New Police Policy on Rights and Civic Freedom?
The Ministry of Internal Affairs traffic police were extraordinarily busy around the Orthodox Festival of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus on 28 July. Not however with trying to reduce Ukraine’s abysmal road fatality statistics. No, they had an entirely different task.
Among those wishing to be in Kyiv for the ceremony were many believers of the Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate. It is hard to provide an accurate estimate of the number of believers prevented from reaching their destination by the traffic police, however the latter’s, shall we say, vigilance was reported in a large number of regions of the country stopping entire coaches carrying believers.
The Statement issued by the Kyiv Patriarchate is entitled “On violation of the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of movement” and speaks of reports received on 26-27 July from believers in different parts of the country unable to travel despite coaches having been hired long in advance. It also describes measures obstructing entry and departure from Kyiv on 28 July.
“From the Chernihiv region not one coach was able to set off, from the Ternopil region – more than three thirds of the coaches. Coaches could not depart from Kharkiv and Odessa, while obstructions were caused to those heading off from the Vinnytsa, Dnipropetrovsk, Lviv, Rivne, Sumy and other regions”. The report goes on to speak of traffic police using far-fetched pretexts to stop coaches and prevent them from travelling on, and says that it was only people’s outrage and threat to hold a demonstration in protest there and then that made the traffic police let coaches go.
“Several kilometres from the city coaches were also stopped en masse by traffic police who prohibited them from travelling further. We would stress that there was no explanation to the pilgrims on ways of getting to the place of the Service making it possible to avoid congestion in the centre of the city.”
Worth remembering that these were believers on pilgrimage, not young people travelling to a music concert and it can be safely assumed there were a number of elderly people.
The information agency UNIAN reported on 28 July that Odessa traffic officers had prevented pilgrims leaving for Kyiv. One of the believers explained that three police coaches blocked their coach, and came up to the driver saying that he was drunk. He asserted that police officers and men not in uniform had rough-handled male and female believers.
The believers were adamant that their driver was sober, and it does rather defy belief that a transportation company would provide a driver who was inebriated (in the morning at that!). Nonetheless, the police took away his keys and driving licence.
As if all of this were not enough, there are also reports of trouble made when pilgrims tried to return home. The Religious Information Service of Ukraine [RISU] reports the account given by the Bishop of Sumy and Okhtyrka (Mefodiy). The traffic police tried to stop their coaches however they managed to agree that the coaches could stop near a metro station. After the believers left the coaches, he relates, a traffic police car arrived, searched the coaches and took away documents. After the day’s activities, they proved unable to move since one of the drivers had had his documents removed. The Bishop rang the traffic police and was told by the person on the other end that they should travel regardless and “find out there where your documents are”. Asked to identify himself, the person hung up.
“We are peaceful people and believers, we have no grievance against the police however we want them to treat us accordingly, to respect our civil rights”, the Bishop stressed..
The response from the Ministry of Internal Affairs was also issued on 28 July, making it clear that no preliminary investigation into the reports can have been made. It denies all allegations outright, and claims that it is all provocation.
Now even if we assume that so many believers from around the country had conspired, together with the leadership of their Church, to slander the traffic police, the reports seem depressingly credible for another reason. Exactly the same reports were received from all over the country around 10-11 May when supporters of the opposition were prevented from getting to Kyiv for a planned demonstration by those same traffic police.
The reception given to Patriarch Kyrill of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate by the country’s leaders seemed disturbingly excessive to many Ukrainians given the division of Church and State stipulated in the Constitution and the very considerable number of people with different (or no) religious affiliations. Many had reservations about the unprecedented amount and style of coverage on Ukraine’s National Television Channel. It was certainly difficult to escape the sense that one particular Church was being singled out as favoured.
Any such favouritism or discrimination is a grave violation of freedom of conscience, and therefore of Ukraine’s Constitution and its international commitments. These recent events suggest that the new leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs considers this of no importance. Given the failure thus far of the President to react, it is to be hoped that representatives of other countries and international structures will impress upon him the need for full investigation into these allegations and inadmissibility of any such actions by law enforcement bodies.
It is vital to act now. The traffic police have almost certainly now been used twice to deny citizens their most fundamental human rights. With local elections looming, the consequences of ignoring such violations surely do not need to be spelled out.