READ A SECTION: UKRAINE (BELOW) | CRIMEA
Note: Except where otherwise noted, references in this report do not include areas controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine or Russian-occupied Crimea. At the end of this report is a section listing human rights abuses in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Ukraine is a republic with a semi-presidential political system composed of three branches of government: a unicameral legislature (Verkhovna Rada), an executive led by a directly elected president and a prime minister chosen through a legislative majority, and a judiciary. The country held presidential and legislative elections in 2014; international and domestic observers considered both elections free and fair.
Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces in the territory controlled by the government.
The most significant human rights problems in the country during the year were:
Conflict- and Occupation-related Abuses: Russian-backed separatists in Donbas engaged in abductions, torture, and unlawful detention, employed child soldiers, stifled dissent, and restricted humanitarian aid. To a lesser extent, there were also reports of some of these practices by government forces. In Crimea, Russian occupation authorities systematically targeted perceived dissidents for abuse and politically motivated prosecution.
Corruption and Official Impunity: The country suffered from impunity for corruption and deficiencies in the administration of justice. The Prosecutor General’s Office and the judicial system proved largely unable to convict perpetrators of past or current major corruption.
Insufficient Support for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs): Russia’s occupation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine resulted in 1.7 million IDPs who faced continuing difficulties obtaining legal documents, education, pensions, and access to financial institutions and health care. During the year the government suspended all social payments for IDPs, pending verification of their presence in government-controlled territory, ostensibly to combat fraudulent payments.
Other problems reported during the year included: alleged beatings and torture of detainees and prisoners, as well as harsh conditions in government-run prisons and detention facilities; nongovernmental attacks on journalists; societal violence against women and abuse of children; societal discrimination against and harassment of ethnic and religious minorities; trafficking in persons, including forced labor; discrimination and harassment against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. There also were limitations on workers’ right to strike, and failure to enforce effectively labor laws and occupational safety and health standards for the workplace.
The government generally failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity. Human rights groups and the United Nations noted significant deficiencies in investigations into human rights abuses committed by government security forces, in particular into allegations of torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and other abuses reportedly perpetrated by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). The perpetrators of the 2014 Euromaidan shootings in Kyiv and riots in Odesa have not been held to account.
Investigations into alleged human rights abuses related to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the continuing aggression in the Donbas region remained incomplete due to lack of government control in those territories and the refusal of Russia and Russian-backed separatists to investigate abuse allegations.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
According to media reports, police in Kryve Ozero allegedly beat a man to death on August 24, after responding to a domestic violence call. Authorities detained four police officers on suspicion of murder. In response, the chief of the National Police disbanded a police station where the killing occurred. On October 2, the detained officers were released on bail; the pretrial investigation continues.
There were also reports of killings by government and Russian-backed separatist forces in connection with the conflict in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts (see section 1.g.).
There were reports of politically motivated killings by nongovernment actors.
On July 20, a car bomb in Kyiv killed Belarusian-born journalist, Pavel Sheremet, as he drove in a car belonging to his partner, Olena Prytula. Sheremet, a Russian citizen, worked for Ukrainska Pravda newspaper and Vesti radio station, where he had been critical of Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian authorities. Authorities released a video of two individuals placing the device under the car. As of year’s end, the investigation remained open and authorities had made no arrests.
On March 9, Yuriy Hrabovsky, a lawyer representing a detained Russian special forces soldier, Aleksandr Aleksandrov, disappeared in Odesa. On March 25, his body was found in a shallow roadside grave. The killing remained under investigation at year’s end, and authorities had made no arrests.
Human rights organizations and media reported deaths in prisons or detention centers due to torture or negligence by police or prison officers (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions).
Law enforcement agencies continued to investigate killings and other crimes committed during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv in 2013-14. Human rights groups were critical of the low number of convictions despite considerable evidence. Human rights groups also criticized prosecutors for focusing on low-ranking officials while taking little action to investigate government leaders believed to have been involved. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, as of mid-November, courts had convicted 45 persons investigated for Euromaidan-related crimes, 152 were on trial, and 190 remained under investigation.
Law enforcement agencies also continued their investigation into the events in Odesa in 2014 in which 48 persons died, including six government supporters and 42 persons who supported more autonomy for regions. Those who supported autonomy died in a fire at the Trade Union Building; authorities largely failed to investigate these deaths, focusing on alleged crimes committed by individuals seeking more autonomy. A Council of Europe report in 2015 found the government’s investigation lacked independence and that the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs failed to conduct a thorough, coordinated investigation. On January 15, a group of civil society activists and journalists released a statement expressing their lack of confidence in the investigation by the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, accusing the authorities of sabotaging the investigation to prevent the perpetrators from being brought to justice. On May 4, Odesa police chief, Petro Lutsiuk, was fired from his position, and the Prosecutor General’s Office later charged him with abuse of authority in connection with the events at the trade union building. Court hearings continued through the year’s end.
