Ukraine: Ten victories in human rights in 2023

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For the second year in a row, Ukrainians are suffering from the destruction, killings, and torture caused by Russia’s full-scale attack. Civil society organizations and law enforcement are documenting the shocking human rights violations daily to bring justice and accountability to those responsible.

At the same time, Ukraine continues to show the world that it upholds values and respect for human dignity, unlike the aggressor country of Russia, which is plunging further into a whirlpool of repression and violations of all international humanitarian rules.

Despite unprecedented challenges in 2023, Ukraine not only took further steps towards its European future but also contributed to the progress of international partners in creating tools to bring Vladimir Putin to justice for his war crimes and compensate victims of Russian military aggression.

We have compiled the most significant developments and events in the field of human rights that took place in 2023 in Ukraine.

We chose only those decisions and documents already in effect for our top ten victories that could bring positive changes. So this year, for example, the Law on medical cannabis and the draft law on registered civil partnerships for same-sex couples, which we hope will become victories next year, were not included.

Illustration by ZMINA

International Criminal Court warrant for the arrest of Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova

On March 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Presidential Children’s Ombudsman Maria Lvova-Belova.

According to the Court’s statement, they are suspected of systematic illegal deportation of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation, which is a war crime and falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC.

The ICC judges emphasized that there are sufficient grounds to believe that the Russian president is individually criminally responsible for such deportations. The same applies to Lvova-Belova. After all, she illegally adopted a child abducted from Ukraine and does not hide it.

Now, any state that has ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC is obliged to arrest and transfer Putin and Lvova-Belova to the international Court as soon as they are on the territory of these states.

The International Criminal Court considers these cases to ensure justice and accountability for serious crimes, particularly under the Rome Statute.

Today, 123 states are parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC.

Therefore, even though it may take years to bring Putin and Lvova-Belova to justice for the deportation of Ukrainian children, they are already experiencing some of the consequences of the ICC warrant. In particular, the Russian president is restricted in his movements outside Russia, affecting his attempts to increase his influence in the Global South. After all, unlike China, India, and Turkey, most African countries have ratified the Rome Statute. For example, Putin could no longer come to Johannesburg (South Africa) for the BRICS summit, of which Russia is a founding member, and did not attend the G20 summit in India in September 2023.

In addition, since Putin and Lvova-Belova have been granted the status of war crime suspects, this imposes a particular responsibility on those who officially communicate with them at the state level.

Thus, on April 5, 49 countries, in a joint statement, condemned Russia for organizing a Security Council meeting on the alleged legal grounds for the abduction of Ukrainian children from the temporarily occupied territories. The United Kingdom blocked the broadcast of the speech of the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Lvova-Belova, on UN resources, calling on her to be held accountable for her actions in The Hague.

Some members of the US Congress have also condemned the abduction of Ukrainian children by the Russian Federation and introduced a resolution to the legislature.

The Russian authorities began preparations for the deportation and illegal transfer of children to their territory in advance. Since the beginning of the war in 2014, the State Duma has amended the law “On Citizenship of the Russian Federation,” giving Putin several new powers. In particular, he was allowed to personally determine the categories of foreigners entitled to a simplified procedure for acquiring Russian citizenship based on his own opinions.

Usually, one of the conditions for obtaining citizenship is to reside in the country for at least three years. However, this rule does not apply in Russia in many cases, including for Ukrainians.

Another format that provides a simplified procedure for obtaining citizenship is recognizing a person as a native Russian speaker. For this purpose, the Russians created a special commission that makes such a conclusion. After a full-scale invasion, residents of the occupied Kherson or Zaporizhzhia region can take this exam even without a preliminary interview.

Onysia Synyuk, a legal analyst at the ZMINA Human Rights Center, emphasizes that not only Putin and Lvova-Belova but many more Russian officials are involved in the crime of deportation and, accordingly, genocide of Ukrainians. These include representatives of the State Duma, the governments of both the federal and individual regions and the heads of the occupation administrations in the occupied territories of Ukraine, who facilitate the transfer of children to Russian families.

All deportation measures were planned and started immediately after the occupation of Crimea and other territories of Ukraine. One of the most hideous, according to the lawyer, is the overt militarization of Ukrainian children. It includes propaganda for service in the Russian army and re-education camps where children are talked to by Russian soldiers who tell them about their actions on the battlefield. In addition, the militarization of Ukrainian children encompasses an extensive network of Russian youth militarized organizations such as the “Yunarmiya” [All-Russia “Young Army” National Military Patriotic Social Movement Association], whose representatives agitate high school students to join the Russian armed forces.

