Read A Section: Crimea
In February 2014 Russian forces entered Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and occupied it militarily. In March 2014 Russia announced the peninsula had become part of the Russian Federation following a sham referendum that violated Ukraine’s constitution. The UN General Assembly’s Resolution 68/262 on the “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine” of March 27, 2014, and Resolution 74/168 on the “Situation of Human Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine)”of December 9, 2019, called on states and international organizations not to recognize any change in Crimea’s status and affirmed the commitment of the United Nations to recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. In April 2014 Ukraine’s legislature (Verkhovna Rada) adopted a law attributing responsibility for human rights violations in Crimea to the Russian Federation as the occupying state. The United States does not recognize the attempted “annexation” of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Russian law has been applied in Ukraine’s Crimea since the Russian occupation and purported “annexation” of the peninsula. For detailed information on the laws and practices of the Russian Federation, see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia.
A local occupation authority installed by the Russian government and led by Sergey Aksyonov as “prime minister” of the “state council of the republic of Crimea” administers occupied Crimea. The “state council” is responsible for day-to-day administration and other functions of governing. In 2016 Russia’s nationwide parliamentary elections included seats allocated for purportedly annexed Crimea, a move widely condemned by the international community and that contravened the Ukrainian constitution.
Russian government agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Federal Investigative Committee, and the Office of the Prosecutor General applied and enforced Russian law in Crimea as if it were a part of the Russian Federation. The FSB also conducted security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism activities and combatted organized crime and corruption. A “national police force” operated under the aegis of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Russian authorities maintained control over Russian military and security forces deployed in Crimea.
Significant human rights issues included: disappearances; torture, including punitive psychiatric incarceration; mistreatment of persons in detention as punishment or to extort confessions; harsh prison conditions and transfer of prisoners to Russia; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; pervasive and arbitrary interference with privacy; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists and website blocking; gross and widespread suppression of freedom of assembly and religion; severe restriction of freedom of association, including barring the Crimean Tatar Mejlis; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; systemic corruption; and violence and systemic discrimination against Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians.
Occupation authorities took few steps to investigate or prosecute officials or individuals who committed human rights abuses, creating an atmosphere of impunity and lawlessness.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.
Occupation authorities significantly restricted freedom of expression and subjected dissenting voices including the press to harassment and prosecution.
Freedom of Expression: The HRMMU noted occupation authorities placed “excessive limitations on the freedoms of opinion and expression.” Individuals could not publicly criticize the Russian occupation without fear of reprisal. Human rights groups reported the FSB engaged in widespread surveillance of social media, telephones, and electronic communication and routinely summoned individuals for “discussions” for voicing or posting opposition to the occupation.
Occupation authorities often deemed expressions of dissent “extremism” and prosecuted individuals for them. For example, according to press reports, on June 10, the Sevastopol “district court” sentenced the head of the Sevastopol Worker’s Union, Valeriy Bolshakov, to two years and six months of suspended imprisonment for “public calls to extremist activities” for his criticism of occupation authorities on social networks. Bolshakov called to replace the “Putin regime” with a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Occupation authorities harassed and fined individuals for the display of Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar symbols, which were banned as “extremist.” For example, according to NGO reporting, on June 26, the Saky “district court” fined local resident Oleg Prykhodko for “public demonstration of paraphernalia or symbols of extremist organizations.” Prykhodko had displayed Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar flags on his car. On October 9, authorities arrested Prykhodko during a raid on his home, where they purportedly “found” explosives in his garage, which human rights defenders maintained were planted there. On October 28, authorities charged Prykhodko with terrorism and possession of explosives.
Occupation authorities deemed expressions of support for Ukrainian sovereignty over the peninsula to be equivalent to undermining Russian territorial integrity. For example, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group, on January 29, occupation authorities charged Crimean Tatar Mejlis member Iskander Bariyev with calling for the violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, in connection with a December 2018 Facebook post in which he called for the “liberation” of Crimea from Russian occupation and criticized repression taking place on the peninsula.
There were multiple reports that occupation authorities detained and prosecuted individuals seeking to film raids on homes or court proceedings. For example, according to press reports, on March 27, a Simferopol court sentenced Crimean Tatar activist Iskender Mamutov to five days in prison for “minor hooliganism” because he filmed security services as they raided Crimean Tatar homes.
During the year occupation authorities prosecuted individuals for the content of social media posts written before Russia began its occupation of Crimea. For example, on July 2, police detained a resident of the town of Sudak, Seyar Emirov, for a video posted on a social network in 2013. The video was of a local meeting of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is legal in Ukraine. The local occupation “court” fined him 1,500 rubles ($23) for “production of extremist material.”
There were reports that authorities prosecuted individuals for their appearance in social media posts that they did not author. For example, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group, on May 31, a court in Simferopol fined Crimean Tatar activist Luftiye Zudiyeva 2,000 rubles ($30) for being tagged in social media posts in 2014 authored by another person, which authorities alleged also contained banned symbols.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent print and broadcast media could not operate freely. Most independent media outlets were forced to close in 2015 after occupation authorities refused to register them. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, after the occupation began, many local journalists left Crimea or abandoned their profession. With no independent media outlets left in Crimea and professional journalists facing serious risks for reporting from the peninsula, civic activists were a major source of information on developments in Crimea.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous cases of security forces or police harassing activists and detaining journalists in connection with their civic or professional activities. For example, during the year security forces reportedly harassed, abused, and arrested journalist Yevgeniy Haivoronskiy. Haivoronskiy initially supported the Russian occupation, but in recent years came to oppose it, a position he expressed publicly. On March 6, police raided Haivoronskiy’s home and seized computers and documents. On March 22, the newspaper that published his articles, Primechania, announced it would no longer carry his work due to his pro-Ukrainian position. On March 26, Haivoronskiy was arrested several hours after he gave an interview criticizing occupation authorities and calling for control of the peninsula to be returned to Ukraine. Police alleged he had been using drugs, and a judge sentenced him to 12 days in jail and to undergo drug treatment. Haivoronskiy denied he used drugs and maintained the charge was an effort to frame him in retaliation for his political views. On May 7, a court sentenced him to a further 10 days in jail for refusing a medical examination during the March prison stay. On October 22, police detained Haivoronskiy, reportedly beating him and slamming his head into the side of a police car during detention. The same day a court sentenced him to 15 additional days in jail for failing to complete the drug treatment program ordered by the court in March. On December 31, Russian occupation authorities forcibly removed Haivoronskiy from Crimea to mainland Ukraine.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, journalists resorted to self-censorship to continue reporting and broadcasting. The August UN secretary-general’s special report stated, “In order to avoid repercussions for independent journalistic work, [journalists] frequently self-censored, used pseudonyms and filtered their content prior to publication. Ukrainian journalists, as well as public figures who are perceived as critics of Crimea’s occupation, have faced entry bans issued by FSB and were unable to access Crimea to conduct their professional activities.”