There were multiple reports of politically motivated disappearances, particularly in relation to the conflict between the government and combined Russian and separatist forces in the Donbas region and by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea (see section 1.g., Crimea subsection).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel punishment, there were reports that law enforcement authorities engaged in such abuse. While courts cannot legally use as evidence in court proceedings confessions and statements under duress made to police by persons in custody, there were reports that police and other law enforcement officials abused and, at times, tortured persons in custody to obtain confessions.
In the Donbas region, there were reports that government and progovernment forces engaged in military operations at times committed human rights abuses, including torture. There were reports that Russian-backed separatist forces in the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk systematically committed numerous abuses, including torture, to maintain control or for personal financial gain. According to international organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), abuses included beatings, forced labor, psychological and physical torture, public humiliation, and sexual violence (see section 1.g.).
In a July joint report, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted allegations of the use of torture at SBU detention sites, including beatings, starvation, and electric shocks.
In its March report, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU), under the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, gave an undated account of a “profederalism” activist who was allegedly tortured and pressured to sign a confession at an SBU facility in Odesa. The government asserted that such “profederalist” messaging was used by Russia to weaken Ukraine’s central government. The man reported that during interrogation the SBU suffocated him with a plastic bag and beat him. Afterwards, the SBU brought the man to the lobby of the SBU building to witness that authorities had also arrested his son. His son was then brought to a neighboring cell, where the father could hear his son scream as he was abused.
Abuse of prisoners and detainees by police and prison authorities remained a widespread problem. For example, on August 23, 15 staff members of the Chernihiv pretrial detention facility reportedly beat 25-year-old Viktor Kravchenko. After the beating, facility staff placed him in a disciplinary cell and denied his request for medical help. The facility’s administration denied any wrongdoing.
There were reports of hazing in the military. On August 4, the country’s human rights ombudsman sent a letter to the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Defense expressing concern about military hazing following the suicide of Vlad Khaisuk, a young soldier serving in a unit stationed in Stanytsia Luhanska. After Khaisuk’s suicide, his parents found videos on Khaisuk’s smartphone of him being hazed and humiliated by other soldiers. The Luhansk Department of the Military Prosecutor’s Office investigated and found no signs of military hazing. At year’s end, however, police in Stanytsia Luhanska were investigating the accident as a homicide.
In its September report, the HRMMU noted that it “continued to document cases of sexual violence, amounting to torture, of conflict-related detainees, both men and women. It includes cases of rape, and threats of rape or other forms of sexual violence towards victims and/or their relatives.” In one example, the HRMMU described a case in March where unidentified members of the security services detained a man, took him to an abandoned building, and interrogated him about the positions of armed groups. When he could not provide information, the perpetrators chained him to a metal cage, took a ramrod, and inserted it into the man’s urethra, causing him severe pain.
During the first nine months of the year, the Prosecutor General’s Office forwarded for prosecution 35 cases specifically alleging torture or degrading treatment involving law enforcement officers.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, during the first nine months of the year, authorities opened 133 criminal cases against police officers for crimes including torture, illegal arrests and searches, and illegal confiscation of property. Of these alleged cases of abuse, five were for alleged torture. Authorities imposed disciplinary actions against 20 officers and fired 10.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions remained poor, did not meet international standards, and at times posed a serious threat to the life and health of prisoners. Physical abuse, lack of proper medical care and nutrition, poor sanitation, and lack of adequate light were persistent problems. The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union maintained that life sentences amounted to slow executions of prisoners because of the poor conditions of their imprisonment.
Physical Conditions: Authorities generally held adults and juveniles in separate facilities, although there were reports that juveniles and adults were not separated in some pretrial detention facilities.
Conditions in police temporary detention facilities and State Penitentiary Service pretrial detention facilities were harsher than in low- and medium-security prisons. Despite a reduction in the number of inmates, overcrowding remained a problem in pretrial detention facilities. Temporary detention facilities often lacked adequate sanitation and medical facilities.
Physical abuse by guards was a problem. For example, according to the Ombudsman’s Office, the staff of the Kryzhopil Correctional Center Number 113 in Vinnytsia Oblast systematically violated prisoners’ rights during the year. Inmates complained to the Ombudsman’s Office about illegal actions of the administration, including systematic beatings, forced and unpaid labor, and lack of medical care. The monitoring team found that a convicted person kept in one of the disciplinary cells tried to commit suicide, which he claimed was due to fear of physical violence by the prison administration. The local prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into the actions of the correctional facility administration.
There were reports of prisoner-on-prisoner violence. For example, on June 6, an inmate of the Shepetivka correctional facility in Khmelnytskyi Oblast died of a traumatic brain injury inflicted by his fellow inmates. The penitentiary service conducted an investigation of the incident.
