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16-Year-Old Girl Challenges Zelenskyy’s Presidency
29 May, 2019

On the very first day of her summer break, 16-year-old Daria Kotsyuruba decided to exercise her right to a political opinion and went to the central square of her hometown with her 20-year-old friend, bringing along some signs. Fast forward a few hours and she has to explain herself to the police in the absence of a parent or lawyer.

Now, law enforcement in Rivne, a city in western Ukraine, is facing criticism over the mishandling of the two-person protest earlier this week. Police officers reportedly accused two demonstrators of carrying out an “unsanctioned protest” and then told them to come to the police station. Although law enforcement insists no one was detained, human rights defenders have been quick to speak out against their actions, saying they violated freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

Hromadske breaks down what happened, why it’s raising red flags and how Ukraine’s new president reacted to calls for impeachment.

What Happened

On May 25, Kotsyuruba and her friend Roman Filyuk went to Rivne’s Independence Square to call for the impeachment of Ukraine’s newly inaugurated president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Carrying signs that read “Impeachment for the President,” “Ukraine is outlawed”, “I said, I violated, I went”, and “Not cronyism, but brotherhood,”  the pair were planning to hold a short protest action.

“I thought we’d stand there for an hour, maximum, and leave. So people in Rivne understand that Zelenskyy is not our president,” Kotsyuruba told Hromadske.

Their small protest drew attention and bypassers approached them. Some called them “Porokhobots” (Poroshenko supporters -ed.) and accused of doing it for money  – others showed their support. Then one woman called the police.

Law enforcement later told Hromadske that the protestors were not detained, but “invited to come to the police station.” Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHRG) described the distinction between being “invited to the station” and detained as “surely semantic if the young people were not given a choice of going or not.”

According to a report from KHRPG, Kostyuruba and Filyuk waited at the station for two hours without being told if they had been detained or not. Kotsyuruba claims that an officer told her a protocol for an administrative offense was not going to be drawn up.

Kotsyuruba was then asked to give a testimony, at which point she tried to leave because of her age (at 16 she is considered a minor in Ukraine) and because she believed she had not been detained. She was prevented from leaving the station and her mother – Nataliya Kotsyuruba – was called in. Nataliya took her daughter home.  

The police later filed administrative charges against both Kotsyuruba, and Filyuk, under the article on “Violation of the procedure for organizing and conducting meetings, rallies, street processions and demonstrations”  Daria’s mother, Nataliya Kotsyuruba, was also charged under the article on “Parental failure to fulfill the responsibilities of raising children.”

Kotsyuruba called Rivne law enforcement’s actions “absolutely wrong and terrible.”  

Reaction

The events in Rivne sparked outcry from human rights organizations for a number of reasons. The term “unsanctioned protest” has no legal basis in Ukraine, where rallies do not require authorization. According to the interpretation of the law from the country’s Constitutional Court, organizers should notify the authorities of meetings in advance, but a lack of notification does not make the action illegal. Rather, notifying the authorities is a guarantee that they will ensure the event goes ahead smoothly. What’s more, Kotsyuruba is underage, and was interacting with police without the presence of a parent or lawyer.

“This is a worrying development,” wrote Matthew Schaaf, director of the Freedom House Ukraine office, in a tweet. “There is no such thing as an ‘unsanctioned protest’ in Ukraine because permission is not necessary under the Ukrainian constitution and law to hold a peaceful protest, demonstration, or assembly.”

“The police spokesperson’s claim that this was an ‘unauthorized meeting’ is disturbingly reminiscent of Russia, not Ukraine, where no ‘authorization’ is required,” KHRPG pointed out.

Solidarity

Law enforcement’s reaction to the two-person protest in Rivne sparked a solidarity action in Kyiv on May 26. Activists gathered outside of the Ministry of Internal Affairs building to protest the “detention” of Kotsyuruba and Filyuk. Around twenty people attended the rally, carrying signs that read “Back to 2013?” and “Impeachment is our right.”

