As anti-government protests in the Ukraine move into their third week, there are growing concerns among individuals and civil society organisations in the country over the regime’s approach to protestors.
Rights groups say that there are already similarities to the sinister crackdown on individual rights and freedoms that were seen in Belarus following the bloody end to protests there after presidential elections at the end of 2010.
They say students are being targeted by police and prosecutors, and some have been afraid to go to school for fear they could be expelled and cut off from the education system for taking part in protests.
Meanwhile, the arrests of ten people so far, with more expected, on apparently fabricated cases of involvement in mass civil disturbances, and their controversial pre-trial incarceration, has given rise to worries that the regime will use them as an example to deter other protestors.
“While it is early days there are some disturbing similarities emerging between what happened in Belarus and what happened in the Ukraine,” Yulia Gorbunova, Ukraine researcher for Human Rights Watch, told IPS.
“The pre-trial detentions of protestors, the reported intimidation of students – these are things that happened in Belarus. We can only hope the Ukrainian regime will not take the same path as the Belarusian authorities did.”
The protests in Kiev, which began following the government’s decision not to sign an EU Association Agreement, have drawn hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to the capital’s main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, and other locations in the city.
Initially passing off peacefully, a brutal police crackdown on Nov. 30, which saw riot police indiscriminately attack hundreds of people, beating them and leaving some in hospital, changed the tone of the protests.
Arrests of protestors on charges of taking part in “mass disturbances” came soon after. Lawyers for those arrested, their relatives and local activists have publicly questioned the evidence used to bring the charges against them.
Their pre-trial detention has also been questioned by international rights groups.
Heather McGill, researcher for Ukraine at Amnesty International, told IPS: “These were people taking part in a peaceful demonstration but who have been arrested for taking part in ‘mass disorder’. They were immediately sent to prison to be held in pre-trial detention, despite legal regulations clearly stating that this should only happen in exceptional circumstances.
“They could face a maximum eight-year jail sentence. And things do not look good for them with there being, on average, in the Ukraine, a one percent chance of acquittal once charges are bought.
“We could soon be seeing prisoners of conscience in the Ukraine, which would be a huge step backwards.”
Meanwhile, there have been growing reports of student protestors being targeted by law enforcement agencies.
Some have received anonymous threatening phone calls while prosecutors have allegedly asked universities for lists of student attendance on protest days.
The interior ministry has said there is no truth in the reports while police officials have claimed that they are only arresting ‘troublemakers’.
With more arrests and detentions expected in the coming weeks, combined with the threats to students, the regime appears to be using similar methods to those used by Belarusian authorities in the aftermath of mass protests following the re-election of autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko three years ago.
In the weeks after the protests in Minsk were brutally ended by police, hundreds of people were arrested and jailed for taking part in them. Meanwhile, students were also singled out by police as protestors and thrown out of universities and denied any further education. There was also a dramatic crackdown on civil society groups in the country, many of whom were accused of helping foment the protests.
“We can only hope that the Ukrainian authorities respect the right to freedom of assembly,” said Gorbunova.
But the authorities’ targeting of protestors appears likely to simply strengthen their resolve. Many locals in Kiev say they view the protests as being as much against the regime’s treatment of protestors and the police crackdown at the end of November as about the government’s refusal to sign an agreement with the EU.
Kiev resident Marina Kovalenko, 26, told IPS: “Many protestors are refusing to go home until there is a full investigation into the police and who did what to the protestors, and why their son, or brother, or friend was beaten up or had their bones broken. They want to see someone held to account for it.”
So far Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko has rejected calls for his resignation over the police crackdown, although an investigation has been promised.