In total, according to the official data of the Ukrainian authorities, as of December this year, Russia has deported 19,546 children from Ukraine. However, the exact number of deported children is unknown, as Russia continues to deport new groups of Ukrainians every day.

As previously reported by ZMINA and other human rights defenders, Ukrainian children are placed in 57 regions of the Russian Federation, including Siberia, and re-educated in at least 43 so-called “educational camps.”

According to the National Information Bureau, as of the end of December, 387 children had been returned. Some of them reported being abused and threatened with physical punishment by their abductors.

Experts from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe also collected data on the deportation of children to Russia.

Establishment of the Register of Damages for Ukraine

On May 17, the Council of Europe announced the establishment of the International Register of Damage Caused by the Aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine. This is the first step in implementing the International Compensation Mechanism developed by Ukrainian experts and international colleagues. This system is designed to compensate for the losses of the country and everyone who suffered from Russian aggression.

The mechanism contains three elements. The first is the Register of Losses, which will record information on losses, damages, and injuries. The second stage is the compensation commission, which, based on the Register, will be able to make decisions on compensation in each specific case separately. The third element is a compensation fund that will accumulate funds for payments.

The Register of Losses, according to the statute, will accept applications for compensation. Specialists will classify them and decide whether to include them in the general database. Selected applications will be recorded and sent to the compensation commission for consideration.

The Register members have not yet approved the categories of claims they will accept. However, it is expected that the Register will take claims for loss of life, torture, sexual violence, evictions and deportations, property damage, and other economic losses. In addition, damage to infrastructure, government facilities, cultural and historical heritage, and the environment will be recorded. The Register Board may also add other categories of damages to be compensated.

Forty-three countries supported the creation of the Register of Losses, and the European Union was the 44th participant. In addition to the EU, the decision was approved by the United States, Canada, and Japan.

“This is a great victory, a great achievement! This is one of the first significant results of the joint actions of European countries and the entire democratic world in bringing Russia to justice and making compensation inevitable,” said Iryna Mudra, Deputy Minister of Justice of Ukraine, who worked on developing the compensation mechanism.

The Council of Europe immediately noted they wanted the Register of Damages to start working as soon as possible. The Prime Minister of Ukraine, Denys Shmyhal, also spoke about this:

“Now the hard work begins – we need to ensure that the Register starts working as soon as possible so that victims of Russian aggression can submit their claims.”

On November 16, at the third meeting of the conference of the participating countries, the Register Board was elected. It includes seven representatives: banking and finance law specialist Yulia Kyrpa from Ukraine, Norbert Wühler from Germany, Chiara Giorgetti from Italy, Robert Spano from Iceland, Veijo Heiskanen from Finland, Lucy Reed from the United States, and Aleksandra Menzhikovska from Poland.

The first meeting of the Council was held on December 11–15. It is expected that in the first three months of 2024, the Council will start accepting applications from victims. Applications can be submitted independently or through public authorities.

Mudra said there will be no upper limit on the number of applications or the amount of compensation. According to her, the Register expects several million applications for compensation. In particular, experts are preparing a digital platform to collect, process, and store information.

“We want everything to be digitized so that it is as easy and accessible as possible to submit this application,” the Deputy Minister of Justice said.

A compensation commission will decide on the compensation amount in each case. Representatives of Ukraine and the Council of Europe are currently consulting on what this commission should look like and how it will work.

In addition, there is still work to be done to form a compensation fund. This fund will pay all compensation for cases approved by the Register and the Commission.

According to preliminary agreements, the fund will be replenished with contributions from the states participating in the compensation mechanism. At the same time, it is planned that Russia’s confiscated assets will be transferred to the fund.

The most pro-European Law on Media and the prohibition of discrimination in advertising

On March 31, 2023, the Law on Media came into force. It was one of the key documents that had to be adopted to start negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU. The Law’s main objective was to implement the EU Directive on Audiovisual Media Services and strengthen the role of Ukraine’s media regulator, the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting.

The Law also had to completely update the rules for regulating the media in line with the requirements of the times and the development of technology, as the previous media laws were adopted almost 30 years ago. Although Ukraine was an independent state then, many norms were based on the Soviet approach. Attempts to develop a new media code lasted ten years, but it was only adopted in parliament at the end of 2022.

