Liberty and democracy on the brink in Ukraine

On the Internet petition to free my mother, Yulia Tymoshenko, Bishop Paul Peter Jesep quoted the French thinker Montesquieu: “There is no greater tyranny, than that which is perpetrated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.”

That is the tyranny that we face in Ukraine today. In the United States, you know my mother as a leader of the Orange Revolution, who then served as prime minister of Ukraine. In that position and throughout her life, she has been a strong advocate of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. After narrowly defeating my mother in the 2010 presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych orchestrated an effort to have my mother tried, convicted and imprisoned because of her advocacy of those values. The only thing she is guilty of is being Yanukovych’s strongest political opponent.

My mother has been illegally imprisoned, maltreated and humiliated for six months by the regime that is trying to break her. Her spirits are high, but her health is failing. And she is not the only one being treated this way.

Supremacy of the rule of law is threatened, and with that threat comes a threat to Ukraine as a democratic nation and the liberty of its people.

I am testifying this week in front of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on European Affairs to bring attention to my mother’s plight and the danger this signals to liberty and democracy in an unstable region.

My mother went into politics to free her country of the injustice, authoritarianism and corruption left from the Soviet regime. She managed to build a big, successful corporation, and as a result of her work, uncovered major failures of the old system. One of those major failures was, and now remains, corruption. She chose to go against the system, refused to be part of corrupt schemes and ended up facing the system alone, letting it destroy her business, putting her, her family and friends behind bars. That happened 10 years ago, when my mother as vice prime minister for energy managed to remove corruption in oil, electricity and gas trading.

After she removed another corrupt, inefficient structure from the gas trade, the infamous RosUkrEnergo, she became Enemy No. 1 to those in power now. Once her opponents took power, she was quickly accused of crimes and is now being held in a prison near Kachanivska, in Kharkiv, far from her family and friends. Although she is so weak from lack of proper medical care that she can’t sit up on her own, she is watched 24 hours a day. A zoom surveillance camera has been installed so that her captors can see what she is writing to her supporters around the world. The regime will not let independent doctors from abroad examine her. 

What we are witnessing is the continual abuse of the criminal justice system in Ukraine and encroachment on the rule of law through politically motivated prosecutions of former government members, civil society activists and human-rights defenders. The current situation, as described in the recent resolutions from the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, requires urgent action.

Numerous legal infringements of the European Convention of Human Rights were listed in three reports of the Danish Helsinki Committee, which was commissioned by the European Union. This shows a systemic prosecution of the opposition or people close to it, and a government ignoring the rule of law.

For example, politically motivated charges of which my mother was found innocent a decade ago by the Supreme Court of Ukraine have simply been reopened by the prosecutor’s office with no legal basis. The statute of limitations is ignored. Against all legal norms, she is interrogated in her cell, sometimes for 12 or more hours consecutively. She is not given adequate time to review the documents that will be used against her in the next court the regime convenes. My mother has been refused the opportunity to give a closing statement. And although she managed to find documents in the case proving her innocence, the evidence was not admitted.

I know that Ukraine must seem like a faraway place, and that our problems must also seem distant from the concerns of Americans. But just as no man is an island onto himself, no democracy is an island. When one nation is allowed to be hijacked, all democracies are threatened.

It is paramount for Ukraine to have free and fair elections this autumn. The only way forward is to apply pressure to the people who are leading Ukraine away from democracy. Most of all, I ask you to speak out, loudly and clearly, so that the people of my country do not feel abandoned and lose hope. The United States should not be neutral in this fight for liberty and democracy.

Tymoshenko is the daughter of Yulia Tymoshenko, who led the Orange Revolution, served as prime minister of Ukraine and is now imprisoned.