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 75/192 on the “Situation of Human Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine)”of December 28, 2020, 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 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 Report 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. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by Russia or Russia-led “authorities,” including punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions and transfer of prisoners to Russia; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the occupation judiciary; pervasive arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and website blocking; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups, or indigenous people, including Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons.
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 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
According to the human rights group Crimea SOS, there were no new reports that occupation authorities committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, but impunity for past killings remained a serious problem. The Russian government tasked the Russian Investigative Committee with investigating whether security force killings in occupied Crimea were justifiable and whether to pursue prosecutions. The HRMMU reported the Investigative Committee failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity. The Office of the Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea also investigated security force killings from its headquarters in Kyiv, but de facto restrictions on access to occupied Crimea limited its effectiveness.
There were no reported investigations for the four Crimean Tatars found dead in 2019. Occupation authorities did not adequately investigate killings of Crimean residents from 2014 and 2015. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 12 Crimean residents who had disappeared during the occupation were later found dead. Human rights groups reported occupation authorities did not investigate other suspicious deaths and disappearances, occasionally categorizing them as suicide. Human rights observers reported that families frequently did not challenge findings in such cases due to fear of retaliation.
There were reports of abductions and disappearances by occupation authorities. Crimea SOS reported 45 individuals have gone missing since Russian forces occupied Crimea in 2014, and the fate of 15 of these individuals remained unknown. The OHCHR reported occupation authorities have not prosecuted anyone in relation to the forced disappearances. NGO and press reports indicated occupation authorities were responsible for the disappearances. For example, in March 2014, Maidan activists Ivan Bondarets and Valerii Vashchuk telephoned relatives to report police in Simferopol had detained them at a railway station for displaying a Ukrainian flag. Relatives have had no communication with them since, and the whereabouts of the two men remained unknown. Occupation authorities denied international monitors, including the OHCHR and OSCE, access to Crimea, which made it impossible for monitors to investigate forced disappearances there properly.
Occupation authorities did not adequately investigate the deaths and disappearances, according to human rights groups. Human rights groups reported that police often refused to register reports of disappearances and intimidated and threatened with detention those who tried to report disappearances. The Ukrainian government and human rights groups believed Russian security forces kidnapped the individuals for opposing Russia’s occupation to instill fear in the population and prevent dissent.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
There were widespread reports that occupation authorities in Crimea tortured and otherwise abused residents who opposed the occupation. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, “The use of torture by the FSB and the Russia-led police against Ukrainian citizens became a systematic and unpunished phenomenon after Russia’s occupation of Crimea.” Human rights monitors reported that Russian occupation authorities subjected Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians in particular to physical abuse. For example, on January 28, plainclothes occupation authorities from the “ministry of internal affairs” detained Server Rasilchak, a 17-year-old Crimean Tatar, shortly after Rasilchak, his father, and two friends were stopped by traffic police at a gas station in Saki. The men beat and arrested Rasilchak and took him to a police station, where he was subjected to electric shocks, beaten, and threatened with sexual assault for several hours. Rasilchak’s mother claimed she filed a formal complaint with police, but human rights groups noted the difficulty of tracking the status of complaints and investigations in Crimea given the atmosphere of fear and impunity.
Occupation authorities reportedly demonstrated a pattern of using punitive psychiatric incarceration as a means of pressuring detained individuals. For example, according to press reports, on June 23, authorities transferred Crimean Tatar Ruslan Suleimanov to the Crimean Clinical Psychiatric Hospital for a forced psychiatric evaluation. Suleimanov was arrested in March 2019 and charged with allegedly belonging to the pan-Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia as a terrorist group but legal in Ukraine. Human right defenders viewed the authorities’ move as an attempt to break his client’s will and intimidate him.
According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, as of late September, approximately 10 Crimean Tatar defendants had been subjected to psychiatric evaluation and confinement against their will without apparent medical need since the beginning of the occupation (see section 1.d.).
Human rights monitors reported that occupation authorities also threatened individuals with violence or imprisonment if they did not testify in court against individuals whom authorities believed were opposed to the occupation.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, as of August, 105 Crimeans were being deprived of freedom in occupied Crimea or in Russia on political or religious charges, 73 of whom were Crimean Tatar Muslims prosecuted on terrorism charges.
Charges of extremism, terrorism, or violation of territorial integrity were particularly applied to opponents of the occupation, such as Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, independent journalists, and individuals expressing dissent on social media.
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 the exercise of freedom of expression and subjected dissenting voices including the press to harassment and prosecution. Occupation authorities’ reported failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Speech: The HRMMU noted occupation authorities placed “excessive limitations on the freedoms of opinion and expression.” On July 31, occupation authorities began enforcing a law that prohibited the unauthorized dissemination of information damaging to the FSB’s reputation without the FSB’s approval. Enforcement of this law in Crimea deprived Crimean residents of the opportunity to publicly criticize and disseminate information about reportedly unlawful actions of FSB officers and alleged violations or abuses of human rights.
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. These unlawfully obtained recordings were often used against those who were arbitrarily arrested in closed trials.
Occupation authorities often deemed expressions of dissent “extremism” and prosecuted individuals for them. For example, according to press reports, on January 18, the FSB placed a 34-year entry ban on Taras Ibrahimov, a Ukrainian journalist who covered politically motivated lawsuits and human rights violations in Crimea. Occupation authorities officially informed Ibrahimov of the ban but did not provide a justification.