There were reports occupation authorities sought to restrict access to or remove internet content about Crimea they disliked. For example, on February 5, YouTube informed the Crimea-focused website The Center for Journalistic Research, which operated in mainland Ukraine, that it had received a notification from Russian censorship authorities (Roskomnadzor) that material on the Center’s YouTube account violated the law. Occupation authorities specifically deemed a documentary about Crimean Tatar political prisoner Emir-Usain Kuku to be “extremist.” YouTube notified the Center that if it did not delete the material, it could be forced to block it. On February 7, Amnesty International released a statement urging YouTube not to block the video, and YouTube did not do so.
Occupation authorities banned most Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar-language broadcasts, replacing the content with Russian programming. According to Crimean Human Rights Group media monitoring, during the year occupation authorities jammed the signal of Ukrainian radio stations by transmitting Russian radio stations at the same frequencies.
Human rights groups reported occupation authorities continued to forbid songs by Ukrainian singers from playing on Crimean radio stations.
Censorship of independent internet sites was widespread (see Internet Freedom).
According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, 10 Crimean internet service providers blocked 14 Ukrainian information websites and two social networks during the year, including the sites of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.
National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to justify retaliation against opponents of Russia’s occupation.
The Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service included prominent critics of the occupation on its list of extremists and terrorists. Inclusion on the list prevented individuals from holding bank accounts, using notary services, and conducting other financial transactions. As of October the list included 47 persons from Crimea, including numerous political prisoners and their relatives as well as others reportedly being tried for their pro-Ukrainian political positions, such as Oleh Prykhodko (see Freedom of Expression, above).
Authorities frequently used the threat of “extremism,” “terrorism,” or other purported national security grounds to justify harassment or prosecution of individuals in retaliation for expressing opposition to the occupation. For example, on July 12, according to press reports, a court authorized the in absentia arrest of independent Crimean Tatar journalist Gulsum Khalilova for “participating in an armed formation in the territory of a foreign state” for allegedly joining an armed battalion in Ukraine. Khalilova, who moved to mainland Ukraine, denied having any dealings with armed groups and characterized the case as fabricated in retribution for her independent reporting on the peninsula.
Russian occupation authorities restricted free expression on the internet by imposing repressive Russian Federation laws on Crimea (see section 2.a. of the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia). Security services routinely monitored and controlled internet activity to suppress dissenting opinions. According to media accounts, occupation authorities interrogated and harassed residents of Crimea for online postings with pro-Ukrainian opinions (see Censorship or Content Restrictions, above).
More than 30 Ukrainian online outlets were among the hundreds that authorities blocked in Crimea, including several sites that were not on the Russian federal internet block list.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Occupation authorities engaged in a widespread campaign to suppress the Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian languages (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.
According to the August UN secretary-general’s special report, “public events initiated by perceived supporters of Ukrainian territorial integrity or critics of policies of the Russian Federation in Crimea were reportedly prevented and/or prohibited by occupation authorities.” For example, on August 9, the head of the Zarechenskoye village council denied an application filed by Crimean Tatar activist Kemal Yakubov to hold a public celebration of the Muslim holiday Kurban Bayram. She cited a lack of a support letter from the pro-occupation Administration of Muslims of Crimea as the reason for her denial.
The Crimean Human Rights Group reported Crimeans were regularly charged with administrative offenses for peacefully assembling without permission. For example, on August 21, a court in Sudak convicted environmental activist Igor Savchenko of holding an unauthorized demonstration and fined him 20,000 rubles ($313); Savchenko had organized a demonstration on August 14 against illegal construction on the Meganom Cape.
Occupation authorities brought charges for “unauthorized assemblies” against single-person protests, even though Russian law imposed on Crimea does not require preauthorization for individual protests. For example, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group, on March 29, police in Simferopol detained Crimean Tatar activist Tair Ibragimov, who was standing alone with a poster that read, “Give 166 children their fathers back!!!,” in protest against the mass arrests of March 27. He was charged with violating regulations on public protest. A court convicted him the same day and fined him 15,000 rubles ($235).
There were reports that authorities used a ban on “unauthorized missionary activity” to restrict public gatherings of members of religious minorities. For example, three administrative cases were initiated against a group of members of the Hare Krishna faith who gathered in a Sevastopol park to sing mantras. On August 6, the Leninskiy “district court” in Sevastopol fined each of them 5,000 rubles ($78) for “unauthorized missionary activity.”
A “regulation” limits the places where public events may be held to 366 listed locations. The HRMMU noted that the “regulation” restricted freedom of assembly to a shrinking number of “specially designated spaces,” a move that appeared “designed to dissuade the exercise of the right of freedom of assembly.”
There were reports of occupation authorities using coercive methods to provide for participation at rallies in support of the “government.” Students, teachers, and civil servants were forced to attend a commemoration event on the day of deportation of the Crimean Tatars organized by occupation authorities in Simferopol on May 18.
There were reports occupation authorities charged and fined individuals for allegedly violating public assembly rules in retaliation for gathering to witness security force raids on homes.
Freedom of Association
See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.
Occupation authorities broadly restricted freedom of association for individuals who opposed the occupation. For example, there were numerous reports of authorities taking steps to harass, intimidate, arrest, and imprison members of the human rights group Crimean Solidarity, an unregistered movement of friends and family of victims of repression by occupation authorities (see section 1.d.). During the year the Crimean Human Rights Group documented multiple cases in which police visited the homes of Crimean Solidarity activists to threaten them or warn them not to engage in “extremist” activities. For example, at least seven Crimean Solidarity activists were given such “preventative warnings” on the eve of the May 17 anniversary of the 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatar people.
Occupation authorities placed restrictions on the Spiritual Administration of Crimean Muslims, which was closely associated with Crimean Tatars. According to human rights groups, Russian security services routinely monitored prayers at mosques for any mention that Crimea remained part of Ukraine. Russian security forces also monitored mosques for anti-Russian sentiment and as a means of recruiting police informants.
The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People remained banned for purported “extremism” despite an order by the International Court of Justice requiring occupation authorities to “refrain from maintaining or imposing limitations on the ability of the Crimean Tatar community to conserve its representative institutions, including the Mejlis.” Following the 2016 ban on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis as an “extremist organization,” occupation authorities banned gatherings by Mejlis members and prosecuted individuals for discussing the Mejlis on social media.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
Occupation authorities did not respect the right to freedom of movement.
In-country Movement: Occupation authorities maintained a state border at the administrative boundary between mainland Ukraine and Crimea. According to the HRMMU, the boundary and the absence of public transportation between Crimea and mainland Ukraine continued to undermine freedom of movement to and from the peninsula, affecting mainly the elderly, individuals with limited mobility, and young children.
There were reports occupation authorities selectively detained and at times abused persons attempting to enter or leave Crimea. According to human rights groups, occupation authorities routinely detained adult men at the administrative boundary for additional questioning, threatened to seize passports and documents, seized telephones and memory cards, and questioned them for hours. For example, on June 11, the FSB detained activist Gulsum Alieva at the administrative borderline when she was entering the peninsula. They brought the activist to the police station in the nearby town of Armyansk. According to her lawyer, authorities charged Alieva with extremism and released her later the same day.
