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Ukraine: Mixed Record on Rights, Cautious Hope for Reform

Anti-Corruption Measures Advance, Other Problems Stalled

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, jailed on groundless terrorism charges in Russia, hugs his daughter at a welcoming ceremony at Borispil International Airport outside Kiev, following a Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in attendance. September 7, 2019. © 2019 REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

(Kyiv)  Ukraine’s government under newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky took several positive steps in 2019, although Ukraine’s human rights record remained mixed, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

The government took important steps to complete anti-corruption reforms that had stalled under Zelensky’s predecessor. But independent media remained under pressure, far-right groups committed new violence, and the government retained discriminatory policies toward pensioners in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian proxies.

“It’s encouraging that the new Ukrainian government has expressed a strong commitment to reform,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But more decisive steps to improve human rights are needed to protect people in conflict-affected areas, foster a safer environment for media, effectively combat far-right violence, and pursue justice for past abuses.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

Following Zelensky’s landslide victory in April and his party’s decisive victory in snap parliamentary elections, parliament adopted legislative reforms to protect whistleblowers, strip members of parliament of immunity, boost prosecutors’ effectiveness, and shield civil servants from political pressure. Ukraine’s High Anti-Corruption Court finally became operational.

The war in eastern Ukraine entered its sixth year. In 2019, there had been an overall reduction in civilian casualties as compared to previous years.

In November, Ukraine became the 100th country to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment to making schools safe during times of war.

In September, Russia and Ukraine exchanged 70 prisoners, that included 11 held by Russia on politically motivated charges, 24 Ukrainian sailors Russia captured in the Kerch strait in 2018, and a Ukrainian journalist with a Russian outlet whom Ukraine had groundlessly charged with treason. Another major prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia-backed armed groups took place in December 2019. Ukraine turned over 124 people and the armed groups released 76.

The government has maintained discriminatory policies that apply to how people living in Russian proxy-held areas can access their pensions. But, by ending expiration dates for electronic passes and repairing a hazardous pedestrian bridge, the government made it easier for them to travel across the conflict line to comply with requirements.

In August, Russia-backed armed groups in Luhansk region sentenced student Sergei Rusinov to six years in jail for “terrorism” for his pro-Ukraine social media posts. In December 2019, pro-Ukraine journalists Stanyslav Aseev and Oleh Halaziuk, unlawfully held by armed groups in Donetsk since May 2017 and August 2017 respectively, were released to Ukraine as part of a prisoner exchange.

Justice for crimes committed during the 2014 Maidan protests remained elusive. The prosecutor general’s office dissolved its investigative unit, tasked with investigating Maidan-related abuses, and nominally transferred its cases to another investigative body, effectively suspending those investigations.

The Institute of Mass Information, a media watchdog, documented at least 11 cases of journalists beaten or injured and one killed in the first six months of 2019, and dozens threatened. In June, an investigative journalist, Vadym Komarov died from severe head injuries he sustained in an attack by an unidentified assailant.

Members of groups advocating hate and discrimination attacked ethnic minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people; and rights activists. But law enforcement’s efforts in countering such violence improved in some respects and helped to prevent attacks, including during public events. In others, police responses were largely ineffective. A court upheld a defamation claim by Ukrainian far-right nationalist group, C14, against the independent internet television station Hromadske.TV after it called C14 a “neo-Nazi” group.

A new law requiring that Ukrainian language be used in most aspects of public life raised concerns about sufficient guarantees for the protection and use of minority languages.

A number of congregations transitioned from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is under the Moscow patriarchate, to the newly formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine. There was some violence by supporters on both sides and by local authorities.

Russian authorities in occupied Crimea harassed Crimean Tatars, arresting 32 and prosecuting dozens more on trumped-up terrorism charges. Many of those arrested were members of Crimean Solidarity, a legal and social support group for families of those arrested for political reasons. Russian security agents tortured or ill-treated at least four.

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