Occupation authorities harassed and fined individuals for the display of Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar symbols, which were banned as “extremist.” For example, on March 9, police dispersed a small group of women who began singing the Ukrainian national anthem during an authorized ceremony next to a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol. Police told the women their actions constituted an “act of provocation.”
Occupation authorities deemed expressions of support for Ukrainian sovereignty over the peninsula to be equivalent to undermining Russian territorial integrity. For example, on May 22, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation charged in absentia Crimean Tatar television channel ATR deputy director Ayder Muzhdabaev with violating a Russian law against “public calls for committing terrorist activities.” The charges were purportedly due to his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which he routinely expressed on the daily talk show that he cohosted.
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, journalist Amet Suleimanov was among those arrested on “terrorism” charges in the FSB’s March 11 raid on multiple Crimean Tatars’ homes in Bakhchisaray district. Occupation authorities first detained Suleimanov in 2017 for filming security forces during a raid on the home of a fellow member of Crimean Solidarity. Occupation authorities have detained and released him multiple times since 2017, citing vague “terrorism” concerns. As of October Suleimanov was under house arrest.
During the year occupation authorities prosecuted individuals for the content of social media posts. For example, on May 28 a “district court” in occupied Crimea fined the acting chairman of the Alushta Muslim community, Ruslan Emirvaliev, for a social media post made in 2016 containing an image of a boy pointing at a banner displaying the words of the Islamic shahada, or statement of faith, in Arabic script. Court documents characterized these words as “an inscription in an unknown language, of an unknown nature and content.”
Freedom of 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, on November 3, occupation authorities detained two journalists of the Russia-based Grani.ru website near a Russia-controlled military court building in Simferopol on administrative charges related to public order. The journalists had come to the military court building to report on the sentencing of three Crimean Tatars by a military court in Rostov-on-Don, which was due to be delivered on the same day. Occupation authorities suggested the reporters had been involved in protests in support of the defendants, although local media reported the crowds of protesters had already dispersed when the journalists were arrested.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, journalists resorted to self-censorship to continue reporting and broadcasting.
There were reports occupation authorities sought to restrict access to or remove internet content about Crimea they disliked. As of September Russia-led authorities blocked 30 websites in Crimea, including the websites of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (a representative body that Russia deems extremist), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Ministry of Integration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, and several independent Ukrainian news outlets, among others. Censorship of independent internet sites was widespread (see Internet Freedom).
Occupation authorities banned most Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar-language broadcasts, replacing the content with Russian programming. On June 22, the Crimean Human Rights Group reported that occupation authorities were continuing to block Ukrainian FM radio stations in northern Crimea by broadcasting their stations on the same wavelength. The signal of Ukrainian FM radio stations was heard in only five of the area’s 19 settlements.
Human rights groups reported occupation authorities continued to forbid songs by Ukrainian singers from playing on Crimean radio stations.
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.
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 May 25, the Russia-controlled “supreme court” in occupied Crimea began hearing the in absentia trial of Lenur Isliamov, the owner of the Crimean Tatar television channel ATR. In 2015 occupation authorities charged Isliamov with “organizing an illegal armed group, committing sabotage, [and] public calls for extremist activities.” In 2015 Isliamov led a group of volunteers near the administrative border in blocking the transport of commercial goods to and from occupied Crimea. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group called the act an “essentially peaceful civic blockade of Crimea,” and the Ukrainian government subsequently approved the formal registration of Isliamov’s organization.
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 June 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 or prohibited by occupation authorities.”
Human rights monitors reported that occupation authorities routinely denied permission to hold assemblies based on political beliefs, in particular to opponents of the occupation or those seeking to protest the actions of the occupation authorities. Those who gathered without permission were regularly charged with administrative offenses. Expansive rules about what type of gatherings required permits and selective enforcement of the rules made it difficult for protesters to avoid such offenses. For example, according to a local news website, on January 19, police shut down a small women-led rally in Kerch against the possible closure of the Taigan Safari Park, which faced mismanagement-related litigation in Russia-based courts. Police and representatives of the Kerch city council told the rally’s participants that holding a public event unauthorized by the city council was illegal. The participants complied in ending the rally, and several of them began disseminating leaflets to passers-by. An hour later, police detained several of the women and took them to the police station. Police did not register the arrests.
Occupation authorities brought charges for “unauthorized assemblies” against single-person protests, even though preauthorization is not required for individual protests. For example, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group, on June 8, police charged activist Serhiy Akimov with an administrative offense for holding a one-person protest in Simferopol in front of the Crimean “parliament” building in support of Russian politician Nikolay Platoshkin, who was under house arrest in Moscow.
There were reports that authorities used a ban on “unauthorized missionary activity” to restrict public gatherings of members of religious minorities. For example, on April 1, the “prosecutor” of Alushta opened administrative proceedings against Yusuf Ashirov, the imam of the local Islamic community, for “illegal missionary activity.” The prosecutor did not explain how Ashirov’s performance of Friday prayers, a traditional rite for Muslims, violated the law.
A “regulation” limits the places where public events may be held to 366 listed locations, which, as the HRMMU noted, restricted the ability to assemble to a shrinking number of “specially designated spaces,” a move that appeared “designed to dissuade” peaceful assembly.