In other cases, authorities issued entry bans to Crimean Tatars attempting to cross the administrative boundary from mainland Ukraine. For example, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group, on February 5, occupation authorities at the administrative boundary detained Crimean Tatar Rustem Rashydov, who was seeking to visit his family in Crimea. He was released after being interrogated for 12 hours and given a document stating he was banned from entering the “Russian Federation.”
Occupation authorities launched criminal cases against numerous high-profile Crimean Tatar leaders, including member of the parliament Mustafa Jemilev and Refat Chubarov, the current chairmen of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis; by Crimean Tatar activist Sinaver Kadyrov; and by Ismet Yuksel, the general director of the Crimean News Agency.
According to the HRMMU, Ukrainian legislation restricts access to Crimea to three designated crossing points and imposes penalties, including long-term entry bans, for noncompliance. Crimean residents lacking Ukrainian passports, who only possessed Russian-issued Crimean travel documents not recognized by Ukrainian authorities, often faced difficulties when crossing into mainland Ukraine.
Citizenship: Russian occupation authorities required all residents of Crimea to be Russian citizens. Those who refused Russian citizenship could be subjected to arbitrary expulsion. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, during the five years of Russia’s occupation, more than 1,500 Ukrainians were prosecuted for not having Russian documents, and 450 persons were ordered to be deported.
According to the HRMMU, in 2018 “courts” in Crimea ordered deportation of 231 Ukrainian nationals, many of whom were Crimean residents with Ukrainian citizenship, whose residence rights in Crimea were not recognized.
Residents of Crimea who chose not to adopt Russian citizenship were considered foreigners. In some cases they could obtain a residency permit. Persons holding a residency permit without Russian citizenship were deprived of key rights and could not own agricultural land, vote or run for office, register a religious congregation, or register a vehicle. Authorities denied those who refused Russian citizenship access to “government” employment, education, and health care, as well as the ability to open bank accounts and buy insurance, among other limitations.
According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, Russian authorities prosecuted private employers who continued to employ Ukrainians. Fines could be imposed on employers for every recorded case of employing a Ukrainian citizen without a labor license. Fines in such cases amounted to several million dollars.
In some cases authorities compelled Crimean residents to surrender their Ukrainian passports, complicating international travel, because many countries did not recognize “passports” issued by Russian occupation authorities.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Corruption: There were multiple reports during the year of systemic rampant corruption among Crimean “officeholders,” including through embezzlement of Russian state funds allocated to support the occupation. For example, on April 3, de facto Crimean law enforcement authorities detained the mayor of the city of Yevpatoriya, Andrey Filonov. He was charged with abuse of power that entailed losses for the municipal budget in the amount of 35 million Russian rubles ($5.5 million).
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Since the beginning of the occupation, authorities singled out Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians for discrimination, abuse, deprivation of civil liberties and religious and economic rights, and violence, including killings and abductions (also see sections 1.a.-1.d., 1.f., 2.a., 2.b., and 2.d.). The August UN secretary-general’s special report noted a “narrowing of space for manifestations of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar identities and enjoyment of the respective cultures in Crimea. The restrictions have reportedly been closely connected to the suppression of political dissent and alternative political opinion.”
There were reports that government officials openly advocated discrimination against Crimean Tatars. Occupation authorities harassed Crimean Tatars for speaking their language in public and forbade speaking it in the workplace. There were reports teachers prohibited schoolchildren from speaking Crimean Tatar to one another. Crimean Tatars were prohibited from celebrating their national holidays and commemorating victims of previous abuses. For example, on June 26, occupation authorities denied a request by the residents of the town of Oktyabrske to hold a car rally for Crimean Tatar Flag Day. Police arrived at the gathering, informed them the event was unauthorized, and video-recorded those present. According to press reports, as the cars proceeded anyway, they were pulled over four times by police for “document checks.”
Occupation authorities also restricted the use of Crimean Tatar flags and symbols (see section 2.a.).
By the end of 2014, Ukrainian as a language of instruction was removed from university-level education in Crimea. According to the HRMMU, in the 2017-2018 academic year no school provided instruction in Ukrainian, and there were eight available Ukrainian language classes in Russian schools that were attended by 318 children. In 2017 the International Court of Justice ruled on provisional measures in proceedings brought by Ukraine against the Russian Federation, concluding unanimously that the Russian Federation must “ensure the availability of education in the Ukrainian language.”
Occupation authorities have not permitted churches linked to ethnic Ukrainians, in particular the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, to register under Russian law. Occupation authorities harassed and intimidated members of the churches and used court proceedings to force the OCU in particular to leave properties it had rented for years. The largest OCU congregation in Crimea closed on September 23 following a ruling by occupation authorities that the cathedral located in Simferopol must be “returned to the state.” The church was shut down after repeated refusals by the authorities to allow it to register.
Occupation authorities allegedly selectively seized property belonging to ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. According to the August UN secretary-general’s special report, during the year the HRMMU “received information about numerous cases of allocation of land plots to formerly displaced persons in Crimea, including Crimean Tatars, free of charge, as part of plans to legalize the unauthorized appropriation of land or allocation of alternative land plots.”
Russian occupation authorities prohibited Crimean Tatars affiliated with the Mejlis from registering businesses or properties as a matter of policy.
Read A Section: Ukraine
Note: Except where otherwise noted, references in this report do not include areas controlled by Russia-led forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine or Russian-occupied Crimea. At the end of this report is a section listing abuses in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Ukraine is a republic with a semipresidential political system composed of three branches of government: a unicameral legislature (Verkhovna Rada); an executive led by a directly elected president who is head of state and commander in chief, and a prime minister who is chosen through a legislative majority and as head of government leads the Cabinet of Ministers; and a judiciary. On April 21, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president in an election considered free and fair by international and domestic observers. On July 21, the country held early parliamentary elections that observers also considered free and fair.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for maintaining internal security and order. The ministry oversees police and other law enforcement personnel. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) is responsible for state security broadly defined, nonmilitary intelligence, and counterintelligence and counterterrorism matters. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reports to the Cabinet of Ministers, and the SBU reports directly to the president. The Ministry of Defense protects the country against foreign and domestic aggression, ensures sovereignty and the integrity of national borders, and exercises control over the activities of the armed forces in compliance with the law. The president is the supreme commander in chief of the armed forces. The Ministry of Defense reports directly to the president. The State Fiscal Tax 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 maintained effective control over security forces in the territory controlled by the government.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture and other abuse of detainees by law enforcement personnel; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention centers; arbitrary arrest and detention; substantial problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, censorship, and blocking of websites; refoulement; widespread government corruption; and crimes involving violence or threat of violence targeting persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.
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 alleged human rights abuses committed by government security forces.
In the Russia-induced and -fueled conflict in the Donbas region, Russia-led forces reportedly engaged in killings of civilians; forced disappearances and abductions; torture; unlawful detentions; and committed gender-based violence. Other egregious human right issues in the areas controlled by Russia-led forces included harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; political prisoners; the absence of judicial independence; severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet; restrictions on the rights of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, and religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement across the line of contact in eastern Ukraine; and unduly restricted humanitarian aid.