According to the Association of Independent Monitors and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, authorities failed to protect the lives and human rights of prisoners in areas close to the zone of operation against combined Russian and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine adequately and failed to evacuate staff and inmates in a timely fashion. As of September 1, under the auspices of the Ombudsman’s Office, 17 prisoners incarcerated in territories seized by Russian-backed separatist forces were transferred to penal facilities on government-controlled territory.
The condition of prison facilities and places of unofficial detention in areas held by Russian-backed separatist forces was very poor. According to the Justice for Peace coalition, there was an extensive network of unofficial places of detention in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts located in basements, sewage wells, garages, and industrial enterprises. In most cases the places of detention were not suitable for even short-term detention. There were reports of shortages of food, water, heat, sanitation, and proper medical care.
According to October press reports citing information from the Eastern Human Rights Group, abuse of prisoners was widespread in areas not controlled by the government. Prior to the conflict, more than 5,000 prisoners were held in the part of Luhansk Oblast under the control of Russian-backed separatists. According to the group, prison conditions had deteriorated severely. The groups reported systemic abuses, such as torture, starvation, denial of medical care, and solitary confinement, as well as the extensive use of prisoners as slave labor to produce goods that, when sold, provided a direct source of personal income to Russian-backed separatist leaders.
Administration: Authorities kept records of prisoners in detention, but they were occasionally incomplete. In areas controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces, authorities lacked central record keeping, leading to difficulties for prisoners and arbitrarily held detainees. Human rights groups reported instances in which authorities confiscated prisoners’ identification cards and failed to return them upon their release. Prisoners released by Russian-backed separatists often had no identification. There was no prison ombudsman.
In government-controlled areas, prisoners could file complaints with the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman for Human Rights. As of October 1, the ombudsman’s office received 1,114 complaints from prisoners and their relatives throughout the country. The most common complaints were regarding a lack of appropriate living and sanitary conditions; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; public humiliation; limited communication with family members and relatives; unjustified punishment; denial of the right to legal consultation; and denial of the right to submit a complaint about actions of the administration. Prisoners also complained about inadequate medical treatment and precautions. For example, authorities did not isolate prisoners with contagious tuberculosis from other patients.
Although prisoners and detainees may file complaints about conditions in custody with the human rights ombudsman, human rights organizations noted prison officials continued to censor or discourage complaints and penalized and abused inmates who filed them. Rights groups reported that legal norms did not always provide for confidentiality of complaints.
Officials generally allowed prisoners to receive visitors, with the exception of those in disciplinary cells. Prisoner rights groups noted some families had to pay bribes to obtain permission for prison visits to which they are entitled by law.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted independent monitoring of prisons and detention centers by international and local human rights groups. On May 25, the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) suspended its visit to the country after being denied access to places in several parts of the country where it suspected the SBU was illegally depriving individuals of their liberty. On September 5, the SPT resumed its visit and was granted access to the facilities. During the year the Ombudsperson’s Office together with representatives of civil society conducted monitoring visits to penitentiary facilities in 15 oblasts.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but serious problems remained.
AI and HRW reported details of arbitrary secret detentions by the SBU that emerged following the release of 13 persons from an SBU facility in Kharkiv (see section 1.b.). One of those detained, Viktor Ashykhin, was kidnapped from his hometown of Ukrainsk in 2014 and released in July. He told AI that he was moved three times during his 597-day illegal detention to hide him from independent monitors.
The HRMMU, AI, HRW, and other international groups reported numerous unauthorized detentions in areas of Donbas controlled by Russian-backed separatists (see section 1.g.).
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for maintaining internal security and order. The ministry oversees police and other law enforcement personnel. The SBU is responsible for all state security, nonmilitary intelligence, and counterintelligence matters. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reports to the Cabinet of Ministers, and the SBU reports directly to the president. The State Fiscal Service exercises law enforcement powers through the tax police and reports to the Cabinet of Ministers. The State Migration Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs implements state policy regarding border security, migration, citizenship, and registration of refugees and other migrants.
Civilian authorities generally had control over law enforcement agencies but rarely took action to punish abuses committed by security forces.
Impunity for abuses by law enforcement remained a significant problem frequently highlighted by the HRMMU in its reports and by other human rights groups. In its September report, the HRMMU attributed the problem to “pressure on the judiciary, [and] inability and unwillingness of the Office of the Prosecutor General and Office of the Military Prosecutor to investigate” abuses. The HRMMU also noted that authorities were unwilling to investigate allegations of torture, particularly when victims were detained on grounds related to national security or were seen as proseparatist.