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 the exercise of 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, on May 6, Seyran Menseitov, a member of the Crimean Solidarity movement, received a letter from the Yevpatoriya “prosecutor’s office,” which warned him against participating in gatherings related to the May 18 “Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Crimean Tatar Genocide,” as they might constitute “extremist” activities. At least 10 other Crimean Tatar activists and journalists received similar “preventive warnings” in advance of the May 18 holiday.
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-Russia sentiment and as a means of recruiting police informants, whose secret testimony was used in trials of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members.
The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People remained banned for purported “extremism” despite a decision by the International Court of Justice holding that occupation authorities must “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.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Recent Elections: Russian occupation authorities prevented residents from voting in Ukrainian national and local elections since Crimea’s occupation began in 2014.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Corruption: There were multiple reports of systemic rampant corruption among Crimean “officeholders,” including through embezzlement of Russian state funds allocated to support the occupation. For example, on March 28, a “district court” found the former head of the Feodosiya city administration, Dmitri Shchepetkov, guilty of abuse of office and attempted bribe taking. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and fined 42 million rubles ($560,000).
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. In April 2019 Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president in an election considered free and fair by international and domestic observers. In July 2019 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 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 Security Service reports directly to the president. The Ministry of Defense and Ukrainian armed forces are responsible for defending the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by deterring armed aggression. The Ministry of Defense 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 Border Guard Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs implements state policy regarding border security, while the State Migration Service, also under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, implements state policy regarding 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. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees by law enforcement personnel; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention centers; arbitrary arrest or detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; abuses in the Russia-led conflict in the Donbas, including physical abuse of civilians and members of armed groups held in detention facilities; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and blocking of websites; refoulement of refugees; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; violence or threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of ethnic minority groups, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and the existence of the worst forms of child labor.
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-instigated and -fueled conflict in the Donbas region, Russia-led forces reportedly engaged in unlawful or arbitrary killings of civilians, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances and abductions; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Other significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement across the line of contact in eastern Ukraine; restrictions on political participation, including unelected governments and elections that were not genuine, free, or fair; and unduly restricted humanitarian aid.
Significant human rights issues in Russia-occupied Crimea included: forced disappearances and abductions; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees to extract confessions and punish persons resisting the occupation; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, including unelected governments and elections that were not genuine, free, or fair; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons. Russian occupation authorities in Crimea reportedly continued to engage in widespread violence against and harassment of Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists in response to peaceful opposition to Russian occupation (see Crimea subreport).
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 reports that the government or its agents committed possible arbitrary or unlawful killings. The State Bureau for Investigations is responsible for investigation of crimes allegedly committed by law enforcement agencies.
Human rights organizations and media outlets reported deaths due to torture or negligence by police or prison officers. For example, in February police charged five staff members of the Vinnytsya Prison with torture and an additional staff member with “violence against a prisoner in places of imprisonment” for their alleged involvement in beating a 59-year-old prisoner who had been charged with rape of a minor. In July 2019 the staff members took the prisoner from his cell to a separate room, where they allegedly struck him 85 times. Investigators said the staff members then returned the prisoner to his cell, where a cellmate delivered additional blows that resulted in his death.
There were few reports that state actors ordered or took part in targeted attacks on civil society activists and journalists in connection with their work during the year, but impunity for past attacks remained a significant problem. In June 2019 a court in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast convicted five persons for carrying out the fatal 2018 acid attack against public activist Kateryna Handziuk on charges of deliberately causing grievous bodily harm resulting in death. They were sentenced to terms of three to six-and-a-half years in prison. Each suspect agreed to testify against those who ordered the killing. On April 27, the Security Service announced it had completed its pretrial investigation. As a result of the investigation, the head of the Kherson regional legislature, Vladyslav Manger, and a suspected accomplice, Oleksiy Levin, were charged with inflicting intentional grievous bodily harm in a manner bearing signs of torment and resulting in death. The suspects’ first court hearing took place on August 28. As of late November, both suspects were to remain in custody until December 13.
Former parliamentary aide Ihor Pavlovsky was charged in 2019 with concealing Handziuk’s murder. On September 16, Pavlovsky asked an Odesa court to authorize a plea bargain. Human rights defenders and Handziuk supporters alleged additional organizers of the crime likely remained at large and that law enforcement bodies had not investigated the crime fully.
In December 2019 police arrested three suspects in connection with the 2016 killing of prominent Belarusian-Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet. All suspects had previous military experience as volunteers in the conflict with Russia-led forces. In August the case was transferred to a Kyiv court, where trial proceedings were underway as of November.
Law enforcement agencies continued to investigate killings and other crimes committed during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv in 2013-14. Human rights groups criticized the low number of convictions despite the existence of considerable evidence. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) noted little progress had been made in investigating the killings, and the cases that have reached the courts continued to be delayed. As of November the State Bureau for Investigations had identified 61 alleged perpetrators of Euromaidan killings; most of whom absconded and were wanted. As of November the only three perpetrators who had been convicted were charged with lesser offenses, not murder, and received prison sentences ranging from three to five years.
On January 11, the State Bureau for Investigations announced it had established a special unit for investigating Euromaidan cases, in accordance with the Prosecutor General’s Office’s 2019 decision to transfer responsibility for such cases to the State Bureau for Investigations. Euromaidan activists accused State Bureau for Investigations deputy director Oleksandr Babikov of having a conflict of interest, citing his former role as a lawyer for then president Yanukovych. During the year the State Bureau for Investigations served notices of suspicion to 37 individuals, filed 19 indictments against 25 persons (six judges, 13 law enforcement officers, and six civilians), and made two arrests for Euromaidan-related crimes. On March 10 and 12, for example, the State Bureau for Investigations arrested two men suspected of involvement in the kidnapping and torture of two activists and the murder of one of them (see section 1.b.).
