Ukraine: A new island of dictatorship in Europe

The new legal amendments passed by the Ukrainian parliament aim to curb the ongoing anti-government protests.

Viktor Yanukovych's attempt to curb demonstrations unleashed a new wave of anger [EPA]

In response to two-month-long public demonstrations, President Viktor Yanukovych took his chance to establish a police state in Ukraine. On January 16, the president’s Party of Regions together with allies from the Communist Party of Ukraine voted for a number of controversial laws and amendments that were immediately labeled by media as “dictatorship laws“. The legislation which infringes on basic human rights and freedoms sent thousands of Ukrainians to the streets on January 19 for a new mass protest.

While most of the people were peacefully rallying at Independence Square (the Maidan), a group of protesters tried to occupy the government headquarters, which caused inevitable clashes with riot police. The protesters dispersed after police showered them with cold water from water jets in sub-zero temperatures.

It’s hard to say whether the violence was the result of a planned provocation or the expression of utter despair. And people do have a reason to be in despair. At first the government buried all aspirations for integration with Europe and made a shift eastward; now Yanukovych is cracking down on basic liberties.

For the past two months, the protesters stood up to the police, the political pressure and the cold. Now Yanukovych has decided to play another trump card against the protesters; putting legal pressure on them to cease their resistance. The new amendments silence the media, restrain NGOs, give a green light for harassing participants in peaceful protests and boost arbitrariness in the judicial system.

Media censorship

Picture this: An investigative journalist is writing a piece about a corrupt judge or a police officer caught committing an offence. Once this piece gets published, he does not get praise for his hard work and findings. He goes directly to jail. According to the new amendments to the criminal code, a person collecting or publishing confidential information about a judge or a police officer is threatening their safety, and thus might face an enormous fine or be sentenced to up to two years in jail [Ua]. If the judge or officer does not find the publication flattering, they can sue the reporter on defamation charges and if found guilty, the punishment is up to two years in jail again.

Listening Post – News Divide: Ukraine: Protests, politics and the press

This is not the first time censorship by defamation laws was attempted. The parliament already tried to introduce jail sentences for defamation in the heat of the parliamentary election campaign in 2012. Back then, the amendments were not passed because of mass protests and pressure from international organisations and the opposition.

This time the president’s supporters in parliament did not waste the chance to silence journalists by threatening them with imprisonment. Given that pretty much all the biggest print publications and TV channels have already been appropriated by the oligarchs backing the president’s family and turned into the mouthpiece of the Party of Regions, people simply have no access to unbiased or at least alternative information.

Online media used to be the safe haven for true journalism till now, but their future does not seem too bright as well. The lawmakers enabled the National Commission that regulates communication and information to restrict access to both domestic and global web sites if they find their content to be breaking the law.

People’s gathering

President Yanukovych pretends to ignore the two-month long public campaign demanding his resignation. Yet the amendments to the laws regulating people gathering and road traffic prove that he is quite irritated with both the “Euro Maidan” camp in downtown Kiev and the “Auto Maidan“, a group of protesters in their cars who conduct mobile protests in “hot spots”. One of those “hot spots” was Mezhygirya, a luxurious residence of President Yanukovych. Of course, the president did not invite them for a cup of tea, but the protest at the president’s residence did not go unnoticed. It cost the drivers and car owners their driving licenses – many of them were brought to court on trumped up charges of traffic violation.

According to the new laws, people who drive in a convoy with more than five cars should obtain special permission from the Ministry for Internal Affairs, otherwise they might lose their license and car for up to two years.

Other aspects of people’s right for peaceful gathering were either banned or restricted. People, who are installing tents, stages and/or sound equipment for a rally without proper authorisation can go to jail for 15 days. Those who wear helmets, masks or other protection can spend 10 days behind bars. Protesters who occupied the city hall and Trade Unions Building in Maidan area back in December are also playing with fire: Blocking of municipal property can lead to jail sentences [Ua] of up to five years.

Empowering a corrupt repressive apparatus

In theory, judicial and law enforcement systems are supposed to help citizens seek justice. In Ukraine it does not work this way. Ukraine is notoriously known for its corruption in all domains including the above mentioned. Ukrainian courts have been repeatedly slammed by international human rights groups and foreign governments for selective justice applied and particularly in the case of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Ukraine riot police clash with protesters

Law enforcement agencies, especially riot police troops called “Berkut”, are enjoying unlimited power and complete impunity. None of the “Berkut” officers who beat up protesting students on November 30, 2013 was punished for brutality, and on the contrary, according to media reports, each of them received a $500 bonus [Ua].

With the new laws, the courts and law enforcement agencies are enjoying new powers. Judges are allowed to conduct trials and sentence defendants in absentia. With the help of this provision, Kharkiv city court will be able to sentence [Ua] Yulia Tymoshenko for another term in prison on tax evasion charges.

At the same time, police got better protected from people. According to recent amendments, any act of violence against law enforcement officials can result in up to 12 years in prison [Ua].

People who tried to occupy the governmental buildings on January 19 can face even more severe punishment. The internal ministry issued a warning that protesters who were fighting with the police can be sentenced to 15 years [Ua]. Twenty protesters [Ua] have been arrested at the moment and more will go behind bars. However, protesters remain resilient and are not going to leave as long as Yanukovych and his team remain in power.

The political opposition represented by boxer and MP Vitaliy Klychko, Arseniy Yatseniuk – the current head of Yulia Tymoshenko’s “Batkivshchyna” union – and the leader of ultra-right “Svoboda” party Oleh Tiahnybok demand that Yanukovych step down, dismiss the government and call for an early presidential election. In the current circumstances, the opposition has no legal way to impeach Yanukovych or pass a vote of no confidence. They can only hope for the goodwill of the president to include them in a political dialogue and break the deadlock. But dialogue means not only talking, but also listening to the other party and Yanukovych has proved many times that the voices of his political opponents and the people of Ukraine remain unheard.

Olesia Oleshko is a Ukrainian journalist. She holds an MA in Journalism from Indiana University (USA).