Overall, the Media Law has been highly praised by the European Commission, and the regulation of the media sector in Ukraine has become closer to EU law.

The Law was subject to heated debate and criticism. It was difficult to reconcile the interests of many stakeholders: broadcasters, political forces, and civil society, which cooperates with European partners and tries to introduce the best standards in Ukraine.

For example, Taras Kremin, the Commissioner for the Protection of the State Language in Ukraine, stated that the draft law should be “significantly revised to prevent the narrowing of the scope of use of the state language [Ukrainian].” 

Provisions on the so-called “black” and “white” lists of performers and actors who threaten national security, as well as the regulation of online media, were also criticized.

The Law took over three years to develop, has 300 pages of text, and went through hundreds of discussions, political controversies, and about 2,500 amendments after the first reading.

The document was submitted to parliament in 2020. Two years later, in August 2022, it was adopted in the first reading and supported in the second reading on December 13, 2022.

The Law should ensure a competitive media market with binding rules for all, an independent regulator, and compliance with the EU Audiovisual Directive. Notably, it regulates online media, which previously did not have a separate status, although registration of this type of media is voluntary. The regulator, the National Council, registered the first six online media and one YouTube channel on June 22, 2023.

Among the most significant advantages of the new Law, activists consider the ban on the media spreading discriminatory appeals, calling it “a powerful step towards blocking hate speech in Ukraine.”

The prohibition is contained in Article 36, “Restrictions on the Content of Information”. It reads:

“On the territory of Ukraine, it is prohibited to disseminate in the media and on video sharing platforms:

  • Statements that incite hatred, hostility, or cruelty to individuals or groups of individuals based on ethnic or social origin, citizenship, nationality, race, religion and beliefs, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability;
  • Statements that incite discrimination or harassment against individuals or groups of individuals based on ethnic or social origin, citizenship, nationality, race, religion or beliefs, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or other grounds.

At the same time, the same article prohibits the dissemination of

  • Calls for the overthrow of the constitutional order;
  • Propaganda or calls for terrorism;
  • Information denying or justifying the criminal nature of the communist totalitarian regime;
  • Information that humiliates or disparages the state language;
  • Information that denies or calls into question the existence of the Ukrainian people (nation) and/or Ukrainian statehood and/or the Ukrainian language, etc.”

Relevant amendments were also made to the Law on advertising, which is also one of the requirements of the European Union. Thus, the state has prohibited the inclusion of statements and/or images in advertising that discriminate based on a person’s origin, social and property status, race and nationality, gender, education, political views, attitude to religion, language, occupation, place of residence, as well as those that discredit the goods of others.

The new format of advertising requirements came into effect in Ukraine on October 2.

The Law on Media also introduced significant changes to the Law on the Ukrainian Referendum, prohibiting, in particular, in Article 100, “disseminating in any way materials that contain signs of or incite discrimination or harassment of individuals and groups of individuals on the grounds of ethnic and social origin, citizenship, race, religion or belief, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or other grounds, as well as materials that contain signs of sexism or incite to sexism.”

The new Media Code also amended the Law on Public Television and Radio Broadcasting (the Law on Public Media of Ukraine), the Law on State Support of Mass Media and Social Protection of Journalists (the Law on State Support of Media, Guarantees of Professional Activity and Social Protection of Journalists), the Law on Cinematography, the Law on Electronic Communications, the Law on Copyright and Related Rights.

It is worth mentioning that with the entry into force of the Law on Media, the Law on the Protection of Public Morality, which human rights defenders and activists had been opposing for many years, ceased to exist.

Another important innovation in media law is the emergence of self-government in the media sector. The Law provides for the creation of joint regulatory bodies for five types of media – audiovisual media services, audio media services, print, online, and video-sharing platforms. Their task is to develop codes and criteria for the creation and dissemination of information, as well as to provide expert opinions in specific cases of violations in the areas of joint regulation.

This system is being implemented in Ukraine for the first time. It aims to increase the participation of the media in developing and defining content requirements through the adoption of codes and to prevent censorship and abuse of freedom of speech.

As of the end of December 2023, the first stage of establishing the relevant bodies in three areas – audiovisual, audio, and online media – was completed.