On March 20 and 25, the State Bureau for Investigations served a notice of suspicion to the former head and deputy head of the public security unit at the main police department in Kyiv and investigated reports they “organized and provided illegal obstruction of the meeting of citizens on November 30, 2013, in order to carry out the criminal order.”
On June 18, the State Bureau for Investigations charged in absentia a former officer from the Berkut riot police unit in connection with the killing of 48 protesters and the attempted killing of an additional 80 protesters in 2014. On June 22, a court in Kyiv ordered the pretrial detention of the suspect in absentia.
On May 12, the Pechersk District Court in Kyiv authorized the arrest of former president Yanukovych, his former defense minister, and two former heads of law enforcement agencies on charges of criminal involvement in the killings of protesters in Kyiv in 2014.
On October 20, the Svyatoshynsky District Court in Kyiv designated as fugitives three former Berkut officers accused of killing 48 protesters, indicating the suspects would be tried in absentia. The three suspects were part of a group of five former Berkut officers implicated in Euromaidan killings who were released into the custody of Russia-led forces in the Donbas region in December 2019 as part of a negotiated prisoner and detainee exchange between Ukraine and Russia. Two other suspects voluntarily returned and were standing trial as of December.
The HRMMU did not note any progress in the investigation and legal proceedings in connection with the 2014 trade union building fire in Odesa that stemmed from violent clashes between pro-Russian and Ukrainian unity demonstrators. During the clashes and fire, 48 persons died. Pandemic-related restrictions exacerbated trial delays.
There were reports of civilian casualties in connection with Russian aggression in the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts (see section 1.g.).
There were allegations that state agents abducted and deported foreign citizens on behalf of their governments without due process. For example, family members and advocates for three Uzbekistani men alleged the Security Service collaborated with the Uzbekistani State Security Service to extradite the men without complying with relevant laws and international agreements (see section 2.f.).
In connection with abuses committed during the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, Sergei Myslyvyi was arrested on March 10 for his suspected involvement in the abduction and torture of Euromaidan activists Ihor Lutsenko and Yuriy Verbitsky and the premeditated murder of Verbitsky. Ivan Novotny was detained on March 12 on suspicion of involvement in the case and charged with “creation of a criminal organization” and “unlawful imprisonment or abductions of a person.” The State Bureau for Investigations finished its pretrial investigation of both cases in August. As of November, Novotny and Myslyvyi remained in pretrial detention; 12 other suspects in the case remained at large.
A law on missing persons came into force in 2018 to assist in locating those who disappeared in connection to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The law calls for the creation of a commission that would establish a register of missing persons. The commission was established in July. On November 11, President Zelenskyy signed a decree calling on the Cabinet of Ministers to ensure the commission operates effectively. As of late November, it had not convened.
There were reports of politically motivated disappearances in connection with Russia’s aggression in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (see section 1.g.).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel and unusual punishment, there were reports that law enforcement authorities engaged in such abuse. While courts cannot legally use confessions and statements made under duress to police by persons in custody as evidence in court proceedings, there were reports that police and other law enforcement officials abused and, at times, tortured persons in custody to obtain confessions.
Abuse of detainees by police remained a widespread problem. For example, on January 3, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group interviewed 30 prisoners from the Kharkiv Oblast’s Oleksyyivska correctional colony No. 25 after the group received information regarding severe abuse of inmates, including torture and rape. The group collected reports of rape, beatings, forced labor, and extortion of money, and sent them to the State Bureau for Investigations to open an investigation. The Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner on Human Rights (Ombudsperson’s Office) visited the institution twice that month and reported during its first visit instances of officers handcuffing 22 inmates and beating them with rubber batons, which resulted in abrasions and bruising.
On January 11, the Ombudsperson’s Office interviewed 12 inmates in the medical unit. The 12 individuals claimed that at around three or four in the morning, they were handcuffed and dragged down the street in their underwear to the institution’s headquarters, where they remained until around seven in the evening. Inmates remained in handcuffs for almost 15 hours and did not receive any food. Inmates also reported being dragged on the floor from the first to second floor. Their bodies were reportedly covered in abrasions and hematomas, particularly on their heads from the abuse they suffered. One inmate reported suffering from burns in the area of the buttocks and anus. These injuries were only recorded in the institution’s medical records after the visit by the Ombudsperson’s Office. On January 13, the Prosecutor General’s Office filed criminal proceedings for torture and abuse of power with the use of violence.
Reports of law enforcement using torture and mistreatment to extract confessions were reported throughout the year. For example, on March 27, the State Bureau for Investigations charged two Uzhhorod police officers with violent abuse of authority. According to investigators, in September 2019 the officers detained Ihor Harmatiy and Ivan Bukov on suspicion of theft and took the men to the Uzhgorod police department where, according to Bukov, they severely beat Bukov with a bat, knocked his teeth out, and handcuffed him to a radiator. Bukov reported he was able to get out of his handcuffs the next morning and jumped from the fourth floor of the police department to flee further abuse. He survived the fall but tore his spleen, injured his pelvis, and broke both arms. Harmatiy similarly reported being tortured and indicated that he signed a confession in order to stop the abuse. Human rights groups criticized the State Bureau for Investigations for not filing charges of “torture” against the officers.