Significant human rights issues in Russia-occupied Crimea included: abductions; torture and abuse of detainees to extract confessions and punish persons resisting the occupation; unlawful detention; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including for members of the press; restrictions on the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association and religion. Occupation authorities in Crimea continued to engage in violence against and harassment of Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists in response to peaceful opposition to Russian occupation (see Crimea sub-report).
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
In the Donbas region, Russia-led forces 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 Expression: With some exceptions, individuals in areas under government 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 as well as the manufacture or promotion of the St. George’s ribbon, a symbol associated with Russia-led forces in the Donbas region. On July 16, the country’s constitutional court upheld the ban on displaying communist and Nazi symbols. During the May 9 celebration of World War II Victory Day, police issued 27 administrative offense citations in Odesa, Mykolaiv, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Donetsk Oblasts and detained several individuals in Kyiv, Kryvy Rih, Lviv, and Odesa for carrying banned Soviet symbols.
On October 10, a court in Kryvy Rih convicted a local resident of wearing a T-shirt with the state symbol of the USSR in a public place. The man reportedly wore the shirt at a local shopping center on June 14. He was given a one-year suspended sentence and another year of probation.
The law prohibits statements that threaten the country’s territorial integrity, promote war, instigate racial or religious conflict, or support Russian aggression against the country, and the government prosecuted individuals under these laws (see “Censorship” and “National Security”).
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The NGO Freedom House rated the country’s press as “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 owned by influential oligarchs, often presented readers and viewers a “biased pluralism,” representing the views of their owners, favorable coverage of their allies, and criticism of 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.
There were reports of continuing state pressure on the National Public Broadcasting Company (UA:PBC), created as a result of a 2014 law to provide an independent publicly funded alternative to oligarch-controlled television channels. On January 31, the supervisory board of UA:PBC announced the removal of the channel’s director, Zurab Alasania. Observers alleged the decision was made because the channel broadcast anticorruption investigations in the pre-electoral period that had been unflattering to then president Petro Poroshenko. According to press reports, the supervisory board’s initial draft decision cited the channel’s failure to cover events favorable to Poroshenko, but the final decision did not contain this language and instead alleged financial mismanagement. Following public outcry, the board announced Alasania would remain in place until May 6. Alasania challenged the board’s decision in court, and on June 19, a Kyiv court ruled the board’s decision was illegal. Alasania was reinstated in his position on July 1. On August 30, the SBI and SBU jointly raided the premises of UA:PBC, several of its regional affiliates, and the home of Alasania, apparently in connection with the allegations of financial mismanagement. The OSCE high representative on freedom of the media expressed concern about the raids and the potential impact of “any pressure on the independence of public media.” “Jeansa”–the practice of planting one-sided or favorable news coverage paid for by politicians or oligarchs–continued to be widespread. Monitoring by the IMI of national print and online media for jeansa indicated a wide range of actors ordered political jeansa, including political parties, politicians, oblast governments, and oligarchs. The IMI recorded a 22 percent increase of jeansa in the national online media before the parliamentary elections in 13 popular internet media outlets.
“Jeansa”–the practice of planting one-sided or favorable news coverage paid for by politicians or oligarchs–continued to be widespread. Monitoring by the IMI of national print and online media for jeansa indicated a wide range of actors ordered political jeansa, including political parties, politicians, oblast governments, and oligarchs. The IMI recorded a 22 percent increase of jeansa in the national online media before the parliamentary elections in 13 popular internet media outlets.
Violence and Harassment: Violence against journalists remained a problem. Human rights groups and journalists criticized what they saw as government inaction in solving the crimes as giving rise to a culture of impunity.
According to the IMI, as of September 1, there had been 20 reports of attacks on journalists, including one killing during the year, compared with 22 cases and no killings during the same period in 2018. As in 2018, private, rather than state, actors perpetrated the majority of the attacks. As of September 1, there were 33 incidents involving threats against journalists, as compared with 24 during the same period in 2018. The IMI and editors of major independent news outlets also noted online harassment of journalists by societal actors, reflecting a growing societal intolerance of reporting deemed insufficiently patriotic, a development they asserted had the tacit support of the government.
There were multiple reports of attacks on journalists by government officials. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on March 6, officials in the village of Chabany near Kyiv attacked Radio Liberty investigative reporter Kateryna Kaplyuk and cameraman Borys Trotsenko, leaving Trotsenko with a concussion and breaking his camera. The journalists were attempting to interview a village official for an investigation into allegations that officials were allocating state lands for private use, when a group of people that included two deputy mayors of the village, Yuriy Bondar and Volodymyr Chuprin, began shoving and punching them. They filed a police report, and police began an investigation, but no charges had been brought as of November.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by nongovernment actors. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on August 30 in Chernihiv, two unidentified individuals attacked blogger Ihor Stakh. Stakh was later treated for a concussion and required stitches for a cut on his face. The National Union of Journalists made statements indicating its belief that the attack was in retaliation for Stakh’s reporting on local corruption. Stakh reported receiving threats before the attack. Police opened an investigation but as of November had made no arrests.
On July 13, according to press reports, an unknown attacker fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Kyiv office of pro-Russian television news broadcaster 112 Ukraine, damaging the building but causing no injuries. Police opened an investigation, but no arrests had been made as of October.
There were allegations that the government prosecuted journalists in retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
There were reports that government officials sought to pressure journalists through the judicial system, often to reveal their sources in investigations. For example, on February 4, the Pechersk District Court granted the Prosecutor General’s Office access to internal documents and email correspondence of the independent news outlet Novoye Vremya. Prosecutors were seeking to identify a source who spoke to the Novoye Vremya for a 2016 story revealing corruption by a high-ranking prosecutor, alleging that the source violated investigatory secrecy rules.
Journalists received threats in connection with their reporting. For example, according to the Institute for Mass Information, on September 10, journalists of the Chesno civic movement alleged that Member of Parliament Oleksandr Kovalev threatened them in response to news published on their website describing Kovalev’s illegal proxy voting on behalf of other members of parliament. The journalists filed a complaint with law enforcement authorities.
On December 12, police arrested five suspects in the 2016 killing of well-known Belarusian-Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet (see section 1.a.).
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights organizations frequently criticized the government for taking an overly broad approach to banning books, television shows, websites, and other content (see subsections on National Security and Internet Freedom).
The State Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting (Derzhkomteleradio) maintained a list of banned books seen to be aimed at undermining the country’s independence, spreading propaganda of violence, inciting interethnic, racial, religious hostility, promoting terrorist attacks, or encroaching on human rights and freedoms. As of July the list contained 211 titles.
Both independent and state-owned media periodically engaged in self-censorship when reporting stories that might expose political allies to criticism or might be perceived by the public as insufficiently patriotic or 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 20, the head of the Presidential Administration, Andriy Bohdan, filed a libel lawsuit against the investigative journalism program Skhemy (Schemes), a joint program by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and UA:PBC. Bohdan clarified on August 23 that he was suing over Schemes’ reports about his repeated travel to visit oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyy abroad, which he asserted were false.