While authorities sometimes brought charges against members of the security services, cases often remained under investigation without being brought to trial, while authorities allowed alleged perpetrators to continue their work. Additionally, human rights groups criticized the lack of progress in investigations of alleged crimes in areas retaken by Ukraine from Russian-backed separatists, resulting in continuing impunity for these crimes. In particular, investigations of alleged crimes committed by Russian-backed separatist forces in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in 2014 appeared stalled. Human rights groups believed that many of the local law enforcement personnel in both cities collaborated with Russian-backed separatists when they controlled these cities.
Under the law members of the Verkhovna Rada have authority to conduct investigations and public hearings into law enforcement problems. The human rights ombudsman may also initiate investigations into abuses by security forces.
Security forces generally prevented or responded to societal violence. At times, however, they used excessive force to disperse protests and, in some cases, failed to protect victims from harassment or violence. For example, on September 1, approximately 100 persons attacked a camp of peaceful demonstrators near the Odesa City Council on Dumska Street. The attackers pushed protesters from the square using fire extinguishers and tear gas and destroyed their camp. A few protesters were injured and hospitalized. According to witnesses, police watched and did nothing to prevent the clashes.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
By law authorities may detain a suspect for three days without a warrant, after which time a judge must issue a warrant authorizing continued detention. Authorities in some cases detained persons for longer than three days without a warrant.
Prosecutors must bring detainees before a judge within 72 hours, and pretrial detention should not exceed six months for minor crimes and 12 months for serious ones. Persons have the right to consult a lawyer upon their detention. According to the law, prosecutors may detain suspects accused of terrorist activities for up to 30 days without charges or a bench warrant. Under the law citizens have the right to be informed of the charges brought against them. Authorities must promptly inform detainees of their rights and immediately notify family members of an arrest. Police often did not follow these procedures. Police at times failed to keep records or register detained suspects, and courts often extended detention to allow police more time to obtain confessions. Authorities kept suspects under house arrest and occasionally held them incommunicado, in some instances for several weeks.
Under the law the government must provide attorneys for indigent defendants. Compliance was inconsistent because of a shortage of defense attorneys or because attorneys, citing low government compensation, refused to defend indigent clients. According to the Ministry of Justice, 60,500 persons received free legal aid. As of September 1, there were 550 points of access to free legal aid throughout the government-controlled areas of the country.
The law provides for bail, but many defendants could not pay the required amounts. Courts sometimes imposed travel restrictions as an alternative to pretrial confinement. Under the criminal procedure code, prosecutors need a court order to impose travel restrictions on persons awaiting trial. Prosecutors must prove the restrictions are the minimum needed to ensure that suspects will appear at hearings and not interfere with criminal proceedings.
Arbitrary Arrest: The HRMMU reported a pattern of arbitrary detention by authorities. In its September report, the HRMMU reported that the SBU apprehended a married couple in Odesa and reportedly held the couple incommunicado at an SBU compound for 20 hours before recording their detention. SBU also reportedly subjected them to threats, sleep deprivation, interrogation without a lawyer present, and denied requests for legal counsel.
The HRMMU expressed concern over mass arrests in government-controlled portions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. These oblasts are subject to the Law on Combatting Terrorism, which allows authorities to make arrests with a lower standard of proof than allowed under the criminal procedure code, leading in some cases to arbitrary arrest. For example, in its March report, the HRMMU cited SBU raids, conducted in December 2015 in Krasnohorivka and Avdiivka in Donetsk oblast, in which authorities detained hundreds of persons for several hours for questioning about alleged affiliation with armed groups. Authorities subsequently released most detainees.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Under the law citizens have the right to challenge an arrest in court or by appeal to a prosecutor to obtain prompt release in cases of unlawful detention.
Protracted Detention of Rejected Asylum Seekers or Stateless Persons: Authorities frequently detained asylum seekers for extended periods without court approval. They also regularly detained asylum seekers prior to their deportation (see section 2.d.).
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary and the Verkhovna Rada passed a judicial reform package in June, courts were inefficient and remained vulnerable to political pressure and corruption. Confidence in the judiciary remained low.
On June 2, parliament adopted amendments to the constitution regarding the judiciary. The amendments give new powers to the High Council of Justice, stipulate that the majority of High Council members must be judges, and authorize the High Council to make decisions on the election, dismissal, transfer, promotion, and immunity of judges. Parliament and the president no longer have decisive roles in these processes, which limit potential interference with the judiciary. Certain provisions will be implemented gradually. For example, the president retains the right to decide on the transfer of judges for two years.
On September 30, the Law on Judiciary and Status of Judges came into effect, facilitating the implementation of the above constitutional amendments. The law introduces a three-tier system of courts, with the Supreme Court as the highest judicial body, holding the authority to rescind lower courts’ judgments. The law provides for wider civil society engagement in the selection and assessment of judges through a new consultative body called the Public Integrity Council. The law allows anyone to initiate disciplinary proceedings against a judge before the High Council of Justice and imposes anticorruption measures on judges.
