Smear campaign against Ukrainian anti-corruption NGO intensifies. Is the state involved?

A movie about the NGO Anti-Corruption Action Center was presented in the Ukrainian Parliament. The members of the NGO say that the campaign is directed to close their organization. Photo: snapshot from the video

A movie about the NGO Anti-Corruption Action Center was presented in the Ukrainian Parliament. The members of the NGO say that the campaign is directed to close their organization. Photo: snapshot from the video 

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Article by: Olena Makarenko

The war against anti-corruption activists intensified in Ukraine. And its methods are now so convoluted that it is hard to tell reality from fakes.

On 23 May 2017 during a briefing in the Verkhovna Rada [Parliament], Ukrainian MPs watched a documentary about the alleged embezzlement of funds by the members of the NGO Anti-Corruption Action Center. The initiator of the screening was an MP from Narodnyi Front [Arseniy Yatseniuk’s party], Pavlo Pynzenyk.

According to the MP, the materials which he obtained contained facts that “despite the high wages of the members of this association [Anti-Corruption Action Center], additional funds were transferred to individual entrepreneurs.”

“So Shabunin himself [Vitaliy Shabunin is the head of the NGO] as an individual entrepreneur during 2016-2017 received UAH 1.7 mn [$ 64,730], and individual entrepreneur Ustinova [Oleksandra] from the same organization for 2016-2017 received UAH 1.86 mn [$ 70,823],” Pynzenyk said at a press briefing in parliament.

In conclusion of his actions, he said that the Anti-Corruption Action Center might be deprived of a non-profit status. He also said that he intends to send the documents he received to the General Prosecutor’s Office, State Fiscal Service, and to embassies of the G7 member states which were giving significant aid to Ukraine, including financial support for the implementation of anti-corruption programs in Ukraine.

It’s noteworthy that the investigation was conducted by some NGO called “National Interest of Ukraine.” Its site was launched only on May 22. So far, the above-mentioned investigation is the only thing on the site, written in half-legible English.

Representatives of the Anti-Corruption Action Center have already reacted to the incident. In an official statement on their site they said that all the accusations are fake and that they are preparing a lawsuit against Mr. Pynzenyk for disseminating false statements:

“The claims can be easily refuted by financial statements of AntAC, which are regularly reported to the State Fiscal Service and donor organizations. Moreover, AntAC undergoes annual financial audit and publishes reports about its activities and funding,” says the statement.

They are also confident that the whole campaign is directed at closing the NGO.

“The presentation of such a movie in parliament constitutes political persecution of AntAC and its members who vocal critics of the authorities. Its only purpose is to discredit the AntAC and to justify future attacks of tax and law enforcement authorities on the organization,” is written in the statement.

This isn’t the first time representatives of the Anti-Corruption Action Center had complained of political persecution by the state. In March 2016, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal investigation against the NGO for alleged embezzlement of US Embassy funds, which was closed after the embassy issued an official statement.

Representatives of the Center are confident that their latest misfortunes are caused by their lawsuit against the Security Services [SBU] of Ukraine, in which the NGO sued the SBU employees for not declaring their assets to the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NAZK) as required by Ukraine’s new anti-corruption laws on e-declarations, but reporting about it to their own closed database. The representatives of the NGO considered these actions illegal.

The retribution for the lawsuit was soon to come. A fake protest organized near the house of Vitaliy Shabunin on 9 April 2017. The anti-corruption activist himself stated that the protest was organized by the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) and the deputy head of it Pavlo Demchyna in particular.

The SBU refuted any involvement in organizing the fake protest. However soon journalists of Radio Svoboda published detailed proof that indeed the SBU supervised the protests from the very beginning.

Another case of the persecution of the NGO activists took place in May 2017 just after the court hearing on the case of the Anti-Corruption Action Center against SBU regarding their declarations took place.

Oleksandra Ustinova complained that the SBU employees came to her house when she and her boyfriend were supposed to be at work. As Ustinova told, the unexpected guests were going to shoot their fake documentary to discredit the Anti-Corruption Action Center. However, that day the boyfriend of the activist was ill and stayed at home. He heard some noise in the building and came out to ask the supposed SBU employees what they were looking for. After this, they ran away. Ustinova published photos and a video of the incident.

Read more: Ukraine’s Security Services at a crossroads: to cover the authorities or to protect the people

The state’s fight against anti-corruption NGOs activated this year. On March 27, President Petro Poroshenko signed the bill on Amendments to the Law of Ukraine on Prevention of Corruption. According to it, anti-corruption NGOs and their contractors, candidates for the positions of deputies of the Parliament of local councils, or the president, and civil activists who fight corruption should submit e-declarations on their property and income. The e-declarations are similar to those which the state officials submit, and those failing to submit them would face criminal responsibility. All the above-mentioned persons will be obliged to declare their property in 2018.

This step was considered to be political persecution of the anti-corruption activists and condemned by the international community.

Read more: Supporting transparency or fighting it? New law on assets declarations for NGOs raises scandal in Ukraine

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