Anti-corruption leader Vitaly Shabunin faces jail time in Ukraine

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_UKR131221aa001.jpegAt only 33 years old, civil rights activist Vitaliy Shabunin has been at the vanguard of the war against corruption in Ukraine.

At 34, he might be in jail.

The founder of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a prominent nonprofit that has successfully pushed for key government reforms in recent years, Shabunin has become one of the fiercest critics of President Petro Poroshenko. The activist and other critics accuse Poroshenko and his cronies of bribing lawmakers, profiting from corrupt business deals and hampering anti-corruption efforts.

But now the anti-corruption crusader faces five years in jail for allegedly attacking a blogger that is he and other journalists and civil rights organizations say is actually a paid provocateur affiliated with Poroshenko and the Ukraine security service (SBU).

“The political elite want to ruin the anti-corruption infrastructure that we are helping to build,” said Shabunin. “We aren’t the final target. We are just an obstacle. It’s a piece of a big puzzle.”

Since the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, freedom of speech is at its highest level yet, says the president. The country is making strides toward the west, clamping down on corruption, he notes.

But this case, which has the country riveted, belies those statements and underscores how those fighting to clean up the country are being physically attacked, and put on trial for trumped up charges, say analysts.

This latest case stems from an incident in June when Shabunin punched a video blogger who had been following and harassing him and his colleagues for days. In response, the blogger used pepper spray on Shabunin. Both went to police and filed charges against each other.

Even though Ukraine’s most respected professional journalism organizations say the blogger was a provocateur rather than a reporter, prosecutors revised changes against the Shabunin in January from a simple assault to an attack on the press, a more serious crime that is punishable by as much as five years of jail. The blogger was not charged with a crime.

Many Ukrainians saw the charges as an obvious attempt to quiet dissent.

“It is selective justice with the purpose of political persecution,” said Sergii Leshchenko, a pro-reform lawmaker who was elected on the ballot of Poroshenko’s Solidarity political party but turned into a critic of the president. “This incident originated at the highest level.”

The anti-graft crusader epitomized the state of Ukraine after a popular uprising known as the EuroMaidan Revolution kicked out the country’s notoriously corrupt pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

Four years later, observers say that Ukraine’s post-revolution leadership that vowed to play by new rules is backsliding into old practices.

In 2017, Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, Ukraine ranked 130 out of 180 countries. That’s only a slight improvement since ranking 140 before the revolution.

“If Poroshenko’s government were serious about fighting corruption, it would have reformed its courts and put high-level crooks in jail years ago,” said Melinda Haring, the editor of Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert blog and a longtime observer of political developments in Ukraine and the region. “At this point, it looks like Poroshenko is committed to preserving the status quo.”

She also points to a number of journalists in the past few years being attacked, with no charges ever filed – or the attacks being classified as a lesser charge of hooliganism – even in cases of murder.

Others share her concerns.

The International Monetary Fund is delaying payments that are part of a $17.5 billion loan package to Ukraine because Poroshenko has dragged his feet on creating a new anti-corruption court. That follows a failed attempt late last year by the government to limit the powers of the state anti-corruption authority.

If Poroshenko doesn’t create the new court, he clearly doesn’t want change, said Timothy Ash, a London-based emerging markets strategist who focuses on Ukraine

“We are approaching a key decision point, with fair questions to be asked if the Poroshenko administration is really serious about fighting corruption,” Ash said. “The fact that no one has been brought to account for corrupt practice sends a very bad signal to the population at large and perhaps signal to others that corrupt practice wins.”

The breakdown of good government comes as the country is fighting for survival against its more powerful neighbor, Russia.

Once part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Russia have been in the state of undeclared war since 2014, when Russia, in the wake of the uprising, used the confusion to invade and annex Ukraine’s territory of Crimea. Soon after, Moscow instigated a separatist conflict in easternmost region of the country. The ongoing armed conflict has claimed more than 10,000 lives, many of them civilians.

But critics said that the attacks on Shabunin illustrate how Ukraine’s ostensibly pro-Western leaders are silencing critics like Russian President Vladimir, who has cracked down on rivals.

He has faced numerous online attacks including on recently in which an online video circulated, reposted by a deputy prosecutor general, that looked like an American television news report about Shabunin’s corruption. It was quickly revealed that the video was a spoof, and the presenter was an American actor.

“This is straight from Putin’s textbook,” said Leshchenko, who likened Shabunin to Alexei Navalny, who had planned to run against Putin in Russia’s March 18 presidential election before he was disqualified after a 2016 conviction of what Navalny claimed were trumped-up embezzlement charges. “They are trying to devalue the results of anti-corruption activists’ findings by saying that they are corrupt themselves.”

Poroshenko’s press office declined to comment.

Shabunin has faced more than harassment. Authorities are currently investigating tax dodging charges against the Anti-Corruption Action Center, which receives most of its funding through foreign grants, said Shabunin.

Meanwhile, in late 2017, Ukrainian lawmakers passed legislation that compels anti-corruption organizations to file detailed yearly disclosures of their assets and incomes.

Ironically, the disclosures were modeled after the very forms that anti-corruption activists like Shabunin had fought to make obligatory for public servants.

“This law opens anti-corruption activists to pressure and harassment,” said Amnesty International Ukraine in a statement. “It violates their right for privacy, making them publish personal information, including home addresses.”

Poroshenko has proposed eliminating the requirement. But, with the deadline for the first disclosures approaching on April 1, the parliament where Poroshenko’s bloc controls majority still hasn’t voted on the president’s proposal.

“This law is more harmful than Russia’s law on foreign agents,” says Shabunin, referring to Russia’s 2012 legislation that made all NGOs with foreign funding register as foreign agents. “Our leaders declare their devotion to Western values but to fight us they are using the tools invented in Russia.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

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