As of October 1, the Prosecutor General’s Office had brought 16 criminal cases against judges to court.
Judges continued to complain about weak separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches of government. Some judges claimed that high-ranking politicians pressured them to decide cases in their favor, regardless of the merits. Other factors impeded the right to a fair trial, such as lengthy court proceedings, particularly in administrative courts, inadequate funding, and the inability of courts to enforce rulings. According to the human rights ombudsman, authorities fully executed only 40 percent of court rulings.
There were reports of intimidation and attacks against lawyers representing defendants considered “pro-Russian” or “proseparatist.” For example, on January 26 in Kharkiv, an unoccupied car belonging to lawyer Oleksandr Shadrin exploded. Shadrin had been working on a number of high-profile cases involving “proseparatist” defendants. On January 29, the Ukrainian Bar Association issued an open letter of concern about the incident involving Shadrin’s car as well as other cases in which the safety of attorneys was threatened. In a similar incident on February 2 in Kyiv, an unoccupied car belonging to another lawyer, Andriy Fedur, exploded. Fedur had been defending the accused murderers of journalists Oles Buzyna and Heorgiy Gongadze.
A single judge decides most cases, although two judges and three public assessors who have some legal training hear trials on charges carrying the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The law provides for cross-examination of witnesses by both prosecutors and defense attorneys and for plea bargaining.
The law presumes defendants are innocent, and they cannot be legally compelled to testify or confess, although high conviction rates called into question the legal presumption of innocence. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with interpretation as needed; to a public trial without undue delay; to be present at their trial, to communicate privately with an attorney of their choice (or one provided at public expense); and to have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The law also allows defendants access to government-held evidence, to confront witnesses against them, to present witnesses and evidence, and the right to appeal. The law applies to all defendants regardless of ethnicity, gender, or age.
Trials are open to the public, but some judges prohibited media from observing proceedings. While trials must start no later than three weeks after charges are filed, prosecutors seldom met this requirement. Human rights groups reported that officials occasionally monitored meetings between defense attorneys and their clients.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
On May 12, an Ivano-Frankivsk court sentenced blogger Ruslan Kotsaba to three-and-a-half years in prison, on charges that he had impeded the work of the armed forces with his calls to ignore the military draft. Authorities arrested Kotsaba in 2015, and human rights groups deemed him a political prisoner. The court dropped a more serious charge of treason. On July 24, an appeals court overturned the conviction, freeing Kotsaba after 18 months in detention.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
The constitution and law provide for the right to seek redress for any decisions, actions, or omissions of national and local government officials that violate citizens’ human rights. An inefficient and corrupt judicial system limited the right of redress. Individuals may also file a collective legal challenge to legislation they believe may violate basic rights and freedoms. Individuals may appeal to the human rights ombudsman at any time and to the European Court of Human Rights after exhausting domestic legal remedies.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, but authorities did not always respect these rights. The government introduced measures that banned or blocked information, media outlets, or individual journalists deemed a threat to national security or who expressed positions that authorities believed undermined the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Other problematic practices continued to affect media freedom, including self-censorship, so-called jeansa payments to journalists for favorable news reports disguised as objective journalism, and slanted news coverage by media whose owners had close ties to the government or opposition political parties.
In the Donbas region, Russian-backed separatists suppressed freedom of speech and the press through harassment, intimidation, abductions, and assaults on journalists and media outlets. They also prevented the transmission of Ukrainian and independent television and radio programming in areas under their control.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: With some exceptions, individuals in areas not under Russian occupation or Russian-backed separatist control could generally criticize the government publicly and privately and discuss matters of public interest without fear of official reprisal. The law criminalizes the display of communist and Nazi symbols, although there have been no prosecutions.
The law prohibits statements that threaten the country’s territorial integrity, promote war, instigate racial or religious conflict, or support Russian aggression towards Ukraine.
On September 15, the National Television and Radio Council issued a warning to Kherson-based radio station AKS for statements suggesting that Crimean Tatars were involved in terrorism. If a station receives a second warning, it could lose its broadcasting license.
On December 9, the Verkhovna Rada passed a bill to restrict imports of certain Russian books with “anti-Ukrainian content” that violated Ukrainian law. The books may still be legally imported below the commercial threshold of 100 copies.
Press and Media Freedoms: According to the NGO Freedom House, the press in the country was “partly free.”
Independent media and internet news sites were active and expressed a wide range of views. Privately owned media, the most successful of which were generally owned by wealthy and influential “oligarchs,” often presented readers and viewers a “biased pluralism,” representing the views of their owners, favorable coverage of their allies, and criticizing political and business rivals. The 10 most popular television stations were owned by businessmen whose primary business was not in media. Independent media had difficulty competing with major outlets that operated with oligarchic subsidies.
