On Thursday, 21 January, the European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR) made a historical decision regarding the numerous human rights violations by the Ukrainian state during the Euromaidan protests of 2013-2014. Particularly, it found that the Ukrainian government under then-President Yanukovych deliberately used excessive force, was guilty of ill-treatment, unlawful detention, and abduction against Euromaidan protesters. As well, it found that the government was guilty of the death of one protester, and failed to investigate crimes against protesters adequately.
However, this decision is only a part of the whole picture. For seven years in a row, it was mostly human rights activists who fought for justice for Euromaidan protesters, while different Ukrainian governments coming to power after the revolution failed to complete the investigation of the crimes the Ukrainian state committed against them.
At the end of November 2013, protests sparked in the center of the capital Kyiv due to the government’s U-turn on signing the planned Association Agreement with the EU. Soon after, the protests escalated into a revolution against then-president Viktor Yanukovych, under whom the scale of corruption had skyrocketed, and who was leading the country closer to Russia and away from democracy.
The government used different repressive mechanisms to stop the people’s movement. In particular, law enforcement forces and paid thugs, titushky, to suppress street protests and kidnap the activists, as well as corrupt courts to unlawfully convict protesters. After three months of street protests, the confrontation escalated into a massacre on 18-21 February 2014, when dozens of protesters and several law enforcement officers were killed.
The recent ECtHR decision is related to several episodes that happened during the revolution in Kyiv and other cities of Ukraine. In particular, to the government’s dispersal of protesters, detentions, kidnappings, police brutality, ill-treatment of the protesters, and the State’s responsibility for the murder of one protester. The Court points out that the authorities deliberately tried to disrupt the peaceful protests from the beginning, and that the violations were a state strategy
The court outlined the following violations of the European Convention on Human Rights:
- multiple violations of Article 3 on the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment),
- multiple violations of Article 5 §§ 1 and 3 on the right to liberty and security,
- multiple violations of Article 11 on freedom of assembly and association,
- a violation of Article 2 on the right to life,
- and a violation of Article 8 on the right to respect for private and family life.
Importantly, the court also noted the lack of an effective mechanism in Ukraine to investigate crimes committed by security forces and non-state agents during these events. According to the court’s decision, Ukraine must pay some applicants compensation for material and moral damage, as well as cover court costs.
As Mykhailo Tarakhkalo, Director of Strategic Affairs at the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union NGO wrote, the lawyers of the NGO took on the cases of many victims. He added that all of their clients won and will receive significant compensations.
As the court’s statement says, the applicants had all had encounters with the police or non-State agents under police control (titushky) – hired sporty men who were paid to do what the police could not.
Dmytro Hudyma, a judge of Ukraine’s Supreme Court draws attention that from now the term titushky, which the ECHR used without quotes, is established in the international law.
Among the other key messages of the court is that the authorities had used ill-treatment deliberately.
“It noted that many of the detention orders had been arbitrary. It considered that the authorities had deliberately tried to disrupt initially peaceful protests, using excessive violence and unlawful detention to achieve that. Overall, it noted that the abuses found appeared to have been a strategy on the part of the authorities,” the court’s statement says.
The person for whose murder the state bears responsibility is Yuriy Verbytskyi, a scientist from Lviv. On 21 January 2014 he and then activist Ihor Lutsenko was kidnapped. Later, Yuriy Verbytskyi was tortured to death.
“Mr Verbytskyy’s brother was injured in the protests early on the morning of 21 January 2014 and Mr Lutsenko took him to hospital. They were kidnapped a couple of hours later by titushky. They were taken to a remote area, bound and severely ill-treated. Mr Lutsenko was left about 50 km outside Kyiv in freezing temperatures. Mr Verbytskyy’s brother’s body was found in a forest not far from Kyiv. He had been hit using a blunt object at least 30 times and had died from hypothermia. Murder and abduction investigations were opened and joined. Suspects were identified and some were notified. The ill-treatment was qualified as ‘torture’. Many other investigative steps were performed and evidence pointing to the complicity of police officers and their leaders was unearthed, which led to a separate investigation being opened,” the court statement describes.
Commenting on the episode to BBC, Lutsenko said that in Ukraine the case of his kidnapping is still considered in courts.
“In total, five people had been detained, one of them escaped from house arrest. Four others are direct executors. One of them, Oleksandr Medvid, has been on trial for 5 years. Another one, Oleksandr Volkov, was detained in 2017 – soon I hope there will be a decision of the first instance court. Two more were detained only in the spring of last year – their cases were brought to court only recently.”
Lutsenko considers his case as more or less successful among the Maidan cases as at least someone can be punished.
In its recent statement, the ECtHR says that it found that the investigations into the events had in many instances been ineffective.[boxright]
Meanwhile, Yevhenia Zakrevska, the head of the Advocacy Advisory Panel NGO and the lawyer of the families of the Heavenly Hundred (activists killed during the Euromaidan Revolution) draws attention that the main case of Euromaidan — on the shooting of the protesters in Kyiv on 20 February 2014 — which is being considered in courts for more than six years has lost nearly all chances of success after a 29 December 2019 prisoner swap. As a result of it, 76 Ukrainian POWs and civilian hostages held in Russia’s puppet “republics” in Donbas were swapped for 27 prisoners, including Berkut riot police officers suspected in Euromaidan murders.
Zakrevska called the year which passed after as the year of empty promises and total inaction.
In this regard, the Advocacy Advisory Panel released an open statement to the President’s Office, the head of parliament, the heads of parliamentary factions, and the Prime Minister calling them to unblock the Maidan cases. To make the swap possible, the Berkut officers’ preventive measures were changed in violation of the Criminal Procedural Code — a few months before the verdict was expected. In the statement, the lawyers demand to solve the situation with a conviction in absentia:
- to unblock trials in absentia against defendants in Maidan cases who have escaped justice, as well as in cases related to the armed conflict in Ukraine with the Russian Federation,
- to register and adopt as soon as possible a bill on amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code of Ukraine, which will allow trial in absentia without the implementation of the international search procedure, for persons who are well aware of the criminal prosecution against them.
The statement stresses that after the exchange, the government and president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in particular, promised to finish the case despite the physical absence of the accused and to bring those guilty to accountability through a conviction in absentia. However, in the year following the swap, not even a single bill in this regard was registered.
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