Currently, the working groups established at the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting are tasked with drafting the charters of the co-regulatory bodies and constituent documents, as well as registering these bodies.

In the future, the National Council and the joint regulatory body will develop and approve criteria for classifying information as violating the requirements of paragraphs 1-4, 6-14 of part one of Article 36 of the Law “On Media” [provisions regarding the restrictions on the content of information]. Before approving the relevant criteria, the National Council shall justify applying the restrictions on its own.

Amendments to the Law “On National Minorities (Communities) of Ukraine”

On July 1, 2023, the Law “On National Minorities (Communities) of Ukraine” came into force, repealing the previous Law adopted in 1992.

Changing legislation in this area is one of the seven main criteria for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union. Ukraine has committed itself to ensuring European standards for protecting the rights of national communities, particularly by creating appropriate mechanisms.

Subsequently, in June, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe issued its conclusions on the new Law. The Venice Commission provided comments primarily aimed at bringing specific provisions of the Law in line with the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities of 1995, and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages of 1992.

In particular, the Venice Commission emphasized that to achieve the goal of the draft law, the following laws still need to be amended:

  • “On ensuring the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the state language.”
  • “On Media.”
  • “On Education.”

In the summer and fall, the Verkhovna Rada amended the Law several more times, and some of the recommendations of the Venice Commission were partially or fully taken into account. In early December 2023, the Verkhovna Rada adopted draft law No. 10288-1 on amendments to specific laws of Ukraine regarding considering the expert opinion of the Council of Europe and its bodies on the rights of national minorities.

Amendments applied to such laws as the Law on Local Self-Government in Ukraine, the Law on Education, the Law on Higher Education, the Law on Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language, the Law on Complete General Secondary Education, the Law on National Minorities (Communities) of Ukraine, and the Law on Media.

The adopted Law, among other things, provides for the following:

  • Private universities have the right to freely choose the language of instruction from among those that are official languages of the EU.
  • Representatives of national communities of Ukraine whose languages are official languages of the EU and who started receiving general secondary education in their language before September 1, 2018, have the right to continue receiving such education until graduation.
  • Election campaign materials may be distributed in the languages of indigenous peoples and national minorities (among the official languages of the EU) and must be duplicated in Ukrainian.
  • Publishing products published in Crimean Tatar and other indigenous or minority languages (among the official languages of the EU) at the expense of the state are not subject to the requirement to publish at least 50% of book publications in Ukrainian.
  • For television broadcasting by national minorities, programs in the Ukrainian language must account for at least 30% of the total duration of the programs.
  • Representatives of national communities of Ukraine may receive basic and specialized secondary education in their native languages (except for the subjects of Ukrainian language, Ukrainian literature, history of Ukraine, and defense of Ukraine).

Therefore, according to Vyacheslav Likhachev, historian and head of the Minority Rights Monitoring Group at the Congress of National Communities, when Ukrainian legislation on national minorities was amended following the recommendations of the Venice Commission, the Law went a long way from imitating the wishes of European partners to genuinely significant changes in December 2023.

“According to the new legislation, the scope of permitted public use of national minority languages has been expanded, particularly in education. In general, Ukraine’s progress in this area deserves a positive assessment. However, the authors of the Law still did not take into account the recommendations of the Venice Commission in full,” he summarized.

Olha Stefanishyna, Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, says the Law contains additional safeguards to block Russian narratives and propaganda leakage.

According to her, this document is explicitly aimed at protecting national minorities, so it does not provide for expanding opportunities for the Russian language.

In addition, as the Vice Prime Minister notes, the issue of protecting the “Russian minority” does not arise in negotiations with the EU on minority rights, as it does not officially exist in Ukraine.

Law on Recognition of Education Results Obtained in the Temporarily Occupied Territories

After 2014, access to Ukrainian education for citizens who remained under occupation became much more difficult. In particular, due to limited access to the government-controlled territory and blocked communication channels. For more than nine years, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children living in the occupation have been forced to receive education in these territories [temporarily occupied territories, TOT, also known as the non-government-controlled territory, NGCA].

At the same time, after the start of the full-scale invasion, repressions and human rights violations in the Russian-occupied territories intensified, and the risk of mobilization and conscription into the enemy army increased. Therefore, many residents of the occupied territories are moving to government-controlled territory.

However, Ukraine does not recognize documents issued in the temporarily occupied territories, including educational documents. This creates obstacles for citizens who have moved from the NGCA to find employment and continue their education. In other words, their rights to education and work are restricted in this way.

