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Winning back private space

Ukrainians complain about violations of their rights and freedoms more frequently
15 декабря, 00:00
THE POSTER SAYS: I HAVE THE RIGHT! / Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

Den’s editors frequently receive letters from readers who ask for protection from the arbitrary rule of bureaucrats, the unjust judiciary system, and bribery. In despair and without proper knowledge of instruments to protect their rights, people appeal to the mass media as the highest instance. We try to pay attention to every letter. However, drawing attention to the problem does not always mean resolving it, unfortunately.

Declaring civil rights and freedoms is only the formal side of democracy. Let us recall that the USSR Constitution was considered nearly the most humane in the world. At the same time, Vasyl Stus died in prison in the 1980s, not so long ago, after he was convicted by a “humane” Soviet court according to the “humane” Soviet laws. Ukraine has regained independence, however post-Soviet inertia continues to keep in fear the bigger part of Ukrainian society, which prevents it from defending its rights and freedoms.

In reality, the civil society we want to build involves the development of a clear-cut algorithm and an entire mechanism of rights defense. This is a process of gradual winning back of private space that we were deprived of for years. Lawyers regularly stress that if you know your rights and duties, you have much smaller chances to get in trouble, fall victim to corrupt demands, or bureaucratic collisions.

Back in 1976 the Ukrainian Helsinki Group became the human rights champion for the citizens in the Soviet Union. It included such notable personalities as Mykola Rudenko, Oleksii Tykhy, Ivan Kandyba, and Petro Hryhorenko. At the time the vigorous human rights activity of the UHG met fierce opposition in the Soviet government. This could mean only that the semi-underground activity of the UHG posed threat to the state system, which was built on the devaluation of the main rights and freedoms.

But do present-day schoolchildren know anything about the UHG? Does anybody set General Hryhorenko as an example before them? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Then what should contemporary citizens use as its guidance to protect their rights, and most importantly, eradicate their fear of firmly and consistently defending their stand?

Last year the scheduled events of the participants of The Day’s Summer School of Journalism included attending the exhibit held in the Smoloskyp Publishing House and dedicated to outstanding General Petro Hryhorenko. His personality became a discovery for most of the participants of our school, present author included. Despite being a man in the system, this general of the Soviet army found it in himself to fight this system, perfectly aware of what his future life had in store for him. The example of Hryhorenko and his colleagues is very important as they set the tradition of human rights advocacy that should be studied and applied, although the conditions we have now seem to be totally different.

Today the successor the UHG’s cause is the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Association, a nationwide association of civic organizations for human rights, whose aim is to help enforce the humanist articles of the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe held in 1975 and other international legal documents adopted for its development, as well as all Ukrainian obligations in the sphere of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The lawyer Arkadii Bushchenko told The Day that the year 2009 has yielded many successful cases. But unfortunately, most of them ended in the European Court for Human Rights, which, as it is known, begins to consider the cases only if all of national means of defense were exhausted. But luckily, the situation with Ukraine’s judiciary is not so fatal.

This year the Court of Appeals in Kharkiv oblast ruled that Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs should pay compensation to Serhii Aleksakhin, who suffered moral damage and a physical injury from an employee of law enforcement bodies back in 1998. That year Aleksakhin was illegally detained and suffered physical life-threatening injuries. It is only now that he has managed to attain justice.

Patience, time, and money are what citizens need today to make Ukraine’s judiciary work efficiently. Even with all of the abovementioned components in their possession, few people dare go through all judiciary bodies all the way up to the European Court, because they simply don’t believe in the positive outcome, says Bushchenko. “However, I should say that recently the number of complaints about violation of rights and freedoms received from Ukrainian citizens has considerable increased,” he notes. “This positive tendency is connected with the fact that, first, it has become much easier to detect and prove that the violations took place, and second, Ukrainians are gradually losing their fear of governmental repressions.”

At one point the newspaper Den also acquired precious experience of struggling for own rights. The decision by the European Court on March 29, 2005, became a precedent, because no mass media in the post-Soviet space had ever won a case against politicians, much less reached the European Court. This story started during the election campaign in 1999, when two presidential candidates, Natalia Vitrenko and Petro Symonenko, brought a legal action against the newspaper Den. Ukrainian courts found the newspaper guilty of damaging the honor and dignity of the candidates in two publications (Aug. 21 and Sept.14, 1999, you can find them in the archives on Den’s website – www.day.kiev.ua). However, the newspaper won its appeal to the European Court, which found the Ukrainian state guilty of violating the right to freedom of expression.

The cause of protecting rights and freedoms is an entire complex made up of various components. Certainly, there is a need for an efficient judiciary system. Besides, one should know the tradition of protection of human rights and freedoms. The tradition (or precedent) should be created by leaders who are the first to pave this way. But the most important component is that the society should have a high legal culture and the culture of cooperation and understand that democracy not only provides rights and freedoms, but also assigns duties.

Eduard BAHIROV, head of the International League of Protection the Rights of Ukrainian citizens:

“Generally, the main problem is that Ukrainian citizens do not know what rights they have. So, in my opinion, we should work more actively on the legal education of people. In reality, though, there is nobody to do this as bureaucrats are not interested in this. There is one more problem: when citizens appeal to courts and refuse from further investigation after a while. At the same time, there are examples when Ukrainians were able to defend their rights, especially those pertaining to labor legislation: the payment of wages, pensions, and some questions concerning property. The only problem is that officials very often back their responses with laws that do not meet the substance of the inquiry. People receive the reply and see a list of legal articles that allegedly do not allow them to realize their rights. At this point they stop.”

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