The public television broadcaster was established in 2015 and planned to be fully operational by January 2017. On November 1, the head of the public broadcaster, Zurab Alasania, resigned from his position in protest regarding a number of obstacles to establishing the channel’s operations, including the government’s diversion of the channel’s budget for other purposes. Alasania also cited complaints he had received from the government regarding investigative journalism programs on corruption produced by the broadcaster.
The practice of jeansa, or publishing unsubstantiated news articles for a fee, continued to be widespread. For example, according to the Institute of Mass Information press monitoring, the highest proportion of jeansa in regional media was found in print outlets in Mykolaiv Oblast, where 15 percent of all published articles were political or commercial jeansa.
Violence and Harassment: Violence against journalists remained a problem in the country, though attacks on journalists dropped for the second year. Human rights groups and journalists criticized government inaction in solving these crimes, giving rise to a culture of impunity.
According to the Institute of Mass Information, there were 30 reports of attacks on journalists, half as many as in 2015, and almost a 10th as many as in 2014. As in 2015, the majority of these attacks were perpetrated by private, not state, actors. There were 42 incidents of threats against and harassment of journalists, up from 36 in 2015.
The Institute of Mass Information and editors of major independent news outlets noted online harassment of journalists by societal actors, reflecting a growing societal intolerance of reporting deemed insufficiently patriotic, a development they said had the tacit support of the government. In one case, on May 10, the nationalist website Myrotvorets (Peacemaker), which allegedly has links to the Interior Ministry, published the names and personal information of more than 4,000 domestic and foreign journalists who had received accreditation from the Russian-backed separatist “authorities” in Donetsk and Luhansk. The website claimed that the journalists’ actions amounted to collaboration with terrorists. On May 24, Myrotvorets published the personal information of an additional 300 journalists. Some affected media professionals subsequently received death threats and were subjected to significant online harassment. While Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov spoke out in support of Myrotvorets, calling the journalists “liberal separatists,” President Poroshenko on June 3 condemned the website during his annual press conference. Police investigation of the case continued through year’s end.
There were multiple incidents of violence and harassment against the television channel INTER, which is perceived to have a pro-Russian editorial policy. According to press reports, in January protesters spray-painted “Kremlin mouthpiece” on INTER’s offices and threw rocks through its windows. On February 25, volunteer Azov Battalion fighters blocked journalists’ access to INTER’s offices after INTER broadcasters were inadvertently recorded criticizing the “heavenly hundred,” demonstrators killed during the Euromaidan protests. In June, protesters burned tires at the entrance to INTER’s offices. On August 4, Myrotvorets published hacked email correspondence purporting to show that an INTER TV journalist had coordinated the contents of an article with Russian-backed separatist leaders. On August 31, Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov publicly called on the SBU to deal with INTER, which he labeled “anti-Ukrainian.” On September 4, approximately 15 to 20 masked persons entered INTER’s offices, setting fire to the building, destroying equipment, and trapping employees in the smoke-filled building. As a result some staff members were hospitalized, including one with a spinal injury. Authorities arrested six persons at the scene; an investigation into the attack by the SBU Investigative Department continued. On November 21, five unidentified persons threw Molotov cocktails at INTER’s headquarters. Authorities opened an investigation into the incident, which continued at year’s end.
On July 20, well-known journalist Pavel Sheremet, who hosted a morning show on Vesti radio and worked for the Ukrainska Pravdaonline news outlet, was killed by a bomb in the car he was driving in downtown Kyiv (see section 1.a.).
During the year authorities detained but later released two suspects in the 2015 killing in Kyiv of Oles Buzina, who was perceived as pro-Russian. Both suspects were allegedly members of right-wing political groups. An investigation into the case remained open at year’s end.
There were multiple reports of attacks on journalists investigating government corruption. On May 24, three masked men fled in a car after beating Anatoliy Ostapenko, a journalist affiliated with the independent media outlet Hromadske Zaporizhzhya. Ostapenko was working on several investigations linking local authorities in Zaporizhzhya to corruption. An investigation into the attack continued at year’s end.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Institute for Mass Information recorded seven incidents of censorship of individual publications, down from 12 in 2015.
Both independent and state-owned media periodically engaged in self-censorship when reporting stories that might expose political allies to criticism or that might be perceived by the public as insufficiently patriotic or that might provide information that could be used for Russian propaganda.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a civil offense. While the law limits the monetary damages a plaintiff can claim in a lawsuit, local media observers continued to express concern over high monetary damages awarded for alleged libel. Government entities, and public figures in particular, used the threat of civil suits, sometimes based on alleged damage to a person’s “honor and integrity,” to influence or intimidate the press and investigative journalists. For example, on August 29, former prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, announced he would sue the investigative journalism television program “Schemes” over its claims to have uncovered evidence of his corruption, including his ownership of luxury property registered in the names of family members.
