminal investigation into pornography distribution was opened on September 21, 2010, but did not name any suspects. No one has been charged in connection with the investigation but Groisman has been named as a witness.
After searching Groisman's apartment, the officers insisted on searching the organization's office, located in the same building, although they had no warrant authorizing the search as required by Ukrainian Criminal Procedure Code. The police threatened to break down the office door unless the two staff members present allowed them to enter.
During the six-hour search of the office, police seized the office's three computers and all paper files, which contained a database of all the organization's case files, including confidential information related to refugee claims and torture cases. They also seized confidential files related to two cases pending before the European Court of Human Rights. Since the search, police have regularly called VHRG's staff to the police station for interrogation sessions, during which the police have mainly questioned them about VHRG's work with asylum seekers.
The majority of refugee clients of VHRG are Somalis. In the months prior to the police search of their office, VHRG had been collecting video and audio testimonies of Somali asylum seekers in Vinnytsya being mistreated, including robbed, beaten, and harassed, by police and other law enforcement bodies in Ukraine, and posting those testimonies on the internet.
"Asylum seekers in Ukraine are already tremendously vulnerable under Ukraine's deeply flawed asylum system," Denber said. "The illegal seizure of these confidential files raises serious concerns about possible police retaliation against asylum seekers."
A Human Rights Watch fact-finding mission in June 2010 revealed a poorly functioning and severely corrupt asylum system that leaves asylum seekers especially vulnerable to abuse. Researchers documented many cases in which asylum seekers had experienced ill-treatment, harassment, and extortion by local police.
Groisman wrote to the Vinnytsya Prosecutor's office on October 19, 2010, requesting an immediate investigation into the police's unlawful actions during the search. The office has not responded to his request, even though it was required by law either to open a criminal investigation or provide written justification for not doing so by October 30.
On October 22, 2010, Ukraine's human rights ombudsperson Nina Karpacheva denounced the actions of Ukrainian authorities toward Groisman's organization during a special parliamentary session dedicated to the 60-year anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Vinnytsya Prosecutor's Office should immediately release all equipment and materials related to the work of VHRG, Human Rights Watch said. The Prosecutor's Office should also order an investigation of the search of the office and hold responsible any officials involved in unlawful harassment or interference with the organization's work.
"The confiscation of the Vinnytsya Human Rights Group's computers and materials has paralyzed the work of the organization." Denber said. "The fact that no one has been charged and no investigations are being conducted into other websites that ran that same video shows that the authorities are using the case as a pretext to disrupt the Vinnytsya Human Rights Group's work and gain unlawful access to its confidential files."
The Ukrainian authorities have previously subjected the VHRG to harassment and pressure. In the summer of 2009, an official from the Vinnytsya police's Human Trafficking Department proposed to Groisman that he "cooperate" with the department by informing it, via a secret telephone line, about the organization's asylum cases, including the names and addresses of asylum seekers. Groisman refused.
The Human Trafficking Department then sent the organization an official request to provide detailed information about all asylum seekers registered in its database since 2007, as well as details about their entry into and progress through Ukraine's asylum procedure. The organization refused to comply as it is bound by a strict confidentiality agreement with each client not to disclose any information to third parties unless specifically authorized to do so.
In February 2010, after the organization publicly condemned the extradition of a Russian citizen to Russia in violation of Ukraine's international obligations, the organization was subject to an inspection by the Vinnytsya police Organized Crime Department. Police alleged that the statement was detrimental to the "international image of Ukraine."
Other Ukrainian human rights activists have also come under pressure in recent months. In May, a disability-rights activist Andrey Fedosov, who was documenting poor living conditions at several governmental psychiatric institutions in the Crimea region, was attacked by unknown assailants and had to be hospitalized. He had received a number of anonymous threats not to publicize his findings. In October, Fedosov was informed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs that it had begun an investigation into the financing of his research activities and ordered him to submit financial documents.