Anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin. 

© 2016 Private
(Kyiv) – Attacks on activists and government critics proliferated in Ukraine during 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019.

The Ukrainian government did little to prevent or punish the attacks or to stem rising violence against minority communities, including Roma and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. It continued restrictions on freedom of expression and information, and on the media, invoking as justification a need to counter Russia’s military aggression in eastern Ukraine and anti-Ukraine propaganda.

“Ukraine has been backsliding on protecting human rights,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “As Ukraine prepares for elections, voters should reflect on how they expect their elected representatives and government to protect and promote everyone’s rights, and on the dangers posed by the government’s weak response to nationalist violence.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

Members of groups that advocate hate and discrimination against minorities, including against Roma and LGBT people, were responsible for dozens of violent attacks, threats, and instances of intimidation in several Ukrainian cities during 2018. In most cases, police failed to respond or to investigate effectively. In a rare prosecution stemming from these attacks, court hearings began in October for defendants charged with attacking a Roma settlement in Lviv, killing a man and seriously injuring several others.

Numerous assaults and attacks also took place against anti-corruption, human rights, and other community activists, which the authorities did not effectively investigate. In November, Kateryna Handzyuk, an anti-corruption activist, died from burn wounds she suffered in a July acid attack.

A March 2017 law requiring activists and journalists investigating corruption to publicly declare their personal assets remained in effect, despite President Petro Poroshenko’s numerous promises to annul the law. Many activists refused to comply.

Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) continued to deny its prolonged detention of 18 civilians in its Kharkiv secret detention facility, from 2014 to 2016.

In Russian-occupied Crimea, Russian authorities persecuted Crimean Tatars who openly criticize the occupation, charging them with terrorism and criminal incitement. Authorities also harassed Crimean Tatars, searching their homes, sometimes detaining residents for questioning.

In December, a court sentenced a human rights lawyer, Emil Kurbedinov, to five days in jail for a social media repost of a video about the Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. Kurbedinov’s clients include Crimean Tatars and others who face politically motivated criminal incitement charges. He had reposted the video in 2013, before Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in Russia as a terrorist organization but is not banned in Ukraine.

The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed armed groups entered its fifth year. Shelling across or near the contact line separating the two sides damages civilian homes and infrastructure and threatens civilian lives. The Ukrainian government discriminates against residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by Russia-backed armed groups, requiring them to register as internally displaced people to receive their pensions and other entitlements.

In late November, the government introduced martial law for a 30-day period in Ukraine’s 10 regions that border Russia. This followed clashes between the two countries’ forces in the Sea of Azov, when Russian forces attacked three Ukrainian navy vessels near the Kerch straight, claiming they had illegally sailed into Russian-controlled waters, and captured 24 Ukrainian sailors. Martial law was lifted after 30 days.