National Security: Authorities took measures to prohibit, regulate, and occasionally censor information deemed a national security threat.
The government continued the practice of banning specific works by pro-Russian actors, film directors, and singers, as well as imposing sanctions on pro-Russian journalists. According to the head of the State Film Agency, Fillip Ilienko, as of February 18, some 432 films and television shows had been banned in the country on national security grounds since August 2014. On May 31, the president signed a decree imposing visa bans on 17 Russian journalists; several dozen other journalists were sanctioned previously. The decree also lifted sanctions against 29 foreign journalists. Human rights NGOs criticized the move. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the country to “immediately rescind the decree banning Russian journalists from the country and to resist the urge to fight propaganda with censorship.”
The government continued to block Russian television channels from broadcasting in the country, based on a 2014 decision by the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council based on the perceived dangerous influence of Russian propaganda. As of year’s end, only six Russian channels were permitted to broadcast, compared to 83 Russian channels able to broadcast in the country at the start of 2014. According to the head of the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council, as of November 2, the council had issued 23 warnings to Ukrainian cable providers for violating the ban on certain Russian channels.
Media professionals continued to experience pressure from SBU and the armed forces when reporting on sensitive issues, such as military losses. On July 8, the press center of the Antiterrorist Operation (ATO) asked the SBU to suspend the accreditation of journalists representing two Ukrainian and one Russian media outlets that were reporting from Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast. The journalists had released a video considered by the ATO headquarters to violate the rules for reporting from a conflict area, since it disclosed soldiers’ faces, locations, and weaponry. After the request to remove it, the Ukrainian Hromadske journalists removed the video from their YouTube channel, but Russian journalist, Yulia Polukhina, published the material in Novaya Gazeta. After later receiving concurrence, Hromadske published an abridged version of the video approximately three weeks later. The HRMMU considered the response of the ATO headquarters to be disproportionate to the violation.
On February 24, the SBU deported Russian journalist, Mariya Stolyarova, and banned her from re-entering the country for five years. Stolyarova worked as a broadcast editor of “Podrobnosti Nedeli” (“Details of the Week”) at INTER TV. Before the deportation the SBU conducted an investigation regarding an obscene statement Stolyarova made on air during a broadcast of material related to the “heavenly hundred” protesters who were killed during the Euromaidan demonstrations. Law enforcement officers also questioned Stolyarova’s stay on territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and her alleged coordination of storylines with Russian-backed separatists.
Nongovernmental Impact: Russian-backed separatists in eastern areas of the country harassed, arbitrarily detained, and mistreated journalists (see section 1.g.). According to the HRMMU, “persons living in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ know that expressing their opinion freely and publicly was not acceptable in armed group-controlled territory,” that “armed groups are directly influencing and shaping the content in local media,” and that they require favorable coverage as the cost of retaining registration to operate.
According to the HRMMU and media reports, on January 4, the “Ministry of State Security” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” detained Kyiv-based blogger and activist, Volodymyr Fomichev, and charged him with unlawful possession of weapons. On June 27, he pled guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. Fomichev’s family insisted the conviction was baseless and the result of a forced confession. During the “hearings,” Fomichev gave his father a sweater covered with blood, raising concerns about mistreatment by “investigators.”
Actions to Expand Press Freedom: On February 4, parliament passed a law criminalizing the illegal seizure of materials collected, processed, and prepared by journalists or of technical devices they use in their professional activities. The law also introduces a penalty of up to three years’ imprisonment for unlawfully denying journalists access to information, unlawfully banning them from covering particular topics, or for any other action impeding their professional activity.
Authorities did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. Law enforcement bodies monitored the internet, at times without appropriate legal authority. Authorities did not restrict content or censor websites or other communications and internet services.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 49 percent of persons in the country used the internet in 2015.
Human rights groups and journalists that were critical of Russian involvement in the Donbas region and Crimea reported that opponents subjected their websites to cyberattacks, such as coordinated denial of service incidents and unauthorized attempts to obtain information from computers, as well as coordinated campaigns of “trolling” and harassment on social media.
Users of social media, particularly Facebook and VKontakte, sometimes had their access temporarily blocked for innocuous or political posts that other users mischaracterized as “hate speech” and flagged as terms of service violations.
In its yearly Freedom on the Net report, Freedom House assessed in November that internet freedom in the country deteriorated for the second year in a row, noting that, “Ukrainian authorities have become less tolerant of online expression perceived as critical of Ukraine’s position in the conflict, and the government has been especially active this year in sanctioning social media users for ‘separatist’ and “extremist” activities, with many users detained, fined and even imprisoned for such activities. Meanwhile, Russian-backed separatist forces in the east have stepped up efforts to block content online perceived to be in support of Ukrainian government or cultural identity.”
