How Attacks and Smear Campaing against AntAC Makes Activists Antifragile
On August 15, we found out that a notice of suspicion was being prepared for the AntAC’s Head of Board, Vitaliy Shabunin, for punching a pseudo-journalist Vsevolod Filimonenko, who has been provoking Shabunin for the last few months.
First, the charge was qualified as the interference with journalist activities combined with infliction of an injury of moderate severity. However, due to resonance among journalists whose real cases of interference of their journalistic activity have been pending for years or groundlessly closed, the charge was re-qualified to just an infliction of an injury of moderate severity. The latter charge may lead to a sentence of 3 years of imprisonment. On August 16, the court chose a personal guarantee as a preventive measure for Shabunin.
The severity of the injury raises questions. In the course of the court hearing, it came up that the prosecution’s documents contained a number of mismatches. The most blatant one was that Filimonenko was hospitalised on 8 June, but the bone fracture appeared only in 12 days.
Shabunin is ready to hold responsibility for his actions – but only for those he really committed.
Given the new wave of attacks on AntAC, we are forced to dedicate this issue of anti-corruption updates to explanation of the tools and instruments political elites are using to threaten us.
We would like to emphasize, that while AntAC is on the edge of attack, the case influences negatively the entire civil society sector in Ukraine. Simultaneously, similar attacks but with lower volume are committed against other activists and critics of authorities. Should the attack against AntAC be successful and receive no proper reaction, authorities will likely continue “witch hunting” campaign against everyone in Ukraine who is ready to criticize the government and report about corruption.
Chronology of the attacks
Criminal case in 2016
Political persecutions started back in early 2016, when the Prosecutor General’s Office, at that time headed by Viktor Shokin, initiated investigation into alleged embezzlement of the U.S. funds by AntAC. The so-called “pre-trial investigation” was accompanied with the disclosure of illegally obtained confidential financial information of AntAC on the Internet. When Yuriy Lutsenko was appointed as the Prosecutor General, the case was considered as persecutions and consequently closed. Executors were not punished for alleged abuse of their powers..
E-declarations law for anti-corruption activists
In 2017 the attacks multiplied. As a revenge for the e-declarations system, in April the Parliament obliged all anticorruption activists as well as unlimited circle of third parties, related to anti-corruption activities, to submit asset declarations of public officials. The form and the liability for false statements remain the same as for public officials. The initiative was clearly aimed at blurring in the eyes of public the difference between those performing the functions of the state and those watchdogging them. In addition, the vague wording of the law provides the NACP with a tool of selective persecution. Although the regulation was heavily criticized by the international partners, it is still acting.
Fake protest coordinated by the SSU management
“Sell your house, and buy the NABU the rights to wiretap”. On 9 April, an orchestrated demonstration in front of the Shabunin’s house took place. Fake activists with truly weird posters could not explain their claims to Shabunin, while employees of the Security Service of Ukraine were observing the demonstration from the side. Later journalists from Radio Free Liberty published evidence proving that the protest was organized and coordinated by senior officials from the Security Service of Ukraine. The fake protest was filmed on camera by unknown persons and immediately published by Vsevolod Filimonenko and others in discrediting videos against AntAC and Vitaliy Shabunin. It’s important to mention that one month before, on 6 March, AntAC filed a lawsuit against the Security Service of Ukraine for hiding e-declarations of their senior management.
Personal harassments by Filimonenko and others
In April 2017, the cases of personal harassments of AntAC leaders became frequent with Filimonenko playing a leading role in it. First, he was intrusively inquiring Shabunin how he “embezzled” money people donated him in 2012 for medical treatment of his wife, who spent three weeks in coma. Later on he humiliated Shabunin’s parents-in-law. However, the highest point came when Filimonenko and his allies met AntAC’s Board member Oleksandra Ustinova at the airport and morally harassed her by asking how come she can afford travelling abroad for vacations while soldiers are dying in war with Russia. Information about the exact date and time of Ustinova’s flight was not public and was accessible only by the Security Service of Ukraine, which is likely leaked it to Vsevolod Filimonenko..
Provocation at military enlistment office
In May 2017, Shabunin started receiving public threats for alleged “draft evasion”, which first came from Filimonenko. Shabunin could not have been mobilized for military service as he is not a reserve officer. Moreover, in 2005, he was recognized as “unfit for military service in peacetime and partially fit in wartime” due to his health condition.
Despite this, in June 2017, three enlistment officers accompanied by unknown persons with video cameras came to Shabunin’s house and with a number of violations of the law delivered a military subpoena. The next days Shabunin once again passed medical examination, which confirmed that he is unfit for military service.
During the day Shabunin arrived to the military enlistment office an incident happened, Filimonenko was once again was provoking Shabunin and the latter punched him. In response, Filimonenko continued provoking Vitaliy and sprayed something in Shabunin’s face. That same evening, Filimonenko released his new video about AntAC informing that Shabunin was avoiding military service.
It is worth mentioning separately, that Filimonenko is not brought to justice for his attack as fas as Shabunin is.
Later, it was confirmed that military officers were sent to Shabunin’s house upon the request of the Military Prosecutor’s office headed by Anatoliy Matios. Notably, they visited Shabunin’s house just one week after AntAC submitted a lawsuit against Matios for illegally hiding asset declarations of their staff. Military officials who organized an attempt to illegally call Shabunin to the military service were later sanctioned for having exceeded their powers.