Impunity for abuses committed by law enforcement was a significant problem. The HRMMU reported that a majority of the torture allegations made against security forces from February to July were “disregarded.” The State Bureau for Investigations and a specialized department within the Office of the Prosecutor General were responsible for investigating such allegations. According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, individuals who experienced torture during pretrial detention often did not file complaints due to intimidation and lack of access to a lawyer.
In the Russia-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported after interviewing 56 released detainees that torture and mistreatment of detainees were systematic during the initial stage of detention, which could last up to a year. The individuals interviewed were initially detained under “administrative arrest” in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”), or “preventive arrest” in the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”), and held incommunicado without access to a lawyer. The vast majority reported being subjected to some form of mistreatment, including beatings; electric shocks; sexual violence; asphyxiation; removal of teeth and nails; mock execution; deprivation of water, food, sleep or sanitation facilities; and threats of violence against family members.
Victims of abuses committed by Russia-led forces in the “DPR” and “LPR” had no legal recourse to attain justice.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There was one individual whom some human rights groups considered to be subjected to politically motivated detention, but during the year the detainee, Zhytomyr journalist Vasyl Muravytskyy, was released on his own recognizance while his case continued. Muravytskyy was charged in 2017 with state treason, infringement of territorial integrity, incitement of hatred, and support for terrorist organizations based on statements deemed pro-Russian for which he could face up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Some domestic and international journalist unions called for his release, claiming the charges were politically motivated.
According to the State Bureau for Investigations, as of mid-August, Russia-led forces kept an estimated 235 hostages in the Donbas region (see section 1.g.).
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 Speech: 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 March 29, police issued an administrative offense citation in Odesa to a local resident for publicly displaying a portrait of Stalin. During the May 9 celebration of World War II Victory Day, police fined individuals in Odesa, Zaporizhzhya, and Kyiv for carrying banned Soviet symbols.
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”).
Freedom of 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, particularly television channels, the most successful of which were owned by influential oligarchs, often provided readers and viewers a “biased pluralism,” representing the views of their owners and providing 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. Editorial independence was particularly limited in media controlled by individuals and oligarchs supportive of or linked to the Russian government and intelligence agencies. The Ministry of Defense on November 25 stated the Russian Federation “has intensified measures to discredit the top state and military leadership of Ukraine. To this end, pro-Russian media, journalists and agents of influence, including in Ukraine, are being used more actively.”
There were reports of continuing financial and political pressure on the National Public Broadcasting Company, created to provide an independent publicly funded alternative to oligarch-controlled television channels. The 2020 budget provided only 89 percent of the previous budget’s funding for the broadcaster, which was already reportedly 45 percent lower than what it should have received by law. Parliament consistently failed to comply with legal requirements allocating at least 0.2 percent of the state’s annual budget to the broadcaster. In late February the State Executive Service blocked the broadcaster’s bank accounts pursuant to a Supreme Economic Court order to repay the debt of its predecessor, the National Television Company of Ukraine. On March 6, the Independent Media Council noted the action left the broadcaster unable to continue operations. On June 2, the bank accounts were unblocked.
Jeansa–the practice of planting one-sided or favorable news coverage paid for by politicians or oligarchs–continued to be widespread. Monitoring by the Institute for Mass Information (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. Only 11 out of the 50 most-visited information sites did not contain jeansa, according to an IMI study conducted from June to August. The study found that 70 percent of the jeansa materials identified were of a political nature. The IMI attributed the widespread use of political jeansa during this period to an attempt to influence voters ahead of the October 25 local elections.
Violence and Harassment: Violence against journalists remained a problem. Human rights groups and journalists blamed what they saw as government inaction in solving the crimes for the emergence of a culture of impunity. Government authorities sometimes participated in and condoned attacks on journalists.
According to the IMI, as of September 1, there had been 20 reports of attacks on journalists, which is equal to the number of attacks on journalists during the first eight months of 2019. As in 2019, private, rather than state, actors perpetrated the majority of the attacks. As of September 1, there were 20 incidents involving threats against journalists, as compared with 33 during the same period in 2019. 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, on August 26, members of the Zaporizhzhya city council physically removed Gvozdi (Nails) newspaper editor Bohdan Vasylenko from the city administrative building. Vasylenko had planned to attend the city council meeting to inquire about local COVID-19 prevention measures. The journalist filed a police report. No charges had been brought as of mid-September.
Media professionals continued to experience pressure from the Security Service, the military, police, and other officials when reporting on sensitive issues. For example, on April 29, a police officer beat Hromadske journalist Bohdan Kutyepov, pushed him to the ground, and broke his media equipment while he was live-streaming antiquarantine protests taking place in front of a government building. As of November the State Bureau for Investigations was looking into the incident.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by nongovernment actors, including numerous attacks against investigative journalists from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) program Schemes that occurred throughout the year. On August 7, RFE/RL investigative journalist Mykhailo Tkach found alleged evidence of wiretapping in his apartment and posted images on Facebook of holes drilled into the ceiling of his apartment as evidence of the suspected wiretapping attempt. Shortly thereafter, on the evening of August 16, the car of an RFE/RL Schemes driver and film crew member was set on fire. Tkach claimed he had received anonymous messages indicating that his “journalistic activities are annoying high-level officials.” Schemes journalists believe the attacks were in response to its critiques of President Zelenskyy and its investigative reporting on high-level corruption. Police initiated an investigation, and the case gained a high degree of media attention. The head of the Kyiv Regional Police, Andriy Nebytov, wrote on Facebook, “It is obvious that the arsonist and their ‘curators’ had a goal not only to destroy the vehicle, they wanted more to cause outrage among the journalistic community and the public, to create a perception of insecurity and permissiveness.” As of October, no arrests had been made in the case.