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were several reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. On November 4, the SBU announced that it had banned 140 Russian cultural figures from entering the country, as their actions or statements conflicted with the country’s interests.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption, although authorities did not effectively implement the law, and many officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. While the number of reports of government corruption was low, corruption remained pervasive at all levels in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government and in society.
During the year multiple high-level officials who had been brought into the government to oversee anticorruption reform processes resigned due to efforts to impede their work. Complaining of ingrained corruption, Minister of Economy Aivaras Abromavicius resigned in February and was followed by some members of his team. Abromavicius stated in his resignation letter that corrupt officials had blocked systematic reform and were attempting to gain influence over state enterprises.
Corruption: While the government publicized several attempts to combat corruption, it remained a serious problem for citizens and businesses alike. The law establishes two governmental anticorruption bodies, the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption (NAPC) and the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU).
As of October 1, the NABU had launched 243 criminal proceedings in corruption cases with support from the newly created Specialized Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office. Authorities tried 31 corruption cases involving 70 persons, including judges, prosecutors, and state officers, but many were for minor violations. In a major anticorruption case, the Verkhovna Rada stripped Member of Parliament Oleksandr Onyshchenko of immunity from prosecution in July under suspicion of corruption and embezzlement. At year’s end he remained a fugitive outside the country, and the investigation continued.
Civil society criticized the Prosecutor General’s Office and the judicial system for failing to hold high-level officials to account for corruption. According to the anticorruption watchdog group, Nashi Hroshi, between July 2015 and July 2016, 952 persons were convicted of corruption. Of these individuals 312 were fined (70 percent of these fines were below 20,000 hryvnias ($740)), 336 persons received suspended sentences, and 137 had their convictions overturned. One hundred twenty-eight persons were sentenced to prison; of these individuals 33 were serving sentences, while the rest had appeals pending. Of the 952 persons convicted for corruption, only three were officials of significant stature: two heads of district administrations and one deputy head of the state agricultural inspectorate. As of July all three cases were undergoing appeals, and the defendants had yet to begin serving their sentences.
While members of the Verkhovna Rada are immune from prosecution, several members, such as Onyshchenko, were stripped of immunity for prosecution during the year. Judges may not be arrested or detained before courts convict them, unless the Verkhovna Rada rescinds their immunity.
The NAPC is responsible for the development of national anticorruption policies, monitoring national compliance with anticorruption legislation, and verifying asset declarations of high officials. The NAPC, established in March 2015, began operations in May.
The law designates NABU as the lead investigative agency for allegations of corruption by senior government officials, including the president, members of the Cabinet of Ministers, members of the Verkhovna Rada, and local governors. NABU is responsible only for investigating corruption offenses committed after its creation in 2015. The Prosecutor General’s Office had 25,000 open corruption cases that predated the creation of NABU.
There were reports that the Prosecutor General’s Office took steps during the year to hinder NABU’s ability to investigate high-level corruption. On August 5, an investigative group from the Prosecutor General’s Office raided the NABU headquarters in Kyiv, alleging that NABU had illegally wiretapped its employees. On August 12, Prosecutor General’s Office staff allegedly unlawfully detained and beat two NABU detectives who they asserted were engaged in wiretapping. On September 20, three Prosecutor General’s Office employees were suspended pending the outcome of an internal investigation, which continued at year’s end.
According to the Justice Ministry, implementation of a 2014 law on “lustration” was 99 percent completed. Some 700,000 civil servants and state officials were on the list for lustration. The checks resulted in the dismissal of approximately 1,000 state officials. According to the Parliamentary Anticorruption Committee, 80 percent of state officials from the Yanukovych era were discharged from their posts. Law enforcement and judicial agencies, however, avoided full compliance with the law. The SBU subjected only 50 staff members to lustration. The judiciary lustrated only 40 judges, eight of whom contested the decision in court and were restored to their positions.
Financial Disclosure: The law mandates the filing of income and expenditure declarations by public officials, and a special review process allows for public access to declarations and sets penalties for either not filing or filing a false declaration.
By law, the NACP is responsible for reviewing financial declarations and monitoring the income and expenditures of high-level officials. On August 15, the government officially launched an asset e-declaration system. By the conclusion of the first phase on November 1, more than 120,000 officials had submitted e-declarations, indicating near total compliance. The results were made publicly available, provoking public outcry about the lavish lifestyles of many public officials. By law the NAPC reviews the declarations and refers suspected corruption cases to the NABU for further action. Some observers questioned, however, whether the NAPC had the capacity to fulfill this function.
Public Access to Information: The constitution and law require authorities to provide government information upon request, unless it pertains to national security. By law officials must respond to regular requests within five days and within 20 days to requests for large amounts of data. Requesters can appeal denials within agencies and ultimately to the court system. Instructions for filing information requests were a common and conspicuous component of government websites. Implementation of the law on public access to government information and training of officials on the regulations governing such access remained inadequate.