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Ukraine: a report from the frontline

Coffee shops all over Kiev are offering free tea and coffee to protesters who stay on the streets despite the cold and police brutality – says Yulia Gorbunova

When my flight from Kiev landed in Moscow this week, Russian customs officials – hearing where I flew in from – said cheerily: “Fresh from the barricades?” While in Kiev, my colleagues and I witnessed first-hand the civil unrest Ukraine is facing. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets after the government’s sudden decision on November 21 to postpone signing the deal on closer ties with the EU.

The authorities allowed mostly peaceful protests to continue for over a week but when police violently cracked down last weekend, they did so with ferocity virtually unprecedented in post-Soviet Ukraine. One man I interviewed about the violence in Kiev said bitterly that he fell asleep and woke up in a different country.

We talked to many people who were on Kiev’s Independence Square when riot police suddenly attacked at around 4 am on November 30. They were people of all ages and walks of life, from students to pensioners. All told us they were astonished at the brutality riot police used to disperse the largely peaceful group. Many said they saw policemen beating protesters indiscriminately, chasing people who were trying to escape – hitting and kicking those who fell. We saw videos that confirmed those accounts.

The next day there were clashes between police and a group of violent demonstrators near the presidential administration building. Riot police used excessive force, with tear gas and beatings, including against dozens of peaceful demonstrators. Some 40 journalists were assaulted and injured, according to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe representative for freedom of the media.

We visited a 54-year old woman in a hospital where her daughter, still in a state of shock, said her mother had been hit in the face with a police truncheon – breaking her nose and causing a concussion and other injuries. The protests are far from over with thousands continuing to gather in the streets and the beautiful squares of Kiev. Activists have set up numerous camps with information stands, first aid stations and soup kitchens.

Coffee shops all over the city are offering free hot tea and coffee to protesters who stay on the streets despite the cold. Dozens of medics, doctors and lawyers have volunteered on social network sites to help people who are arrested on injured. Protesters are demanding the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovich and the government. They are peaceful but determined. And they appear prepared to keep the protests going indefinitely.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and Interior Minister Vitalii Zakharchenko have apologised for the way the police responded at Independence Square. And Zakharchenko said the excessive force would be investigated. That is a positive step, although it is important for the investigation to cover allegations of excessive force the following day too and to hold any officers found responsible to account.

That has not happened yet. But on Wednesday a court in Kiev swiftly ordered two months of pretrial custody for nine people suspected of rioting and resisting the police during Sunday’s violent clashes, pending criminal investigation. Some had just been discharged from hospitals after being injured in the clashes and looked unsteady on their feet. Ukrainian social media is alive with concerns that the authorities will try to use these cases to deter those who are still protesting.

It is unclear where the protests will lead. The prime minister, in the same breath with his apology, also said ominously that the government has “enough forces” if the opposition makes force necessary. The authorities must respect the right to peaceful protest. It is important that the authorities and the protestors refrain from further violence. It is also important to address the violence that has already happened and hold those responsible to account.

Yulia Gorbunova is a researcher at the Human Rights Watch campaign group

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