In January, RFE/RL journalist Halyna Tereshchuk’s car was set on fire in Lviv in an arson attack. In February the Security Service detained a 19-year-old believed to be responsible for the attack, and in August a police officer was arrested on charges indicating his complicity in the crime.
There were allegations 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 law enforcement system, often to reveal their sources in investigations. For example, the State Bureau for Investigations summoned television anchor Yanina Sokolova and editor in chief of the online news platform Censor.Net, Yuriy Butusov, for questioning. On August 18, Butusov, citing law enforcement sources, reported the detention of Russian mercenaries in Belarus had been part of a special operation by Ukrainian security services that failed due to a leak from the Office of the President. Sokolova announced she was summoned on the grounds that she had potentially disclosed information pertaining to a state secret.
Journalists received threats in connection with their reporting. For example, on July 13, Kateryna Serhatskova, a journalist and cofounder of the online platform Zaborona (Prohibition), left the country, claiming threats to her life and her family believed to be in connection with her reporting. On July 3, Zaborona published an article detailing alleged links between leaders of violent radical groups and the directors of Stop-Fake.org, a project of the nonprofit Media Reforms Center, aimed at stopping the dissemination of false information about the country (see Internet Freedom). According to Serhatskova, police refused to open an investigation into the threats against her, prompting her lawyer to appeal to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, which opened an investigation in July. As of November, the investigation continued.
In December 2019 police arrested three suspects and two persons of interest in the 2016 killing of well known Belarusian-Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet (see section 1.a.). In early September the Shevchenkivskyy District Court in Kyiv began hearing the case.
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).
On September 3, the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting (Derzhkomteleradio) revoked the broadcasting license of the Pryamy FM radio station for not broadcasting within a year of the date its license was issued. Derzhkomteleradio is an eight-member executive body charged with overseeing television and radio broadcasters’ compliance with Ukrainian laws. The parliament and the president appoint four members each to the council.
Both independent and state-owned media periodically engaged in self-censorship when reporting stories that might expose their media owners or 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.
National Security: In the context of the continuing Russia-led conflict in the Donbas region 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 808 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 the country, the government maintained a ban on the operations of almost 839 companies and 1,605 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.
Derzhkomteleradio maintained a list of banned books seen to be aimed at undermining the country’s independence; promoting violence; inciting interethnic, racial, or religious hostility; promoting terrorist attacks; or encroaching on human rights and freedoms. As of November the list contained 227 titles.
There were reports the government used formal pretexts to silence outlets for being “pro-Russian” and for being critical of its national security policy. On October 15, Derzhkomteleradio announced an unscheduled inspection of pro-Russian television channels Newsone, 112 Ukraine, and ZIK, claiming their favorable coverage of an October 6 meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk might have violated national security laws.
Nongovernmental Impact: There were reports that radical groups committed attacks on journalists. For example, on June 15, members of radical groups attacked ZIK television journalist Alla Zhyznevska at the Shevchenkivskyy district courthouse in Kyiv where Serhiy Sternenko was being held and protests were organized by activists of the Youth Wing and members of the Opposition Platform for Life. Clashes broke out, and police detained five individuals. A few days prior, on June 12, Zhyznevska reported another incident in which she was conducting a story on a local market in Odesa when six unknown men emerged, demanded the journalist’s crew not take pictures, and forcibly removed them from the market. Police were called, but the six men dispersed before they arrived.
The ability to exercise freedom of expression reportedly remained extremely limited in territory controlled by Russia-led forces in the Donbas region. Based on HRMMU media monitoring, critical independent media on the territory controlled by Russia-led forces was nonexistent. According to Digital Security Lab Ukraine, an independent digital analysis organization, authorities in the “LPR” blocked approximately 158 Ukrainian news outlets as of late January.
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.
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, but police sometimes restricted, or failed to protect freedom of assembly. No laws, however, regulate 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.
There were reports of police restricting and failing to protect freedom of assembly. For example, in July police officers in Lviv restricted activists’ ability to assemble peacefully near the Taras Shevchenko monument in the city’s center by dispersing the group and writing up a police report for “petty hooliganism.” The activists held a performance in which one member wore a Zelenskyy mask and handed out one million hryvnia notes to all who passed by, while others smashed a printer that was printing the fake money.
Human rights defenders noted that police at times arbitrarily enforced COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, including through selective dispersal of civic assemblies. For example, on June 25, organizers of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community support month in Kyiv scheduled two events at the same location. Organizers informed police about both events in advance to abide by legal processes and COVID-related restrictions. The events were reportedly both approved in advance, and police allowed the first event–a panel discussion–to proceed as planned but dispersed participants of the second event and wrote a misdemeanor report against the venue’s owner, citing alleged quarantine restrictions. The owner reported that in addition to the events being previously approved, authorities also previously checked the venue to ensure it met quarantine requirements and had not reported any concerns.