National Security: In the context of the continuing conventional conflict in the Donbas, as well as continuing Russian disinformation and cyber campaigns, authorities took measures to prohibit, regulate, and occasionally censor information deemed a national security threat, particularly those emanating from Russia and promoting pro-Russian lines.
The government continued the practice of banning specific works by Russian actors, film directors, and singers, as well as imposing sanctions on pro-Russian journalists. According to the State Film Agency, as of mid-September approximately 800 films and television shows had been banned on national security grounds since 2014. In response to Russia’s continued barrage of cyberattacks and disinformation as part of its efforts to destabilize Ukraine, the government maintained its ban on the operations of almost 600 companies and 1,228 persons that allegedly posed a “threat to information and the cyber security of the state.” Among them were two widely used social networks based in Russia and major Russian television channels as well as smaller Russian channels that operated independently of state control.
There were reports that the government used noncompliance with national security-related content bans to pressure outlets perceived as having a pro-Russian editorial policy. For example, on February 7, the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcast imposed a fine on NewsOne TV, a channel owned by associates of Russian-backed Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, for alleged “hate speech and propaganda promoting conflict and national hatred.” According to the National Council, monitoring of NewsOne TV broadcasts from late 2018 to early 2019 revealed “calls for aggressive actions, incitement of national, racial, or religious hatred, and justification of aggression against the territorial integrity” of Ukraine. On July 8, NewsOne announced that it had cancelled a planned July 12 joint live television program with the state-owned Russian television channel Rossiya 24, which is banned in the country, because of threats of violence. The proposed program, announced the day before on Russian state-owned television, was to be called We Have to Talk and would have linked up two studios in Kyiv and Moscow for a purportedly “apolitical” discussion between “everyday people” in the two countries the week ahead of parliamentary elections. The program’s announcement sparked public outrage, a protest outside NewsOne’s offices, and widespread condemnation from officials. On July 8, the prosecutor general called the program “attempted treason” and announced that NewsOne’s leadership had been called in for interrogation, while the SBU issued a warning letter to NewsOne. The National Security and Defense Council convened to discuss the program on July 8, after which the council’s head stated: “State bodies, including the SBU and National Police have received a number of orders, including in regards to defending the information space. Additional details cannot be revealed because of secrecy.” On July 10, the prosecutor general announced that a criminal case had been opened against NewsOne’s owner, Member of Parliament Taras Kozak, for “financing terrorism.” On July 9, Derzhkomteleradio announced it would hold an unscheduled inspection of NewsOne, which it conducted on July 24. On September 10, Derzhkomteleradio filed a lawsuit in a Kyiv district court seeking the revocation of the license, based upon its “incitement to hatred in Ukrainian society.”
On September 26, Derzhkomteleradio ruled that five affiliated media companies of pro-Russian Channel 112 TV violated their license conditions by changing their program concepts without required approvals. As a result of the decision, Channel 112 TV could not be broadcast by digital terrestrial signal in the country, but it was still available on satellite and cable networks. The OSCE representative on freedom of the media expressed concern about the decision, while a coalition of independent Ukrainian media watchdogs issued a statement of support of Derzhkomteleradio’s decision.
On August 19, the Supreme Court upheld a 2018 ban by the Lviv Oblast Council on all Russian-language books, films, and songs, in order to combat “hybrid warfare” by Russia. The Zhytomyr and Ternopil Oblast Councils mirrored this measure on October 25 and November 6, respectively, in 2018. There were no reported attempts at enforcing these bans.
Media professionals continued to experience pressure from the SBU, the military, and other officials when reporting on sensitive issues, such as military losses. For example, on November 6, the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) headquarters refused to accredit photo correspondent Maks Levin because of his reporting from the area of disengagement near Zolote, which the headquarters claimed violated the rules on reporting in the area of JFO in unspecified ways.
Authorities continued to deport and bar entry to foreign journalists on national security grounds. For example, on March 24, the State Border Service denied entry to Marc Innaro, a Moscow correspondent of the Italian public service broadcaster RAI and his colleague, a cameraman, claiming he “frequently engaged in anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in his reports.”
Nongovernmental Impact: There were reports that radical groups committed attacks on journalists. For example, according to press reports, on July 30, approximately a dozen members of the radical group Tradition and Order broke down the door of the state-run Ukrinform news agency in Kyiv and disrupted a press conference by parliamentary candidates who were alleging fraud in the July parliamentary election. They attacked and injured three Ukrinform staff members and poured water and threw eggs around the room. Police opened a criminal investigation into the incident, but as of November no arrests had been made.
The ability to exercise freedom of expression reportedly remained extremely limited in territory controlled by the “DPR” and “LPR.” Based on HRMMU media monitoring, critical independent media on the territory controlled by Russia-led forces was nonexistent. According to CyberLab Ukraine, an independent digital forensic analysis organization, the authorities in the “LPR” blocked more than 50 Ukrainian news outlets.
The HRMMU reported that journalists entering Russia-controlled territory of the “DPR” had to inform the “press center” of the “ministry of defense” about their activities on a daily basis, were arbitrarily required to show video footage at checkpoints, and were accompanied by members of armed groups when travelling close to the contact line.
On October 22, press outlets reported that a “court” in the “DPR” convicted journalist Stanislav Aseyev of espionage on behalf of Ukraine and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. Human rights defenders maintained that the charges were baseless and brought in retaliation for his independent reporting on events in territory controlled by Russia-led forces. Aseyev was released December 29 as part of a Ukraine-Russia prisoner and detainee exchange.
Law enforcement bodies monitored the internet, at times without appropriate legal authority, and took significant steps during the year to block access to websites based on “national security concerns.”
On March 19, then president Poroshenko endorsed new sanctions approved by the National Security and Defense Council that, among other things, extended sanctions on the Russian company Yandex and its services until 2022. Ukrainian internet providers continued to block websites at government demand based on national security concerns. On February 11, the SBU announced that it intended to block 100 websites that promote Russian interests in the country. As of October, 240 sites were blocked in the country. According to monitoring by CyberLab Ukraine, internet service-provider compliance with the government’s orders to block sites varied greatly. On July 22, the National Security and Defense Council announced it would continue the policy of blocking Russian social networks.
On September 30, a district administrative court in Kyiv dismissed a lawsuit brought by the For Free Net Ukraine Coalition against the Ministry of Information Policy, asking it to disclose the government’s criteria and methodology when creating its lists of internet resources to be banned on national security grounds.
Free speech advocates expressed concern that courts began to block access to websites on grounds other than national security. For example, on July 23, a Kyiv court ruled to block access to 18 websites, including blogging platform enigma.ua, at the request of the Kyiv Oblast prosecutor’s office on vague grounds related to violations of intellectual property rights. The owner of enigma.ua stated that he believed the blocking of his site was in retaliation for its publication of material critical of the country’s security services.
