UKRAINE: Open Letter to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Rybak
Paris-Geneva, January 20, 2014
On January 16, 2014, Ukrainian Parliament unexpectedly and hurriedly adopted a comprehensive restrictive bill, which punishes protests, criminalises libel, restricts civic organisations receiving foreign funding and labels them as “foreign agents”.
The bill, entitled “On Amendments to the Law on Judicial System and Status of Judges and Procedural Laws on Additional Measures for Protecting Citizens' safety”, was introduced on January 14, 2014 and voted only two days after, with no legal assessment, no parliamentary hearings, and no consultation. The text was swiftly adopted by show of hands, backed by 235 out of 450 parliamentarians, before it was signed it into law by the President.
The text introduces multiple restrictions on the right to freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression and will seriously impair the capacity of civil society to act and voice their concerns.
The text further introduces the notorious concept of “civic associations fulfilling the function of a foreign agent”. Similar provisions were adopted in the Russian Federation at the end of 2012. According to the bill, all civic organisations receiving funds from foreign sources must include in their title the term “foreign agents”, register as such, submit monthly reports regarding the organisations, publish quarterly reports on their activities in the official media and may not benefit from a tax-exempt status. The bill specifies that all organisations taking part in political actions, defined as actions aimed at influencing decision-making by state bodies, a change in the state policy which those bodies have defined as well as forming public opinion for those purposes, are deemed civic organisations. Organisations failing to register may be closed by court decision.
The text also aims to amend the Code of Administrative Offences in order to drastically restrict peaceful protests. Those who hold street demonstrations risk a fine up to 3,400 UAH (309 EUR) or arrest for up to 10 days. Installing tents or stage-like constructions and sound equipment is punishable by a fine up to 5,100 UAH (463 EUR) or 15-day arrest.
These amendments were adopted in a context where protesters have been gathering at the Maidan square in Kiev and in other parts of Ukraine since November 2013. Interestingly, the bill also foresees fines for those who participate in “a procession made up of more than five vehicles”, which seems to be directly linked to the recent “Auto Maidan” car procession on December 29, 2013, when an estimated 2,000 honking cars drove to theMezhyhirya residence of the President of Ukraine located 25 km north of Kiev.
Moreover, the text introduces “libel” into the Criminal Code, and provides that a person that “deliberately circulates knowingly false information which denigrates the honour and dignity of another person” risks a fine of up to 850 UAH (77 EUR) or up to 5,100 UAH (463 EUR) if in case of repeated offenders,or public works, or corrective work for up to one year. Conviction for “libel” in connection with accusations of a serious or particularly serious crime would by punishable by corrective work of one to two years or restriction of liberty for up to two years.
Finally, the text also aims to criminalise "extremist activities", and targets the production, procession or dissemination of so-called “extremist” materials. We are particularly concerned that the broad definition of “extremism” could be applied to civil society representatives and organisations at large, in order to stifle the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, of assembly, as well as other fundamental freedoms . Such activities would bepunishable with a fine up to 13,600 UAH (1,234 EUR) and if repeated, the fine could reach up to 51,000 UAH (4,629 EUR) or imprisonment for up to three years.
Excellencies, these new provisions will considerably undermine the capacity of civil society and human rights organisations to operate in the country.
We are also concerned about the implications of the adoption of such laws in the Russian Federation and now in Ukraine for the wider Eastern Europe and Central Asia region.
We therefore reiterate our deepest concern over the adoption of this new text, which does not only mark a legislative setback for freedoms of association and expression, but also sends a biased and highly negative message about the nature of the activities carried out by human rights organisations in the country, and put all their members at a high risk of judicial harassment.
In this context, we respectfully urge you to take steps to repeal this law immediately and unconditionally, to ensure in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Ukraine are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals, and to conform in all circumstances with the international standards and instruments ratified by Ukraine.
Karim LAHIDJI Gerald STABEROCK
FIDH President OMCT Secretary General
 "Extremist” materials encompass documents that “call for or justify need to plan, organise, instigate or act with the purpose to change or overthrow the constitutional order by force, infringe territorial integrity, state sovereignty, capture or retain of power or authority by force, illegally interfere with operation or prevention of the legal activity of bodies of government and local self-governance”, but also “mass unrest, abuse of public order, hooliganism, vandalism”, (...) “violation of rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of individuals” (and) “propaganda of exclusivity”.