In addition, in light of the upcoming de-occupation, the question of how hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens will be employed, continue their studies, and reintegrate into Ukraine’s educational, cultural, and legal space without key documents confirming their knowledge is relevant.

Therefore, in November 2023, the Verkhovna Rada supported draft law No. 9591 on the certification of knowledge and skills of Ukrainian citizens acquired in the TOT.

The Law stipulates that residents of the occupied territories will be able to undergo free certification, which will allow them to:

  • Obtain a Ukrainian certificate of secondary education.
  • Obtain a document on the level of vocational education or a degree of professional higher education and the level of relevant professional qualification in cases provided for by law and/or educational program.
  • Receive recommendations for obtaining vocational (vocational-technical), professional higher education, or higher education with a reduced period of study or an individual educational trajectory that involves studying the Ukrainian language, the history of Ukraine, taking a special course on the consequences of the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine and countering Russian propaganda, and developing general cultural and civic competencies.

Previously, residents of the occupied territories did not have this opportunity, so those who had already graduated or studied for several years and moved to the government-controlled territory had to enter the first year of university and study from the beginning. According to experts, this resulted in unjustified expenses from the state budget.

According to the Law, learning outcomes at the higher education level can be recognized for no more than 75% of the total volume of the educational program. In addition, learning outcomes will not be recognized in several specialties and professions to be approved by the government. The Representative Office of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea indicates that these types of education will include, in particular, law, diplomatic or military affairs, and scientific achievements.

The Ministry of Education will approve the list of educational institutions that will conduct such certification.

The initiators of the draft law are convinced that its adoption will be an essential step towards protecting one of the fundamental human rights – the right to education, and human rights activists believe that this Law will enable more effective reintegration by including TOT residents in the socio-political context of Ukraine. This, in turn, will strengthen economic sectors amid Ukraine’s personnel shortage.

Returning e-declarations of assets for public officials and opening access to the Register of declarations

On September 5, 2023, MPs passed Law No. 9534, “On Determining the Procedure for Submitting Declarations of Persons Authorized to Perform State or Local Government Functions under Martial Law.”

The electronic declaration of public officials is one of the criteria for Ukraine’s further movement towards the European Union. In addition, the International Monetary Fund demanded that Ukraine restore the declaration system for all civil servants and judges. This requirement was also contained in the list of priority reforms recommended by the White House for Ukraine to become more successful and attractive to investors. It was assumed that US assistance to Ukraine could depend on this Law. 

For civil society, this step is important in the context of access to information on government accountability and control. For example, corrupt judges can make unfair decisions and thus undermine the rule of Law.

At the same time, the main amendment to draft law No. 371 on opening the Register of Declarations immediately after adoption rather than a year later did not receive the required number of votes. That is, MPs did not initially agree to make the assets of civil servants and judges public in 2023.

So the next day, after the parliament voted on the Law, military and civic activist Oleksandr Yabchanka registered a petition calling President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to veto the Law. The petition gained the 25,000 signatures required for consideration within 3 hours of publication.

In addition, on September 7, a group of MEPs called on the President of Ukraine to veto the Law that postpones the opening of the asset declaration register for a year.

Therefore, on September 12, Volodymyr Zelenskyy vetoed the Law, noting that the restrictions were unacceptable and that declarations should be open now. He urged MPs to return to the Law immediately and vote on the relevant amendment as they did on September 20.

On December 10, 2023, three months after the Law was re-adopted, the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption opened public access to the Register of Declarations.

Human rights activists are convinced that this is an important step towards the democratization of society, EU membership, and the fight against corruption.

Currently, the Register does not contain declarations from those officials affiliated with the General Staff of Ukraine. Full access to the registry should be granted after the end of martial Law.

As of now, about 700 thousand officials have filed declarations for 2021 and 2022. At the same time, less than 10% of MPs fill out income reports without being required.

Women’s compartments on Ukrzaliznytsia trains

The issue of creating separate compartments or cars for women in Ukraine has been raised periodically over the past few years.

Another reason to demand separate compartments or cars for women was the incident that occurred in July 2020 on the Mariupol-Kyiv night train. Then a 45-year-old man tried to rape and severely beat a passenger, Anastasia Lugova, who was traveling with her young son. According to the victim, she woke up at about three in the morning from blows to the head. When she opened her eyes, she saw an unknown man in his underwear, who immediately grabbed her by the throat and began to threaten her.

