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Police detain an activist at a peaceful protest against far-right violence in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, on January 19, 2021. Police beat, detained and charged 13 of the activists at the protest with breaching the country’s Covid-19 regulations. © 2021 Human Rights Center ZMINA

Ukrainian activists gather every year on January 19 to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, both gunned down by a radical nationalist in Moscow in 2009.

In previous years, violent thugs from far-right radical groups, including C14, Traditsii I Poryadok (Traditions and Order) and others threatened such protests. The police detained several activists in 2018 but did not disperse the gathering. The protests also went ahead in 2019 and 2020. But not this year.

Immediately after some 30 activists gathered at Kontraktova Square in Kyiv, police approached and said there was “not going to be a protest today,” a protest organizer told me. When the activists raised their constitutional right to gather peacefully, the police responded: “The Constitution is not working now.”

The police detained 13 participants, claiming they were “invited” to the police station voluntarily. Video footage and journalists’ accounts tell a different story: police dragged people off to a police bus, where the protester organizer told me a policeman punched him in the face, and officers shoved, hit, and verbally abused others.

The protesters were charged with violating Ukraine’s Covid-19 quarantine regulations. Everyone was released pending court hearings but faces significant fines of up to 17,000 hryvnas (approximately US$600).

The police also stopped a second protest, planned for Mikhailivski Square, later that day.

Ukraine authorities have the power to limit public gatherings to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but they have used it inconsistently. For example, mass protests against a rise in housing and utilities rates took place across Ukraine during the January lockdown. Some went on for days, with hundreds of people and zero police interference.

The authorities treat rising far-right violence as a “taboo” topic, another protest organizer said, adding: “The radicals believe the police are on their side, even boast about it on social media”.

Activists have repeatedly urged the Ukrainian government to adopt a “zero-tolerance” stance towards rising right-wing violence. However, law enforcement officials rarely open investigations and often fail to identify perpetrators, even when they brazenly claim responsibility for hate crimes. The impunity only emboldens them further.

Ukrainian authorities should protect the right to protest peacefully and hold accountable those who promote violence or hate crimes. People in Ukraine should not have to wonder whose side the police is on.

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