There were reports of the disclosure of personally identifiable information of persons to penalize expression of opinions. Between October 31 and November 5, Andriy Portnov, a former lawmaker and deputy head of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s administration, released personally identifying information of editorial and staff members of the anticorruption television program Schemes, as well as the registration data on 16 vehicles used by staff members of the program, on his Telegram messaging channel. In a November 5 message, Portnov invited anyone who comes across these vehicles to “give a stiff rebuff” to the drivers; he also suggested on October 31 that a driver whose personal data he disclosed was also under surveillance and could be exposed to physical harm. Portnov’s actions were apparently in response to an investigation by Schemes into his relationships with officials currently in the government.
The Myrotvorets (peacemaker) database, which published the personally identifying information of individuals it deemed to be “anti-Ukrainian” online and which reportedly maintained close ties to the country’s security services, published the personal data of journalists and public figures who had been critical of the country’s security services or had made other statements the site considered unpatriotic. On December 10, the database announced it was shutting down its servers to public access, but it noted some officials would continue to have access.
There were reports of cyberattacks on journalists who reported on corruption. For example, according to the Institute for Mass Information, for several weeks in February and March, journalists with the investigative anticorruption television program Schemes reported repeated attempts to hack their social network and messenger accounts.
Human rights groups and journalists who were critical of Russian involvement in the Donbas region and the occupation of Crimea reported their websites were subjected 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.
In its annual Freedom on the Net report published in November, Freedom House concluded that internet freedom had improved very slightly after two years of decline. It noted in particular that “the online information landscape is partly censored, with the government blocking Russian and proxy websites, and the Russia-led forces blocking Ukrainian websites in the areas under their control. Implementation of these blocks, however, was lax on both sides, and the digital environment is otherwise vibrant, despite efforts by political actors to manipulate debates through disinformation and paid content. These efforts intensified ahead of the presidential election, held in March and April. Arrests of users were commonplace, primarily as an extension of continuing hostilities between the government in Kyiv and Russian-led forces, as were attacks against online journalists. Adding to these challenges, persistent cyberattacks continued to constrain internet freedom.”
There were reports that the government prosecuted individuals for their posts on social media. For example, according to press reports, on April 16, the SBU searched the home of a man in Odesa, whom they alleged had written posts supporting Russia-led forces in eastern Ukraine on social media, and seized computer equipment, mobile devices, and material with banned communist symbols. He was charged with “encroachment on territorial integrity.”
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were reports the government investigated academic personnel for their research. For example, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on April 24, the Lviv regional branch of the SBU announced a check into what it called a “provocative survey” by the respected research institute Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. The opinion poll was commissioned by the independent media outlet Dzherkalo Tyzhnya and included a question that asked residents of “Galicia,” a historical region that spans parts of current Ukraine and Poland, how they viewed the fate of their region after the presidential elections. One of the possible answers was “Galicia should join Poland,” which the SBU viewed as a possible “call to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”
The government maintained a list of Russian or pro-Russian musicians, actors, and other cultural figures that it prohibited from entering the country on national security grounds.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. There are no laws, however, regulating the process of organizing and conducting events to provide for the right, and authorities have wide discretion under a Soviet-era directive to grant or refuse permission for assemblies on grounds of protecting public order and safety. Organizers are required to inform authorities in advance of demonstrations.
During the year citizens generally exercised the right to assemble peacefully without restriction in areas of the country under government control. There were occasional reports of police using excessive force to disperse a protest. On February 9, police clashed with demonstrators, including members of violent radical group C14 and activists from the “Who Ordered Katya Handziuk” civic initiative, in Kyiv protesting at a rally by the Batkyvshchyna political party held because the one of the party’s members was allegedly complicit in the 2018 high-profile killing of activist Kateryna Handziuk (see section 1.a.). Police beat demonstrators, sprayed tear gas, and detained approximately a dozen persons. At the police station, the detained individuals were met by a crowd of supporters, who allegedly attempted to storm the station and attacked and used tear gas against police. Police reported that three officers were injured and hospitalized. An investigation into the actions of both police and the demonstrators continued as of September.
Large-scale LGBTI events including pride marches in Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv took place in largely peaceful manner, protected by thousands of police officers. Police at times did not adequately protect participants from attack before or after these events, and they did not adequately protect smaller demonstrations, especially those organized by persons belonging to minority groups or opposition political movements. For example, according to press reports, organizers of a pride festival in the city of Kriviy Rih cancelled a planned march on July 24, citing the inability of police to guarantee the event’s security around the time of parliamentary elections. On December 24, the Rivne City Council voted to ban the holding of pride marches.
Events organized by women’s rights activists or the LGBTI community were regularly disrupted by members of violent radical groups. For example, on May 8, a group of approximately 10 members of C14 disrupted the gender issues festival Find the Balance in Kryvy Rih, occupying the premises shortly before the beginning of the event, putting up homophobic posters, and insulting the organizers. Police investigated the incident under hooliganism-related charges.
In Russia-controlled territory, the HRMMU observed the absence of free and peaceful assembly and noted, “such a restrictive environment, where dissenting opinions may trigger retaliation, has a long-lasting chilling effect on the population.” The HRMMU also noted the only demonstrations permitted in these areas were ones in support of local “authorities,” often apparently organized by Russia-led forces with forced public participation.
Freedom of Association
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.
In June the Constitutional Court invalidated a much-criticized law requiring assets to be reported for civil society organizations and journalists working on anticorruption matters.
Human rights organizations reported a decrease of attacks on activists following a spike in attacks in 2018 (37 attacks during the year, down from 66 in 2018). Some civil society organizations, however, saw the decrease in reported attacks as underreporting by civic activists opting not to submit complaints because they viewed it as a futile gesture that might invite further persecution. International and domestic human rights NGOs remained concerned about the lack of accountability for attacks on members of civil society organizations, which they believed had created a climate of impunity.
There were reports government targeted activists for raids, arrests, or prosecution in retaliation for their professional activity. For example, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on October 4, police raided the home of human rights activist Oleh Tsvily, the head of the NGO Alliance for Ukrainian Unity. They handcuffed him near his apartment and allegedly intentionally banged his head against the steps while bringing him up to his apartment. Police raided his apartment, seized his computer and other devices containing information, but did not arrest Tsvily. Tsvily’s lawyer maintained that law enforcement officials had no court warrant for the search. During the raid police claimed they were investigating Tsvily for purportedly selling drugs on the internet. Tsvily maintained the search and attack was in retaliation for his work exposing torture and abuse in the penitentiary system. A former head of the State Penitentiary Service posted a video of Tsvily’s arrest on his Facebook page with a comment calling Tsvily and other human rights activists “animals” and predicting that Tsvily would be sent to prison for selling drugs.
There were reports that unknown actors made death threats against activists because of their work. For example, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on August 26, unknown persons in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv Region left a coffin, funeral wreath with his name, a note, and an axe wedged into the door of the home of Roman Likhachov, a lawyer and head of the Chuhuiv Human Rights Group. The note read, “if you don’t stop doing stupid things, the next [axe] will be in your head.” Likhachov believed the threats to be linked with his work with a network of anticorruption centers investigating local tax evasion schemes in Chuhuiv involving local authorities and law enforcement as well as the sale of alcohol without a license in a local cafe owned by a city council member.
