Center.UA under attack, are other NGOs next in line?

UKRAINE-FREEDOM-PRESS

In yet another ominous move, the Interior Ministry has begun a criminal investigation against the prominent NGO Center UA which is extremely active in promoting transparency and informed choice in the electoral process, access to information.  It is also involved in EuroMaidan and has been active recently in investigating allegedly corrupt dealings involving the Minister of the Interior, Vitaly Zakharchenko.

The information all derives from Center.UA itself, however the Interior Ministry would surely have sought to avoid any further stain on its already sullied reputation if the assertions were incorrect.

The criminal investigation under the article on ‘laundering money obtained through criminal activities’ was apparently initiated on Dec 11 2013 though the NGO only learned of it from its bank.  The latter was approached by the Kyiv police for information about financial movements and the Center’s activities over a particular period.

Center.UA’s head, Oleh Rybachuk explained to Radio Svoboda that around 10 people received visitations from the police on Friday, Feb 7.  They were told of the criminal case initiated and questioned as witnesses.  Rybachuk cites the police as saying that they want to question about 200 people.  The figure seems extraordinary given that the NGO only has some 20 members of staff or contracted workers. Nobody has so far tried to speak with Rybachuk, and there is no clarity as to the exact charges and against whom.

While Rybachuk’s own career, until he left a high-ranking post under former president, Viktor Yushchenko, may have been closer to large financial sources, Center.UA is funded by grants.  Its donors include USAID and the International Renaissance Foundation, each of which demands that organizations account for the money received.  The Center is also subject to international auditing.

With those currently in control of the state coffers having systematically removed most controls and transparency with respect to vast amounts of taxpayers’ money, the mere suggestion that an NGO should be accused of money laundering might seem comical.  The background, unfortunately, is much more sinister.  The attack on civic organizations in the anti-protest legislation pushed through parliament on Jan 16 was clearly aimed, as it has been in Russia, at creating the impression that NGOs, labelled ‘foreign agents’ are working in the interests of foreign countries, not of Ukraine.  Attempts to control foreign support for civic organizations began within a year of Viktor Yanukovych becoming president.

Nobody mentions the very considerable funding given by international bodies to Ukrainian ministries and state institutions, nor the fact that most NGOs take on the obligations which the state is shirking.  Addressing a rally in Simferopol (Crimea) on Jan 17, the day after the “adoption” of a Russian-lookalike law requiring all NGOs receiving money from abroad to register as foreign agents, Yevgeny Novitskystated that he had become such a “foreign agent” when his son was diagnosed with leukemia.  He has since helped other families fight for the lives of their children, and makes no apology for seeking the help abroad that is lacking in Ukraine.

It is probably significant that the police interest in Center.UA coincides with a main story in Korrespondent.net, one of the journals bought out last year by Serhiy Kurchenko in a move widely seen as aimed at reining in the media before the 2015 presidential elections. The question on the front coveris: ‘Who is financing nongovernmental organizations in Ukraine and with what aim?’  Korrespondent is, we are told, going to devote a series of articles on this subject with the first about ‘funds financing development of democracy’.

Just over a year ago, Rybachuk warned that a wide-scale campaign aimed at discrediting civic activists was likely in the near future.  Asked then why the authorities would be resorting to such measures, he answered that the regime didn’t  have any other ways out. “Level of confidence in it is at a record low and it basically has nothing that it can counter this with from the point of view of information. It’s effectively impossible to imagine anybody in their right mind who would defend the regime. Those who defend it do so for specific ends. They don’t support it and are simply trying to compromise opponents of the regime”.

Level of confidence, it transpired, could fall even lower.  So too have the tactics used against civic activists and organizations, including phone hacking and serious campaigns aimed at blackening their reputation.

CHESNO, the civic initiative started by Center.UA, has been at the forefront of efforts to force parliamentarians to vote in person (as required by the Constitution) and to develop voter awareness of the democratic criteria which candidates should meet.

Center.UA  has also been active in the making and showing of an almanac of documentaries called Open Access.  Information about continuing efforts to sabotage the film showings can be found inAccess Denied  The sabotage is believed to be primarily because of one film about how Yanukovych came to effectively own the former state residence at Mezhyhirya.

Centre UA has also been working with journalists from Slidstvo.info and the “Svidomo” bureau on a project for Ukrainska Pravda in investigating corrupt activities by members of the government, including the Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko.  A report alleging that Zakharchenko had used front men to gain control of the country’s only gold deposits appeared on Dec 25.

If Zakharchenko, those behind the privatization of Mezhyhirya or others in authority consider the allegations against them to be false, they should openly state their position.  With transparency and openness not values held high by those currently in power, sabotage of film showings, hacking of personal email addresses, various forms of intimidation including the current money laundering allegations against a civic organization, suspicions are otherwise inevitable.

Center.UA has called on the diplomatic community, on international and human rights organizations to follow this worrying development and to urge the government to stop persecuting NGOs.  Out of solidarity in the first instance, but also self-defense, it is a call worth heeding.

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