KIEV, Ukraine -- Another constitutional right appears to be under assault in President Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine: The constitutional right to assemble peacefully.
In the run-up to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Kyiv on May 17-18, a judge in Kyiv Oblast’s administrative court banned any pickets in front of the presidential administration and in most central areas of Kyiv.
The court justified the ban as essential “in order to avoid possible clashes between people who share different political views, taking into account previous experience ensuring public order during such actions, and also conflicts with police units, which may lead to a sharp escalation of the situation and mass unrest.”
Natalia Petrova, a lawyer and a media expert, said that Ukrainian politicians and courts still don’t understand that a basic tenet of a democratic society is the freedom to assemble peacefully – even in protest.
“I can’t say whether the situation is getting much worse now,” Petrova said. “Banning meetings and demonstrations has been a common practice in Ukrainian courts.”
During the Ukraine without Kuchma protests in 2000-2001, when mass protests against ex-President Leonid Kuchma gathered steam, courts banned marches in downtown Kyiv.
Instead, judges assigned demonstrators to the distant location of Chaika stadium, just outside of Kyiv.
The most recent ruling – to not run the risk of protests against Medvedev, no matter how peaceful – shows that Ukrainian courts lag far behind democratic standards.
“Ukraine should learn from the Western countries how to balance people’s rights for assembly and public order,” Petrova said. “Just take a look at the anti-globalists’ protests during the G8 and other summits: nobody bans them and if the police notice a violent action, they just locate and isolate the instigators, while other people keep protesting.”
Article 39 of the Constitution of Ukraine clearly states:
“Citizens have the right to assemble peacefully without arms and to hold meetings, rallies, processions and demonstrations upon notifying in advance the executive authorities or local self governments.”
However, the second part of the Article 39 stipulates some restrictions on exercising the right for assembly. And those curbs “can be established by a court in accordance with the law and only in the interests of national security and public order, with the purpose of preventing disturbances and crimes, protecting the health of the population or protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons.”
And, hence, courts liberally seize on those limitations to ban demonstrations – and hence, a valuable form of free speech.
Among the victims of the court ruling were activists from the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party led by Oleh Tyahnibok. They planned to picket the presidential adminsitration.
“To do so we filed a corresponding request to Kyiv city administration but instead of the expected permission we got a Kyiv oblast administrative court ruling that banned us to hold the picket in front of the president’s office and in most places in Kyiv downtown area,” complains Yuriy Syrotyuk.
Syrotyuk was outraged by the court’s rationale that the demonstrators threatened public safety. “We were not going to scuffle with the police or with our opponents,” Syrotyuk said.
“We just wanted to exercise our right for public gatherings and protest against treacherous anti-Ukrainian policy that the incumbent president, Yanukovych, promotes by signing bilateral agreements that limit Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”
Yevhen Radchenko, a legal expert and director on development at Internews-Ukraine, said peaceful protests do not represent a threat to public safety.
“If the law enforcement structures were afraid of clashes between the demonstrators and their opponents, they should have ensured public safety at the gathering point but not ban the picket,” Radchenko said.
“So it’s obvious that the court ruling was politically charged and the judges were trying to use any pretext to justify it. I think it’s a very alarming signal.”
“The current bans on peaceful demonstrations are nothing but a wide-front offensive on human rights,” said Yevhen Zakharov, a leading Ukraine’s human rights expert.
According to Zakharov, the official crusade against public demonstrations also extends to non-political issues – such as a student demonstration in Kharkiv recently demanding better city maintenance. Police detained three protesters for “violating the procedure for gathering.”
Most troubling, Zakharov said, is that “now city authorities can ban people’s gatherings” on their own, without any court order.
Zakharov is concerned that parliament will adopt even more restrictions on freedom of assembly soon.