Events organized by women’s rights activists or the LGBTI community were regularly disrupted by members of violent radical groups. Police at times did not adequately protect participants from attack before or after the events, nor did they provide sufficient security for smaller demonstrations or events, especially those organized by persons belonging to minority groups or opposition political movements. For example, two men who participated in the March 8 Women’s Rights March in Kyiv were beaten and sprayed with tear gas in an underground tunnel after the event. Police detained four suspects, including Vita Zaverukha and three other activists from the violent radical group Unknown Patriot. As of July 6, only one indictment against one suspect for “hooliganism” had been sent to court.
On August 30, members of the radical group Tradition and Order attacked participants of the Odesa pride rally. Tradition and Order members punched, kicked, and threw projectiles at both participants and police. Two officers were injured. International monitors noted that poor communication between event organizers and police contributed to police failure to provide adequate protection. Police arrested 16 persons involved in the attack and investigated the incident. Similarly, on September 20, representatives of violent radical groups gathered in the downtown area of Zaporizhzhya for a counterprotest in response to the March of Equality (pride march). During the event, police detained an armed man after he aimed a gun at the pride march participants. No shots were fired, and the perpetrator was taken to the Dnipro police department.
On December 14, a group of young men attacked two teenage boys in Kyiv’s Kontrakova Square, shouting homophobic slurs, beating, and kicking them in what appears to have been an unprovoked attack. A witness who posted a video of the attack claimed that while police arrested one of the victims for arguing with them, the attackers remained in the square even after police left, shouting racist slogans.
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.
Russia-led forces in the “DPR” and “LPR” continued to implement “laws” requiring all religious organizations except the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to undergo “state religious expert evaluations” and reregister with them. According to the HRMMU, a majority of religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law continued to be unable to reregister because of stringent legal requirements under “laws” in the “DPR” and “LPR” that mirrored Russian legislation preventing or discouraging reregistration of many religious communities (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
Freedom of Association
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.
Human rights organizations reported an increase in attacks on activists following a decrease in attacks in 2019 (48 attacks in the first six months of the year, up from 39 in the same period of 2019). 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.
For example, on July 23, the head of the NGO Anticorruption Center, Vitalii Shabunin, reported suspected arson after his home was set on fire. Shabunin’s parents and children were in the house at the time but managed to escape unharmed. After an investigation, police concluded the fire resulted from an arson attack that started on the activist’s porch with the assistance of a flammable liquid to ignite a stable flame. As of September the perpetrators had not been identified. Shabunin believed the arson was an assassination attempt carried out at the request of politically influential oligarchs to prevent his organization’s investigative reporting on corruption. On December 30, police removed suspicious items resembling bombs from the doorsteps of apartments belonging to Shabunin’s relatives. In recent years several major human rights groups have expressed concern about the government’s singling out of Shabunin for unfair treatment.
There were reports the government targeted activists for raids, arrests, or prosecution in retaliation for their professional activity. For example, on September 30, Shabunin was fined 850 hryvnias ($30) for the late submission of an asset declaration by half a day. The Anticorruption Center believed the fine was issued to include Shabunin on a register of corrupt individuals and used against the organization in a smear campaign.
On March 30, police arrested Yuriy Fedorenko, the head of the Tverdynia NGO that works to expose illegal construction projects, as he was attempting to film construction in Kyiv he believed to be illegal. Fedorenko himself called police to report the construction violation, but they instead arrested and searched him and transported him to a nearby police station where he was charged with a violation of quarantine, despite his wearing a mask while in public. Police, citing privacy concerns, did not provide a reason for the arrest, and Fedorenko was later completely acquitted in court.
There were reports that unknown actors initiated violent attacks against activists because of their involvement in civil society organizations. For example, on June 20, Valentyna Buchok was wounded when a grenade exploded near a gate outside her home in Ivanopillya in the government-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast. Buchok, who was reportedly tortured while imprisoned by Russia-led forces in the Izolatsiya detention facility on falsified charges from 2016-17, was a member of SEMA Ukraine, a group that advocated for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Human rights groups claimed the explosion marked the third attempt on her life since her release in a prisoner exchange in 2017.
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 some civil society organizations run by Russia-led forces appeared to require certain persons, such as public-sector employees, to join.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Nationwide local elections took place on October 25, with runoff mayoral elections taking place through November and December. The local elections were the first to take place after decentralization reforms devolved power concentrated at the national level to local leaders. Due to COVID-19 related restrictions, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) only sent a limited election observation mission to monitor the conduct of these elections, while other observers cancelled their missions. As of early December, the ODIHR had not released its preliminary findings on the elections.
The country held early parliamentary elections in July 2019. A joint international election observation mission by the ODIHR, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament assessed that “Fundamental rights and freedoms were overall respected and the campaign was competitive, despite numerous malpractices, particularly in the majoritarian races.” The administration of the election was generally competent and effective, despite the short time available to prepare the elections. In sharp contrast, the campaign was marked by widespread vote buying, misuse of incumbency, and the practice of exploiting all possible legislative loopholes, skewing equality of opportunity for contestants. Intertwined business and political interests dictate media coverage of elections and allow for the misuse of political finance, including at the local level.