According to the HRMMU, in the territories controlled by Russia-led forces, domestic and international civil society organizations, including human rights defenders, could not operate freely. Residents informed the HRMMU they were being prosecuted (or feared being prosecuted) by the “ministry of state security” for their pro-Ukrainian views or previous affiliation with Ukrainian NGOs. If human rights groups attempted to work in those areas, they faced significant harassment and intimidation. The HRMMU also noted civil society organizations run by Russia-led forces, which appeared to require certain persons, such as public-sector employees, to join.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide citizens with freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government, however, restricted these rights, particularly in the eastern part of the country near the zone of conflict.
In-country Movement: The government and Russia-led forces strictly controlled movement between government-controlled areas and territories in the Donbas region controlled by Russia-led forces. Crossing the line of contact remained arduous. On July 17, the government adopted new regulations establishing a list of goods prohibited for transfer across the line of contact to replace the list of goods allowed for transfer, thereby providing more flexibility for people to bring items across the line from both sides. Public passenger transportation remained prohibited; private transportation was available at high prices and was generally unaffordable for the majority of people crossing.
Although five crossing points existed, only four were in operation for much of the year. According to the HRMMU, between May and August, an average of 39,000 individuals crossed the line daily. The HRMMU reported that individuals crossing the line of contact, predominantly the elderly and persons with medical issues, had to spend several hours standing in line. The government required those seeking to cross into government-controlled territory to obtain a pass. The pass system imposed significant hardships on persons crossing into government-controlled territory, in particular those seeking to receive pensions and government benefits, not distributed in the territory controlled by Russia-led forces. The government attempted to reform a pass system involving an online application process to control movement into government-controlled territory. All passes issued after March 28 had no expiration date, but the measure did little to improve ease of movement across the contact line since many persons in Russia-controlled territory did not have access to the internet to obtain such passes.
Russia-led forces continued to hinder freedom of movement in the eastern part of the country.
The government and Russian occupation authorities subjected individuals crossing between Russian-occupied Crimea and the mainland to strict passport controls at the administrative boundary between Kherson Oblast and Crimea. Authorities prohibited rail and commercial bus service across the administrative boundary, requiring persons either to cross on foot or by private vehicle. Civil society, journalists, and independent defense lawyers reported that the government made efforts to ease requirements for entering Crimea, improving previously lengthy processes to obtain required permissions that hindered their ability to document and address abuses taking place there.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities frequently detained asylum seekers for extended periods without court approval.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. International and domestic organizations reported the system for protecting asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern did not operate effectively.
Refoulement: There were reports that the government did not provide for protection against the expulsion or return of some asylum seekers to a country where there was reason to believe their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. There were also allegations that officials deported some individuals to countries where they were at risk of imprisonment without providing an opportunity for them to apply for asylum. For example, on December 12, Azerbaijani blogger Elvin Isayev was removed from Ukraine to Azerbaijan for allegedly violating migration laws. On September 10, before Isayev arrived in Ukraine, the ECHR invoked Rule 39 halting extradition of Isayev from Russia to Azerbaijan after his Russian citizenship had been revoked.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on June 18, the SBU in Kyiv detained Belarussian anarchist Aleksandr Frantskevich when he came to the State Migration Service to extend his permanent residence permit. Frantskevich, who had lived in Kyiv since 2015, was considered by human rights groups to be a former Belarusian political prisoner. SBU officers reportedly forced him into a van, beat and strangled him, and took him to the border with Belarus, where they handed him a document saying that his activities, which were unspecified, were in conflict with the interests of Ukraine’s national security, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and constitutional order, and that he was banned from the country for three years.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a legal system to protect refugees. Protection for refugees and asylum seekers was insufficient due to gaps in the law and the system of implementation. According to the State Migration Service, the number of refugees and asylum seekers has decreased. The country is a transit and destination country for asylum seekers and refugees, principally from Afghanistan, the Russian Federation, Bangladesh, Syria, and Iraq.
Human rights groups noted that the refugee law falls short of international standards due to its restrictive definition of a refugee. The law permits authorities to reject many asylum applications without a thorough case assessment. In other instances government officials declined to accept initial asylum applications without a legal basis, leaving asylum seekers without documentation and vulnerable to frequent police stops, fines, detention, and exploitation. Asylum seekers in detention centers were sometimes unable to apply for refugee status within the prescribed time limits and had limited access to legal and other assistance. Asylum seekers have five days to appeal an order of detention or deportation.
A lack of access to qualified interpreters also hampered the full range of asylum procedures. International observers noted the government did not provide resources for interpreters, which created opportunities for corruption and undermined the fairness of asylum application procedures.
Employment: Refugees frequently have a hard time finding employment due to lack of qualifications and language proficiency. Some worked illegally, increasing the risk of exploitation.
Access to Basic Services: The national plan on the integration of refugees adopted by the government did not allocate resources for its implementation. A UNHCR report indicated all newly recognized refugees received a one-time grant of approximately 30 hryvnias ($1.26). Some reports, however, indicated the government did not always provide payment.
Temporary accommodation centers had a reception capacity of 421. Asylum seekers living outside an official temporary accommodation center often experienced difficulties obtaining residence registration, and authorities regularly fined them more than 500 hryvnias ($21) because they lacked registration. According to the State Migration Service, refugees could receive residence registration at homeless shelters for up to six months.
According to UNHCR, gaps in housing and social support for unaccompanied children left many without access to state-run accommodation centers or children’s shelters. Many children had to rely on informal networks for food, shelter, and other needs and remained vulnerable to abuse, trafficking, and other forms of exploitation. UNHCR noted a lack of educational programs and vocational activities for those in detention for extended periods.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection (“complementary protection”) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees; as of August 1, authorities had provided complementary protection to 41 persons.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption. 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.
The High Anticorruption Court (HACC) started its work on September 5. The HACC’s creation completed the country’s system of bodies to fight high-level corruption, complementing two previously created anticorruption agencies, the National Anticorruption Bureau (NABU) and the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor. The new independent anticorruption bodies faced political pressure that undermined public trust, raised concern about the government’s commitment to fighting corruption, and threatened the viability of the institutions.
On February 26, the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional an article of the criminal code proscribing criminal liability for illegal enrichment. The decision led NABU to close 65 corruption cases it had been developing against high-level officials. According to legal experts and civil society, elimination of illicit enrichment from the criminal code was a serious setback in the fight against high-level corruption. On November 26, President Zelenskyy signed a law reinstating criminal liability for illicit enrichment of government officials.
Corruption: While the government publicized several attempts to combat corruption, it remained a serious problem for citizens and businesses alike.
On March 5, NABU initiated an investigation into Ihor Hladkovskyy, the son of the former first deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, for large-scale embezzlement. Hladkovskyy reportedly procured military equipment from Russia, which was then sold to Ukraine’s state-run defense enterprise, Ukroboronprom, at several times market rate. The scheme netted about 250 million hryvnias ($10.5 million). The investigation continued as of October.
