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Environmental activist killed in Ukraine

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - ARTICLE 19 calls on the Ukrainian government to publicly condemn the killing of environmental information activist Volodymyr Honcharenko as a crime against freedom of expression and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice via an effective, independent and speedy process. Volodymyr campaigned for environmental information in Ukraine and died on 3 August 2012.

On 1 August, Volodymyr Honcharenko, a well-known ecologist and public activist, who was critical of the authorities for their lack of accountability with regards to environmental safety and security, was stopped in his car on the road and severely beaten by unidentified men. Despite the serious head trauma he had suffered, Honcharenko managed to get home and explain what had happened to him, but later lost consciousness and passed away in hospital on 3 August.

Honcharenko's colleagues and family are convinced that his work - in particular his latest public appearance - were the reason for the brutal attack. At his last appearance in a press conference on 27 July, Honcharenko warned of a potential 'chemical time bomb' in the Saksaganskyi Region of Kryvyi Rog, where Honcharenko and his colleagues had discovered that 180 tons of chemically-contaminated and radioactive scrap metal were being moved around freely.

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the investigation into Honcharenko's killing will be treated as a random criminal act rather than an act aimed at preventing him from talking about issues he raised. Violence and other crimes against those exercising their right to freedom of expression are crimes against this right as a whole and should not be regarded as 'ordinary' crimes.

Furthermore we are concerned that any failure to recognise the freedom of expression aspects of Honcharenko's case would constitute a severe blow to freedom of information in the country. Similarly, impunity in Honcharenko's case, as has sadly been seen in the cases of journalists killed in Ukraine, like journalist Georgiy Gongadze, who was killed in 2000, would also undermine freedom of expression in the country.

ARTICLE 19 notes that states have a positive obligation under international human rights law to protect those exercising their right to freedom of expression, including journalists, human rights defenders and public activists, and to investigate and punish those responsible for crimes against them.

The three special mandates for protecting freedom of expression - the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression - set out standards relating to violence and crimes against freedom of expression. Their 2012 Declaration, adopted in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on 25 June 2012, includes the following relevant standards:
- State officials should condemn attacks committed in reprisal for the exercise of freedom of expression
- The authorities should make all reasonable efforts to expedite investigations, including by acting as soon as an official complaint or reliable evidence of an attack against freedom of expression becomes available
- Sufficient resources should be allocated to ensure that investigations into crimes against freedom of expression are thorough, rigorous and effective and that all aspects of such crimes are explored properly
- Investigations should lead to the identification and prosecution of all of those responsible for crimes against freedom of expression, including direct perpetrators and instigators, as well as those who conspire to commit, aid and abet, or cover up such crimes
- Investigations should be conducted in a transparent manner, subject to the need to avoid prejudice to the investigation.

In view of the above standards ARTICLE 19 calls on the Ukrainian authorities to:
- Unequivocally condemn the killing as an attack committed in reprisal for the exercise of freedom of expression
- Provide sufficient resources for the investigation, which should be prompt in order to prevent losing evidence
- Ensure that both the perpetrators and instigators of Honcharenko's killing are held to account
- Thoroughly investigate the circumstances of Honcharenko's death in light of his active disclosure of facts relating to environmental pollution, including radioactive, lead and chemical contamination in the Dnipropetrovsk region that could be a potential threat to public health
- Inform the public on a regular basis about the progress of the investigation and the proceedings against the persons responsible for the attacks.

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