Criminal case against AntAC triggered by Tax Police in June 2017
In May 2017, at the Parliament MP Pavlo Pynzenyk, close associate of Mykola Martynenko, screened a defaming movie about AntAC filmed by the National Interest of Ukraine (NGO) and started groundlessly questioning our non-profit status based on misinterpretation on financial information of AntTAC, which was leaked to them from state agencies. In June 2017, Kyiv Tax Police Department initiated a criminal case against AntAC. Deutsche Welle informed that the ground to initiate it was a complaint of the Director of the National Interest of Ukraine, Vasyl Apasov, on possible violations of requirements of legislation regulating activities of non-profit organizations by AntAC. This complaint was submitted to the Prosecutor’s Office by MP Pynzenyk. He belongs to Narodnyi Front parliamentary faction, against members of which AntAC has initiated several investigations.
Defamation campaign abroad by hired lobbyists
AntAC is being defamed abroad as well. Persons performing this campaign are hired professionals. One of them is Liz Mair, president of the U.S. company specialized on media consulting and media placement. She presents defamation materials against AntAC as a topic which should be “highlighted and monitored” by journalists. We noticed at least one op-ed published on HufftingtonPost based on those defamation materials.
In July 2017, former U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain Adam Ereli with no proofs. Ambassador Ereli groundlessly accused AntAC in profiting from kickbacks. He used another set of “talking points” about AntAC, which were widely distributed by unknown people among the U.S. establishment. This was reprinted by a number of Ukrainian media, including a web-site of the channel Espreso.tv, which belongs to another Narodnyi Front MP Mykola Knyazhytskyi. Moreover, there were also series of videos with a hired actor playing an anchorman of the U.S. news channel and allegedly reporting on AntAC’s corruption.
In the meantime, the U.S. Embassy commented on all these accusations: “AntAC was working effectively and reported on every penny,” and added that they “are proud to be partners”.
Detailed information about all the attacks is available on our website: http://attack.antac.org.ua/en.
What Is the Primary Target of These Attacks?
The attacks are targeted against the capacity of civil sector to secure and continue anticorruption reform and those tangible results it succeeded to produce so far (the effective NABU investigations and e-declarations system). NABU proved to be independent and efficient agency, capable of investigating top corruption, while e-declarations made officials to uncover and explain the information they most of all wanted to keep hidden. NABU and e-declarations system themselves are regularly being attacked too.
However, the anti-corruption NGOs, mainly ANTAC, who are first to inform the society and international partners of Ukraine on any attempt to manipulate the anti-corruption legislation or undermine anti-corruption reform. Due to systemic work on fighting against high profile corruption since 2012, AntAC is a well-known organization, trusted by Ukrainians and international partners. This allows us to accumulate both internal and external resources and direct them to pushing and protecting anti-corruption reform, as well as preventing its backsliding. By undermining and discrediting AntAC political elites intend to ruin a barrier for destroying the anti-corruption reform.
A lot of opinion leaders condemned the trial over Shabunin and called it a peak of counter-revolution of corrupt officials. MEP Rebecca Harms considers a criminal proceeding against Shabunin as continued pressure on AntAC and another attempt to block its activities.
MP Victoria Syumar, the Head of Freedom of Speech Committee in the Verkhovna Rada, says that attempts to build up the case are absurd. Former MP Yegor Firsov, who was deprived of parliamentary mandate after leaving the Petro Poroshenko Block, reminded that while Shabunin was criticizing Yanukovych and Azarov, he was useful to that time opposition. However, when the opposition transformed into authority it doesn’t like fight against corruption any more.
Journalist Natalia Sedletska calls the case a persecution, not establishment of the rule of law.
The Head of Transparency International Ukraine Yaroslav Yurchyshyn says that Shabunin’s case clearly demonstrates the level of political dependence of Ukraine’s law enforcement system.
Activists of Saakashvili’s “Movement of New Forces” call it selective persecution. Dozens of other public statements were posted in support of Shabunin and AntAC. Post-Maydan generation will not allow to be fooled anymore.
We Ask for Your Help
The more we move forward with anticorruption reform, the more violently old systems will resist. Everything Ukraine has achieved in fighting against high profile corruption was mainly due to synergetic pressure of civil society and international partners, which has to go on. Therefore we ask Ukraine’s international partners with joint voice to continue to:
- demand from the Ukrainian authorities genuine fight against corruption, i.e. preservation of NABU independence and open and full-scale electronic asset disclosure as well as effective verification of e-declarations;
- link very specific anticorruption deliverables to the programs of international financial assistance for Ukraine, monitor implementation of previous conditionalities;
- condemn attacks on anticorruption activists – both general (e.g. e-declarations for activists) and selective (e.g. abovementioned attacks on AntAC).
But in order not to allow leaving the reform fruitless, key battlefield for the following months will be establishment of independent anticorruption court, as provided for by the law on judiciary, with introduction of the special selection procedure for judges involving international partners. And unanimous donors’ position is crucially needed for its effective advocacy.
Please help us to implement and protect Ukraine’s ambitious anti-corruption agenda – as this was and still remains to be the core demand of the Revolution of Dignity.
Only together we are stronger.