On July 9, the Malynovsky District Court of Odesa acquitted Odesa mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov of embezzlement. The court moved quickly to hold hearings prior to the establishment of the HACC, experts maintained. The case was appealed and will be heard by the HACC.
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 National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (NAPC) is responsible for reviewing financial declarations, monitoring the income and expenditures of high-level officials, and checking party finances. Observers increasingly questioned, however, whether the NAPC had the capacity and independence to fulfill this function.
In October the NAPC reported that First Deputy Minister of Culture Svitlana Fomenko declared false information in her 2015 asset declaration. The amount of undeclared income totaled 1.4 million hryvnias ($59,000). Declaration information was transferred to the NABU.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
During the year the OHCHR and human rights groups documented fewer incidents of xenophobic societal violence and discrimination, compared with a spike in these incidents in 2018. Civil society groups remained concerned, however, about the lack of accountability for crimes committed by radical groups in cases documented in 2018. During the year members of such groups committed violent attacks on ethnic minorities (especially Roma), LGBTI persons, feminists, and other individuals they considered to be “un-Ukrainian” or “anti-Ukrainian.” The HRMMU noted that the failure of police and prosecutors to prevent these acts of violence, properly classify them as hate crimes, and effectively investigate and prosecute them created an environment of impunity and lack of justice for victims.
There were continued reports that the government provided grant funds to or cooperated with radical groups. For example, according to monitoring by independent investigative media outlet Bellingcat, during the year the Ministry of Youth and Sport awarded 845,000 hryvnias ($35,000) to groups–such as National Corps and C14 that have committed violence against minorities–to run “national-patriotic education projects” for children.
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape of men or women. The penalty for rape is three to 15 years’ imprisonment. Sexual assault and rape continued to be significant problems.
On January 11, amendments to the criminal code increasing liability for sexual, domestic, and gender-based violence came into force. The amendments expanded the definition of rape and introduced stricter punishment for sexual coercion by up to three years of prison and forced abortion or sterilization by up to five years.
Domestic violence against women remained a serious problem. Spousal abuse was common. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 761 cases of domestic violence were registered during the first nine months of the year. Police issued approximately 44,000 domestic violence warnings and protection orders during the first nine months of the year. Punishment included fines, emergency restraining orders of up to 10 days, ordinary restraining orders from one to six months, administrative arrest, and community service. Human rights groups noted that the ability of agencies to detect and report cases of domestic violence was limited. Human rights groups asserted that law enforcement often did not consider domestic violence to be a serious crime but rather a private matter to be settled between spouses, but they also noted that police were starting to take the problem more seriously.
According to press reports, in early March an intoxicated man stabbed his 25-year-old former wife in Podolsk. The woman managed to run to a hospital, despite being pursued by her former husband. Their seven-year-old daughter witnessed the crime. Odesa police found and detained the perpetrator two days later. He was charged with “intentional infliction of bodily harm.”
According to the NGO La Strada, the conflict in the Donbas region led to a surge in violence against women across the country. Human rights groups attributed the increase in violence to posttraumatic stress experienced by IDPs fleeing the conflict and by soldiers returning from combat. IDPs reported instances of rape and sexual abuse; many claimed to have fled areas controlled by Russia-led forces because they feared sexual abuse.
As of late September the government operated 24 shelters for victims of domestic violence and 21 centers for social and psychological aid across the country for victims of domestic violence and child abuse.
Sexual Harassment: While the law prohibits coercing a person to have sexual intercourse, legal experts stated that safeguards against harassment were inadequate. The law puts sexual harassment in the same category as discrimination and sets penalties ranging from a fine to three years in prison. Women’s rights groups reported continuing and widespread sexual harassment, including coerced sex, in the workplace. Women rarely sought legal recourse because courts declined to hear their cases and rarely convicted perpetrators.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: While the law provides that women enjoy the same rights as men, women experienced discrimination in employment. According to the government commissioner on gender policy, women on average received 30 percent lower salaries than men. The Ministry of Health maintained a list of 50 occupations that remain prohibited for women.
Mistreatment of members of minority groups and harassment of foreigners of non-Slavic appearance remained problematic. According to the Ethnic Minorities’ Rights Monitoring Group at the Congress of Ethnic Communities of Ukraine, as of October 1, the number of xenophobic incidents (attacks, vandalism, and “public expressions of xenophobia”) totaled 61, compared with 89 during the same period in 2018. Human rights organizations stated the requirement to prove actual intent, including proof of premeditation, to secure a conviction made it difficult to apply the laws against offenses motivated by racial, national, or religious hatred. Police and prosecutors continued to prosecute racially motivated crimes under laws against hooliganism or related offenses.
There were reports of societal violence against Roma. For example, according to press reports, on October 24, an unknown assailant in Zaporizhzhia attacked Romani rights activist Anzhelika Belova with a knife. According to press reports, the attacker followed her home from a supermarket into her apartment building, where he stabbed her. Belova survived, and police arrested the alleged perpetrator. An investigation was under way.
There were reports of attacks on Romani settlements. In one such case, there was an arson attack on a Romani camp on the outskirts of Ivano-Frankivsk on March 25. Ten men dressed in black attacked the settlement and hurled Molotov cocktails at the camp. The ensuing fire damaged two homes. When police arrived, Romani residents refused to file a complaint.
There were multiple reports that members of some radical groups disrupted gatherings related to the rights of Roma. In one example, human rights groups reported that on May 27, a man carrying an ax, two knives, and other weapons attempted to disrupt a briefing of human rights activists about violence against members of the Romani community. He broke into the room and started verbally insulting Romani individuals present. When a press center guard intervened, he threatened those present with two knives and pepper spray. Police responded and removed the perpetrator.
Human rights activists were concerned about the lack of accountability in cases of attacks on Roma documented in 2018. For example, on August 14, a Lviv district court found two high school students guilty of hooliganism for participating in an attack on a Romani camp that resulted in the killing of a man in June 2018. The court sentenced them to four-and-a-half years of prison. The court did not consider racial motivations or hate crime provisions.
In April the Kyiv Oblast Prosecutor’s Office appealed a November 2018 decision of the Holosiivsky District Court in Kyiv dropped charges against C14 leader Serhiy Mazur, the alleged perpetrator in another violent attack against a Romani settlement in Kyiv in April 2018. Court hearings have been postponed six times. Human rights NGOs voiced concerns that impunity for past attacks fueled more violence.
Roma continued to face governmental and societal discrimination and significant barriers accessing education, health care, social services, and employment. According to Council of Europe experts, 60 percent of Roma were unemployed, 40 percent had no documents, and only 1 percent had a university degree. According to the Romani women’s foundation, Chirikli, local authorities erected a number of barriers to prevent issuing national identification documents to Roma. Authorities hampered access to education for persons who lacked documents and segregated Romani children into special schools or lower-quality classrooms.
During the year many Roma fled settlements in areas controlled by Russia-led forces and moved elsewhere in the country. According to Chirikli, approximately 10,000 Roma were among the most vulnerable members of the country’s IDP population. Because many Roma lacked documents, obtaining IDP assistance, medical care, and education was especially difficult.