The man was detained and sent to custody. The suspect died before the trial.

Then, in response to a request to create a separate space for women, the company explained that it could not provide separate compartments because it did not have sufficient resources in its passenger car fleet.

In 2023, the discussion of the need for separate compartments for women began on May 9 with a post by a Twitter user who was supposed to be traveling in a compartment with three men but was worried about her safety and, therefore, moved to another compartment. She then called on Ukrzaliznytsia to make separate compartments for women.

A few days later, on May 15, a petition was posted on the Cabinet of Ministers’ website calling for separate cars for women and men on trains that travel longer than six hours.

“Please introduce separate cars for women and men to create safe and psychologically comfortable conditions for transportation. On long routes, when there is a need to sleep in compartment or second-class cars, passengers may feel uncomfortable because of passengers of the opposite sex,” petitioner Olga Ozhohina asked.

According to the signatories, allocating at least one separate carriage for women and one for men would make travel safer and prevent negative passenger experiences.

In the end, the petition gained the required 25,000 votes within the required timeframe, and Ukrzaliznytsia responded to the public’s request and launched women’s compartments on several long-distance routes:

  • No. 81/82 Kyiv – Uzhhorod.
  • No. 41/42 Dnipro – Truskavets.
  • No. 75/76 Kyiv – Kryvyi Rih.
  • No. 15/16 Kharkiv – Yasinia.
  • No. 17/18 Kharkiv – Uzhhorod.
  • No. 29/30 Kyiv – Uzhhorod.
  • No. 3/4 Zaporizhzhia – Uzhhorod.
  • No. 26/236 Odesa – Rakhiv.

Women, transgender women, and mothers with children under six years of age of either sex are allowed in these compartments.

At the beginning of the new service, there were cases when men bought tickets for women’s compartments by mistake. In July, Maryna Herts, an LGBT+ activist, faced this problem. She and other passengers had to move out of their compartment because a man was already traveling there.

The conductor transferred the passengers to another car and said that, according to the order, “only the first three compartments” in the car could be female. However, she did not show the order itself.

In the end, representatives of Ukrzaliznytsia apologized for the service. They promised to look into the situation, noting that it was not them but a man who was supposed to be transferred.

Currently, women’s compartments have the highest average occupancy of 80% among other types of cars.

Notably, tickets for trains with women’s compartments are no more expensive than for other routes, and they can only be purchased on the Ukrzaliznytsia app. These compartments have no differences, as the company deliberately did not choose the best or worst cars to avoid creating a sense of artificial privilege.

Closing cases against volunteers bringing humanitarian aid

2023 was a year of massive closure of cases against volunteers by the prosecutor’s office. First, this is a victory for human rights defenders and civic activists who actively cooperated with the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine to close cases as soon as possible and resolve legislative conflicts regarding importing humanitarian aid, including vehicles for the Armed Forces.

It is worth recalling that in the first year of the full-scale invasion, law enforcement officers actively opened cases against well-known volunteers throughout Ukraine, who mainly delivered vehicles for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Cases began to appear after the addition of Article 201-2 to the Criminal Code of Ukraine on “illegal use of humanitarian aid, charitable donations or free assistance for profit.” A few days after this article appeared, searches and suspicions of volunteers became commonplace.

Moreover, during the investigation and covert investigative actions, law enforcement officers used the method of provoking a crime, which the Law prohibits. For example, a provocateur came to the volunteer, claiming to be a law enforcement officer, and claimed that his friends in the military, who were already on their way to the front, urgently needed cars. The volunteer empathized and agreed to sell the vehicles to the provocateur. But at the time of the money transfer, the volunteer was detained for “selling humanitarian aid.” After that, law enforcement officers reported another successful operation to “expose a scheme to sell humanitarian aid by so-called volunteers or criminal groups.”

But thanks to public pressure, defense of volunteers in courts, and advocacy work by human rights defenders, false cases against volunteers have begun to be closed.

The first victory of the year can be considered the closure of the case against volunteer Nazariy Ostrovsky and chaplain Ihor Plokhyi, who were accused of selling humanitarian aid, including a car intended for the Armed Forces.

