Ukraine: attacks and smears against Human Rights Defenders (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Ukraine on 29 November 2021. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, during which time the Government was expected to respond. The Government did not respond during this period, and any reply, if sent, will be available on the UN communications database.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication

BACKGROUND

Topic: alleged physical attacks on human rights defenders Ms. Iryna Korshunova, Mr. Mykhaylo Zubkov and Ms. Natalia Shybayeva, and smear campaign against human rights defenders Ms. Iryna Korshunova, Mr. Mykhaylo Zubkov, Ms. Natalia Shybayeva and Mr. Oleg Ivanichenko.

Ms. Iryna Korshunova is a woman human rights defender and resident of the village of Sorokivka in the Kharkiv region (“Sorokivka”). Mr. Mykhaylo Zubkov is a human rights defender and resident of Sorokivka. Ms. Natalia Shybayeva is a woman human rights defender and resident of Sorokivka. Mr. Oleg Ivanichenko is a human rights defender and resident of Sorokivka.

ALLEGATIONS

Since May 2019, trucks have been passing through Sorokivka carrying loads of sand from the nearby quarry. The nearest houses in Sorokivka are located just 400m away from the sand quarry, with the road used by the trucks for the sand transportation also running alongside these houses. Ms. Iryna Korshunova, Mr. Mykhaylo Zubkov, Ms. Natalia Shybayeva and Mr. Oleg Ivanichenko allegedly learned from open sources and requests for information that the sand extraction was environmentally damaging and the local authorities had granted the extraction permit to the company without informing and consulting residents, as required by law.

Ms. Iryna Korshunova, Mr. Mykhaylo Zubkov, Ms. Natalia Shybayeva and Mr. Oleg Ivanichenko began attending and broadcasting sessions of the village and district councils, publicising their activities and raising awareness among local residents about the violations of their rights to a safe environment and access to information. Following their efforts, the residents allegedly submitted around 200 complaints to the local and central authorities to oppose the sand extraction. After months of unsuccessful complaints, local residents began to protest at the end of January 2021, which eventually resulted in blocking the road used by trucks for four days.

At 1:20 am on 5 February 2021, when Ms. Natalia Shybayeva, Mr. Mykhaylo Zubkov and their 11-year-old son were at home, unknown persons threw an RGD-5 grenade into their house. Having heard the explosion, they ran out onto the street and saw that unknown persons had set fire to their two cars, which were parked next to the house. The fire had already spread to the garage and had reportedly reached such a stage that had they not put it out in the time they did, the house could have exploded.

The Lipetsk Police Department of the Kharkiv Police Department of the Main Directorate of National Police in the Kharkiv region (“Lipetsk Police Department”) opened a criminal case under Article 194 (2) (“intentional destruction or damage to property”) and Articles 15 (2) and 115 (2) (“attempted premeditated murder”) of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, but the status of the case is unclear.

Following the attack, Ms. Shybayeva and Mr. Zubkov reportedly asked the Lipetsk Police Department for physical protection without success. Fearing for their son’s life, on 17 February 2021, Ms. Shybayeva and Mr. Zubkov took the decision to temporarily send him abroad.

On 16 April 2021 between 11:00am and 11:30am, three unidentified men, allegedly linked to the extraction company, attacked ten peaceful protesters (including Ms. Iryna Korshunova and Ms. Natalia Shybayeva) with knives at a pedestrian crossing in Vilkhivka, a neighbouring village. As a result, the Lipetsk Police Department reportedly opened a criminal case, but the status of the investigation is unclear.

Moreover, representatives of the Vilkhiv village council and the Lipetsk Police Department allegedly spread false information about Ms. Iryna Korshunova, Mr. Mykhaylo Zubkov, Ms. Natalia Shybayeva and Mr. Oleg Ivanichenko in conversations with local residents. They reportedly claimed that the competitors of the extraction company paid the human rights defenders and that they had fabricated the attack of 5 February 2021 in order to move abroad, however they continue to live in Sorokivka.

CONCERNS

In the communication we expressed concern as to the alleged physical attacks on Ms. Iryna Korshunova, Mr. Mykhaylo Zubkov and Ms. Natalia Shybayeva and their property. We furthermore express our concern at the alleged smear campaign against Ms. Iryna Korshunova, Mr. Mykhaylo Zubkov, Ms. Natalia Shybayeva and Mr. Oleg Ivanichenko. Finally, we are concerned at the chilling effect that such attacks may have on human rights defenders in Ukraine, discouraging them from exercising their right to freedom of expression, including by defending their right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as per HRC resolution 48/13, for fear of retaliation or harassment.

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