Once the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, known for its rich black soil and sweeping fields of grain, Ukraine is now gaining notoriety for its contentious party politics. In the past few years, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was jailed on a corruption conviction, and a video of an all-out brawl on the floor of the Ukrainian parliament went viral.
While these incidents certainly don’t showcase a democracy working at its finest, Ukraine’s partisan bickering has led to even worse consequences. As reported previously, the country’s parliament, Verkhovna Rada, has been advancing a discriminatory ‘propaganda of homosexuality’ bill that flies in the face of Ukraine’s human rights commitments.
While international observers balked at the most recent parliamentary election, the Verkhovna Rada is now set for the coming session and will include a record number of politicians from the country’s biggest nationalist, fringe right-wing party Svoboda (Freedom). Svoboda’s progress could signal future setbacks for human rights in the country, which has a history of racist and nationalist violence targeting migrant laborers. Neo-Nazi aggressors also targeted foreign students attending university in Kyiv and Luhansk.
One of these students, Olaolu Sunkanmi Femi, left Nigeria for Luhansk to pursue higher education. Instead he found a jail cell and now faces prospect of a life behind bars. In November 2011 Femi was attacked by five drunk men shouting racist slurs. Femi managed to fend off his attackers with the help of a broken bottle he picked up off the ground. Instead of arresting the attackers, police handcuffed Femi and threw him behind bars.
A year later he remains in police custody, charged with attempted premeditated murder motivated by hooliganism. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars. Femi should be testifying on the witness stand, not sitting in a jail cell.
Femi’s case in not unique. Human Rights First’s Universal Periodic Review report for Ukraine notes that although the level of hate crime violence peaked in 2008, attacks continue while the government struggles to enact and implement policies to address the problem. Steven Okurut, Charles Asante-Yeboa, and countless others have fallen victim to violence at the hands of private citizens and police officials.
Foreign nationals, sexual minorities, refugees and all vulnerable and need protection. Ukrainian officials have a responsibility to address hate crimes and eliminate institutional discrimination; States can and should take a number of practical actions to combat xenophobic and other bias-motivated violence. Ukraine should listen to civil society groups in the country and Free Femi, because Self-Defense Is No Offence.
See updates on Femi’s status via the Facebook page established by his supporters.