The country held a presidential election in two rounds in March and April 2019. The joint international election observation mission assessed the election, “was competitive, voters had a broad choice and turned out in high numbers. In the pre-electoral period, the law was often not implemented in good faith by many stakeholders, which negatively impacted trust in the election administration, enforcement of campaign finance rules, and the effectiveness of election dispute resolution. Fundamental freedoms were generally respected. Candidates could campaign freely; yet, numerous and credible indications of misuse of state resources and vote buying undermined the credibility of the process. The media landscape is diverse, but campaign coverage in the monitored media lacked in-depth analysis and was often biased. Election day was assessed positively overall and paves the way to the second round. Still, some procedural problems were noted during the count, and conditions for tabulation were at times inadequate.”
Russian occupation authorities and Russia-led forces did not allow voting in either the parliamentary or the presidential elections to take place in Crimea or in the parts of the Donbas region under the control of Russia-led forces.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The Communist Party remains banned. Voters in 18 communities in government-controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts were denied the right to participate in local elections in October due to a decision by the Central Election Commission that elections could not be held there, based on security concerns identified by local civil-military authorities. Rights groups criticized the lack of transparency and justification, as well as the inability to appeal the decision.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. To increase women’s representation in elected office, parliament amended the electoral code in July to require at least two of every five candidates on political party lists to be of a different gender than the other three. In the July 2019 parliamentary elections, women accounted for 23 percent of the candidates and won 21 percent of the seats. In the October local elections, women accounted for 43 percent of candidates on party lists and won approximately 30 percent of seats on local councils. No woman was elected mayor of a major city.
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 started its work in September 2019. The court’s creation completed the country’s system of bodies to fight high-level corruption, complementing two previously created anticorruption agencies, the National Anticorruption Bureau and the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office. During the first year of its operations, the High Anticorruption Court issued 20 sentences, including 19 convictions (nine of which resulted in imprisonment) and one acquittal. Prior to the court’s establishment, general jurisdiction courts considering cases brought by the National Anticorruption Bureau and the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office issued 34 sentences, only two of which resulted in imprisonment. Although the hearing continued, on April 3, the High Anticorruption Court issued its first decision on the measure of “restraint for officials charged with top corruption,” setting bail at 80 million hryvnias ($2.8 million) for former member of parliament Maksym Mikitas. As new cases were opened, the court also set bails in the amount of 100 million hryvnias ($3.5 million) for Member of Parliament Yaroslav Dubnevych, and 120 million hryvnias ($4.3 million) for former member of parliament Olena Mazurova. It enforced penalties for violating bail terms, charging Mikitas 30 million hryvnias ($1.1 million) and former member of parliament Vadim Alperin 35 million hryvnias ($1.3 million). As of September the court’s account had 756 million hryvnias ($27 million) in bail money, more than twice its annual budget.
Despite their successes, the new independent anticorruption bodies faced political pressure from antireform elites and oligarchs that undermined public trust, raised concern about the government’s commitment to fighting corruption, and threatened the viability of the institutions. Since the inception of the anticorruption infrastructure, various political actors attempted to embed loyal agents in the institutions through legislative changes and political leverage over selection procedures or to dissolve them altogether. In this regard, human rights groups called for more transparency and impartiality respecting procedures for appointing the heads of the bodies. Current selection procedures of the new head of the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office continued at year’s end.
Human rights groups claimed another threat to the anticorruption infrastructure came from the Constitutional Court, where antireform interests exercised undue influence on judges. From August to October, the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional certain provisions of the National Anticorruption Bureau law, a presidential decree to appoint the bureau’s director, and certain provisions of the anticorruption legislation that established the country’s asset declaration system for public officials. The court was also reviewing the constitutionality of the High Anticorruption Court law and several other reform laws.
Corruption: While the government publicized several attempts to combat corruption, it remained a serious problem for citizens and businesses alike.
In July the former acting head of Ukravtodor, the state agency for road maintenance, Slawomir Novak, was detained in his native Poland on suspicion of corruption based on a joint investigation by the National Anticorruption Bureau and Polish authorities. According to the bureau, Novak’s activities while heading Ukravtodor during 2016-19 “were aimed at embezzling funds from international organizations that allocated money for road repairs.”
As of November the National Anticorruption Bureau had investigated 986 criminal cases with 261 billion hryvnias ($9.6 billion) of losses and 390 suspects since its inception in 2015.
Financial Disclosure: The law mandates filing of income and expenditure declarations by public officials and 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 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 agency had the capacity and independence to fulfill this function. On October 27, the Constitutional Court ruled certain provisions of the financial disclosure law unconstitutional and deprived the agency of most of its powers. The controversial ruling reversed a key anticorruption reform and led the president and parliament to call for the dissolution of the Constitutional Court, describing it as a threat to the country’s sovereignty and national security. In response to the ruling, the National Anticorruption Bureau closed 110 proceedings on false declarations and the High Anticorruption Court stopped 17 court cases in process. In December parliament passed legislation reinstating the asset declaration system, and President Zelenskyy later endorsed it.
On July 7, President Zelenskyy informed the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption that he had not submitted notifications of significant changes in property status, prompting the agency to initiate administrative proceedings against him. In July 2019 President Zelenskyy bought and sold government bonds with a total value that exceeded the reporting threshold. According to the law, public officials must submit notifications of significant changes in property status to the Register of Declarations within 10 days from the time of the transaction. No such notification was received by the Register. On July 24, a court in Kyiv closed the administrative case against President Zelenskyy, noting that under the constitution, the president enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.