On September 8, 2022, the homes of Lviv volunteers Sviatoslav Litynsky and Nazariy Ostrovsky were searched by Kyiv investigators and law enforcement officers. Both volunteers were abroad at the time. According to Ostrovsky, they went to buy cars for the Ukrainian military.

The case lasted until 2023, and according to the Court’s ruling, the case was closed due to lack of evidence. It lasted ten months.

“We had a series of online meetings with the Prosecutor General’s Office, and in March, we went to the office in person. They presented evidence and arguments and told us how things were. Three months later, the Prosecutor General’s Office closed the proceedings on the grounds that there was no evidence to prove our guilt. Accordingly, there are no grounds to go to Court,” says the volunteer.

Subsequently, the Office of the Prosecutor General closed the criminal proceedings against volunteers Oles Dzyndra and Yuriy Muzychuk “due to the failure to establish sufficient evidence to prove the guilt of the persons in court and the exhaustion of the possibilities of obtaining it.” The volunteers were suspected of selling four vehicles intended for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Volunteer Yuriy Muzychuk reacted to the closure of the case on his Facebook page, saying, “My feelings are very different now. Of course, I am emotionally exhausted after a year of struggle. The system has used its chance to avoid disgrace by not bringing the case to Court, which has set a unique precedent. Thanks to our joint struggle. This is a victory in this battle, but not in the war.”

The Prosecutor General’s Office also withdrew all charges and closed the case against Yuriy Kuts, a Volyn volunteer and vice president of the Volyn Oblast Boxing Federation. He was also accused of selling humanitarian cars.

“The prosecutors reviewed the case file and confirmed that there was no trade in humanitarian aid, heard all the witnesses except the main witness and the pseudo-volunteer, and withdrew all charges, and the criminal proceedings were closed,” the volunteer said.

By his arrest, Kuts and other volunteers had delivered 48 cars for which various benefactors had raised money. Kuts himself helped with the search, logistics, repair, and maintenance of the vehicles for the front line. The volunteer and his friends donated 15 of them to the military, having purchased them at their own expense.

According to Kuts, when he was charged last June, there were thousands of such cases in Ukraine. However, his case was one of the first to go to trial.

“Volunteers were accused and told to sign confessions because nothing would be proved, and it would be easier for everyone. But my lawyers and I decided to go the other way and prove the truth,” Kuts added.

In addition, the Prosecutor General’s Office dropped all charges against volunteer Olha Kosovan, who was accused of selling humanitarian aid.

Kosovan said that she is now entitled to compensation from the state for the damage caused by the illegal criminal prosecution. However, she will not file a lawsuit for now.

Also, the Odesa Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for the Defense of the Southern Region refused to support public prosecution in the case against Volodymyr Kurnosov, a volunteer and representative of the Monster Corporation. Law enforcement officials accused him of selling humanitarian aid provided by the EU for profit. Also prosecuted in this case were entrepreneur Oleksandr Yakovenko and the founder of the foundation, Kateryna Nozhevnikova.

“I remember that day, July 2022. About 30 employees of the Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] Office in the Odesa region came into my office. Of course, there was an illegal seizure of personal belongings, suspicion and arrest of an employee, blocking the work of enterprises that had nothing to do with the case and were not mentioned anywhere,” recalls entrepreneur Yakovenko.

He noted that he has two other key goals in this case: compensation for moral damages and prosecution of the perpetrators.

Another success was the suspension of the case against volunteer Ivan Mykhailiv. He was accused of allegedly selling cars he brought to Ukraine as humanitarian aid.

Volunteer Ivan Mykhailiv co-founded the Future of Radekhiv District charity foundation. He has been helping the military since 2014. The man was charged with Article 201, part 2, which carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison with confiscation of property.

Thus, we can say that 2023 was the year of closing cases against volunteers. The human rights community hopes that 2024 will be just as successful and that all illegal and unfounded cases against those who helped the army and people survive the war will be closed.

European Court of Human Rights recognizes Ukraine’s violation of same-sex couples’ rights

On June 1, 2023, the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR] ruled that Ukraine had violated the rights of a same-sex couple, Andriy Maimulakhin and Andriy Markiv, who cannot marry in the country and face discrimination.

The case of Maimulakhin and Markiv has been under consideration since 2014. After filing several complaints with the ECtHR, the men said: “We have been in a family relationship for over ten years. We live like a family: we have common property, mutual support and care, our beloved pets, obligations to each other, and responsibility. We share all the joys and sorrows like any happy family. However, in the eyes of the state, we are just two separate people who, in fact, have no mutual rights and obligations. We disagree with this.”

