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Events of 2008


2008 proved to be another year of political turmoil in Ukraine. The longtime conflict between President Viktor Yushchenko and parliament continued, despite the appointment of Yulia Timoshenko as prime minister in late 2007 and the creation of a coalition government with her party. During August's armed conflict in Georgia and its breakaway region South Ossetia the political situation deteriorated, and in September the coalition government collapsed, as the president and prime minister could not agree on the proper response to Russia's use of military force in the conflict. In October Yushchenko issued a decree dissolving parliament. When their dispute went to the courts, both sides attempted to interfere in the judicial process: Yushchenko abolished a court that ruled in favor of a Timoshenko challenge to his decree calling early parliamentary elections, and parliamentarians from Timoshenko's party physically disrupted a subsequent hearing of Yushchenko's appeal against that ruling.

Despite adoption of some important legislation, Ukraine's human rights record continued to be poor, with torture and ill-treatment in detention remaining commonplace. Employment discrimination against women, hostility to asylum seekers, hate attacks on ethnic minorities, and human rights abuses fueling Ukraine's staggering HIV/AIDS epidemic are all problems that the Ukrainian government still fails to address effectively.

Criminal Justice System

A significant victory for Ukraine's human rights community was the adoption of the Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Authorities reform, signed by President Yushchenko on April 8, 2008. The reform was designed to bring the cumbersome criminal justice system into line with international law. In particular, it aimed to improve pretrial investigation procedures, strengthen protections for victims' rights, humanize the conditions and procedures of criminal punishment, and end corruption in the judicial process.

Torture and ill-treatment in detention persist, however, as well as a myriad of abusive conditions for detainees: overcrowding in jails and prisons, lack of adequate sanitation, and too little light, food, water, and medical care.

Media Freedom

In March 2008 three former Interior Ministry police were convicted of the 2000 murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze. But there appeared to be no progress in the search for those who ordered the murder. Media activists continue to demand that this be meaningfully investigated.

Maxim Birovash, a correspondent for Business magazine, was assaulted in the elevator of his apartment building on December 7, 2007. Two men knocked him to the ground and stole his bag, which contained internal correspondence of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, as well as other documents related to Birovash's investigation into corruption in the issuance of passports. One assailant was detained, tried, and sentenced to five years in prison. The second man was not found, and the stolen documents were not recovered.

Employment Discrimination against Women

Although Ukraine has adopted legislation to ensure gender equality in employment, including the Law on Equal Rights and Opportunities for Men and Women and amendments to the Labor Code prohibiting gender discrimination in employment and pay, research shows that women do not enjoy equal access to employment opportunities. Both public and private employers regularly specify preferences for men, and discriminate on the basis of age or the physical appearance of potential female candidates during recruitment. Women are very often forced into the low-paying, unregulated informal economy, and are disproportionately affected by unemployment.

Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Migrants

The worrisome practice of removing refugees and asylum seekers continued in 2008. With no clear migration policy, Ukraine continues to deny asylum seekers protection and often refuses to grant refugee status on murky procedural grounds. Many migrants face deportation back to countries where they face torture or ill-treatment. In March 2008 the Ukrainian government forcibly returned 11 ethnic Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka, despite the fact that all 11 were registered with the Kyiv office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Oleg Kuznetsov, a Russian national, was arrested on July 19, 2007, and held for a year pending extradition. In March 2008 the State Committee on Nationalities and Religion granted him refugee status. On July 21 the district administrative court of Kyiv turned down the prosecutor's appeal against the decision to grant Kuznetsov asylum. Nevertheless, he was extradited to Russia a week later by order of the prosecutor general, despite his refugee status and in violation of Ukrainian refugee law.

Migrants and asylum seekers in detention commonly suffer violations of their fundamental rights to legal counsel, to be informed of their rights, to inform a third party of their detention, and to a fair trial.

Hate Crimes and Discrimination against Ethnic Minorities

Ukrainian human rights organizations note that nationalistic informal groups of young people have been on the rise since 2005, carrying out physical assaults and attacks on immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, foreign students, and people of non-Slavic appearance including Roma. In the first four months of 2008 the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported 160 crimes against foreign nationals, including seven murders. In response, the government created special criminal investigation units for fighting racially motivated crimes, which have being operating in several Ukrainian cities.

Crimean Tatars continue to endure discrimination, including unequal allocation of land, unequal employment opportunities, unequal access to places of worship, and unavailability of education in their native language.

Human Rights Abuses Fueling the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

The Ukrainian National AIDS Center reported nearly 11,000 newly registered cases of HIV infection in the first seven months of 2008; 47 percent of newly registered cases are among injection drug users. NGOs report continuing police interference with the delivery of HIV prevention information and services. Those at highest risk of HIV/AIDS, including drug users and sex workers, are particularly vulnerable to police harassment and are frequently driven away from lifesaving services.

The government has taken important steps to increase access for drug users to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) with methadone and buprenorphine, which are widely recognized as among the most effective means to treat opiate dependence. In December 2007 the government lifted restrictions on methadone imports, and as of October 2008 more than 1,700 people received methadone or buprenorphine in 51 healthcare institutions in 24 regions of Ukraine. There is no MAT in prison, however, which means that drug users on MAT are forced to suffer abrupt withdrawal when taken into state custody.

The Ministry of Health has taken measures to expand provision of antiretroviral therapy for people living with HIV, although not on a scale sufficient to address the need for it. When selecting candidates for antiretroviral therapy, medical institutions frequently discriminate against drug users on the unfounded assumption that they will not adhere to a rigorous course of treatment.

Key International Actors

In January 2008, then European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Hryhory Nemyrya signed an agreement outlining final terms for Ukraine's World Trade Organization membership. At the twelfth EU-Ukraine Cooperation Council, the EU complimented Ukraine on its parliamentary elections in September 2007, calling them "a lively campaign and genuine political competition." At the EU-Ukraine summit in Paris in September 2008 EU officials underlined their support for Ukraine's efforts to carry out vital political and economic reforms.

The sharpening presidential-parliamentary conflict and ongoing problematic human rights conditions were factors in NATO's deferring a decision to offer membership to Ukraine in April 2008.

Ukraine was reviewed under the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review mechanism in May 2008. The outcome of this review was a set of recommendations related to discrimination and hate crimes, ending torture, investigating violence against journalists, and creating a more orderly process for refugees and asylum seekers in accordance with UNHCR guidelines.

The Legal Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called for a proper investigation to bring to justice those responsible for ordering the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze. After a fact-finding mission in 2007, PACE officials called on Ukraine to finally launch reforms of the judicial and penal systems.

The number of individual applications to the European Court of Human Rights against Ukraine has been steadily increasing over the years; in 2007 there were 4,502 applications allocated to a decision body, and a further 4,144 in the first 10 months of 2008. The court handed down 109 judgments against Ukraine in 2007, mostly concerning torture and discrimination. Between January and November 1, 2008, the court found against Ukraine in 77 cases, mainly involving fair trial and property rights.