Then, on May 28, Amnesty Ukraine’s director held her own solidarity action outside of the National Police headquarters in Kyiv, to demand respect for the freedom of peaceful assembly and an end to police violence.  Holding an enlarged photo of Kotsyuruba and Filyuk protesting in Rivne, Oksana Pokalchuk explained her action to a police officer: “I am wondering if I will face a similar response from the police,” she told him, as he took her photo.

No Such Thing As “Unsanctioned Protests” in Ukraine

On Facebook, Pokalchuk wrote in detail about what inspired her to take action. “This situation was extremely disturbing to me. Two teens came to a peaceful protest. At the same time, the police and the authorities at all levels are behaving and expressing themselves as if they (and even their parents!) have committed an offense,” she explained.

“The constitution and laws of Ukraine do not provide concepts such as an ‘authorized meeting’ or an ‘unauthorized rally,’” Pokalchuk continued. “This expression is often heard in the media when it comes to the illegal detention of peaceful assembly participants in a number of states that resort to serious human rights violations.”

“It sounds like something borrowed from [the] Russian government’s discourse and policies towards peaceful demonstrations,” she told Hromadske.

“Invited, Not Detained”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian law enforcement is insisting they did nothing wrong. The head of Rivne Police, Vasyl Zelinskiy, continued to insist that the protestors were “invited” rather than detained and brought to the station. “We had to react to an infringement of the law,” he said.

Ukraine’s National Police Chief, Serhiy Knyazev, told reporters that the story was “politicized,” and also maintained that police officers did not break the law. In addition, he said that the participants of the Rivne impeachment protest were also brought to the police station in April for a “similar act.”

What Happened Next

Kotsyuruba later took to Facebook to contest this claim. “I did not break the law when handing out leaflets and putting up stickers. And this was confirmed then in Rivne city court!” she wrote in a post, including a photo of the court’s decision. “Here is the proof – the case is closed.”

Kotsyuruba said she organized the protest calling for Zelenskyy’s impeachment because she was dissatisfied with his inauguration speech and first steps in office. “I didn’t like the Russian speaking, naming the appointment of Kvartal-ists [associates of Zelenskyy’s media company Kvartal-95] to senior positions, [or] the possibility of peaceful reconciliation with Russia,” she explained.

Although small, the protest in Rivne echoed sentiments shared by some Ukrainians since Volodymyr Zelenskyy took office as President of Ukraine following his inauguration on May 20. A flashmob was held in support of Kotsyuruba on May 28 in central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia. Two civic activists held signs reading “Dictature in Rivne? #DashaKots”, and “Who cancelled freedom of speech in Ukraine? #DashaKots”. Police was called on the activists, but they found no violations in their actions.

A petition calling for his resignation was filed on May 23 and quickly gathered the 25,000 signatures required for its mandatory consideration by the president. The initiator of the petition, Maksym Bezruk, said he thought Zelenskyy’s victory was merely the result of protest votes. The petition has since reached over 60,000 signatures.

President Zelenskyy reacted to the Rivne protest with a Facebook post of his own. “There was no detention, but law enforcers could have acted more softly. The police will conduct an internal investigation,” he wrote. “I urge the [Ministry of Internal Affairs] not to take action against political protesters if people are not violating rule of law. I’m not afraid of critics.”

A spokesman for the National Police, Yaroslav Trakalo, told Hromadske that the police in the Rivne region will be holding an internal investigation into the actions of the officers involved in the incident. Although he insisted the officers’ actions were lawful, he also said that for such a petty “violation” they could have chosen another method of handling it, such as engaging in conversation.

“The police should focus on dialogue [and] cooperation,” Trakalo said.

On Facebook, Daria Kotsyuruba wrote that she felt the President’s reaction was inadequate and she resented the claim that there was “no detention.”  

/Written by Eilish Hart