The Court noted that, unlike opposite-sex couples who choose not to marry for personal reasons but still have the right to legal recognition and protection, the applicants have neither access to marriage in Ukraine nor the possibility to obtain any alternative form of legal recognition.

In the end, almost ten years after the complaint was filed, the Court found that the absence of legal regulation of same-sex relationships in Ukraine violated Articles 8 (“Right to private family life”) and 14 (“Prohibition of discrimination”) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court awarded each of the applicants 5 thousand euros in compensation.

This decision of the ECtHR indicates that Ukraine should recognize civil partnerships for same-sex couples at the legislative level.

MP Inna Sovsun, who supports the introduction of civil partnerships, said that failure to comply with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights would pose reputational risks for Ukraine before the Council of Europe and would signal to European countries that our country is not able to protect human rights.

“Ukraine, as a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights, should adopt a law that legally recognizes same-sex couples and allow them to register their relationships as a family. The ECtHR has made similar rulings in relation to other countries, and it has become common practice. Italy and Greece have made similar decisions in the past. Very soon, Poland will have to fulfill this obligation as well,” she said.

Notably, in March of this year, the Verkhovna Rada registered Bill No. 9103 on civil partnerships for same-sex and different-sex couples. 18 MPs co-authored it.

This bill stipulates that couples entering into partnerships will have mutual rights and obligations, will be able to own property and receive inheritance and social protection, particularly in the event of the death or disappearance of a partner.

However, this draft law does not cover partners’ rights in the administrative, criminal, and tax areas, as this would require changes to tax, criminal, and criminal procedure legislation.

In July, MEPs appealed to the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Ruslan Stefanchuk, the Head of the Committee on Legal Policy Denys Maslov, and all members of the Committee to ensure the adoption of draft law No. 9103.

In 2023, the Ministry of Justice also planned to submit to the Verkhovna Rada a draft law on registered civil partnerships that would apply exclusively to same-sex couples. But this has not happened yet, nor has the already registered bill been adopted (or at least considered).

The verdict in the case of the attack on Kateryna Handziuk and the closure of the case of self-defense of Serhiy Sternenko

Another victory that civil society activists and Ukrainian society fought for was the verdict in the case of the attack on Kherson activist Kateryna Handziuk.

On July 31, 2018, she was doused with sulfuric acid in Kherson. On November 4, she died in hospital as a result of burns to 40% of her body. The five perpetrators of the attack were sentenced to three to six years in prison.

However, the public initiative “Who Ordered Katya Handziuk?” purposefully demanded punishment not only for the perpetrators of the crime but also for the clients.

The case lasted five years. The activist’s family and society heard the verdict on June 26 this year. The Dniprovsky District Court of Kyiv found the former head of the Kherson Regional Council, Vladyslav Manger, and the former assistant deputy of the Regional Council, Oleksiy Levin, guilty. It sentenced them to 10 years in prison.

In addition, the Court ordered Levin and Manger to pay UAH 153,000 (~ approx. $4,000) to reimburse the costs of engaging experts and UAH 15 million (~ approx. $39,500) in moral damages to Kateryna Handziuk’s family – Viktor Handziuk, Nadiya Handziuk and Serhiy Denysov, UAH 5 million each (~ approx. $13,800).

Manger and Levin are currently appealing the verdict at the Kyiv Court of Appeal. In 2024, it will be known whether the Dniprovsky District Court’s ruling will remain in force and whether the perpetrators of the crime will be punished.

Another victory is the closure of the case of self-defense of activist and volunteer Serhiy Sternenko. At the end of this year, on December 26, the Primorskyi Court of Odesa closed the case of the death of a participant in the attack on the activist.

Back in 2018, Odesa civil society activist Serhiy Sternenko was attacked three times. During the last one, he fatally wounded one of his attackers, Ivan Kuznetsov. Serhiy claimed that he acted in legitimate self-defense.

In June 2020, the SBU served Sternenko with a notice of suspicion, and on June 15, the Shevchenkivskyi District Court of Kyiv placed Sternenko under house arrest. Still, the decision was revoked, and the case was transferred to the Primorskyi Court in Odesa.

Sternenko attributed all the attacks to his public activities.

And this year, the Primorskyi Court of Odesa closed the case of self-defense of the activist.

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