- - Monday, March 19, 2018

KIEV, UKRAINE — At 33 years old, civil rights activist Vitaliy Shabunin has taken a post at the vanguard of the war against corruption in his native Ukraine.

At 34, he might be in prison.

Mr. Shabunin, the founder of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a prominent nonprofit credited with pushing for key government reforms in recent years, has become one of the fiercest critics of President Petro Poroshenko.

The activist and other critics accuse Mr. Poroshenko — a former candy magnate and an ally of the Trump administration — and his allies of bribing lawmakers, profiting from corrupt business deals and hampering efforts to clean up corruption that has plagued Ukraine since it gained independence at the end of the Cold War.

Now the anti-corruption crusader faces five years in prison on charges of attacking a blogger who journalists and civil rights organizations say is actually a paid provocateur affiliated with Mr. Poroshenko and Ukraine’s security service, known as the SBU.

“The political elite want to ruin the anti-corruption infrastructure that we are helping to build,” said Mr. Shabunin. “We aren’t the final target. We are just an obstacle. It’s a piece of a big puzzle.”

Since the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, freedom of speech and civil liberties are at their highest levels, Mr. Poroshenko and his defenders say. Having ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine is steadily making strides toward the West while clamping down on corruption, they argue.

But the Shabunin case, which has riveted the nation, challenges that rosy assessment and underscores how those fighting to clean up the country are being physically attacked and put on trial on trumped-up charges, critics say.

The case stems from an incident in June when Mr. Shabunin punched a video blogger who had been following and harassing him and his colleagues for days. In response, the blogger used pepper spray on Mr. Shabunin. Both went to police and filed charges.

Even though Ukraine’s leading journalism organizations say the blogger was the aggressor, prosecutors upgraded the charges against the corruption fighter in January from a simple assault to an attack on the press, a more serious crime that is punishable by as much as five years in prison. The blogger was not charged.

Many Ukrainians saw the charges as an obvious attempt to quiet dissent.

“It is selective justice with the purpose of political persecution,” said Sergii Leshchenko, a pro-reform lawmaker who was elected on the ballot of Mr. Poroshenko’s Solidarity political party but turned into a critic of the president. “This incident originated at the highest level.”

The anti-graft crusader epitomized Ukraine’s uncertain state after a popular uprising known as the Euromaidan Revolution forced Mr. Yanukovych — who faced corruption charges — to flee to Russia in 2014 with more than a year left in his term.

Four years later, critics say Ukraine’s post-revolution leadership, which vowed to play by new rules, is backsliding into old practices.

Barely improved

Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Ukraine 130th out of 180 countries. That is just 10 slots better than its ranking under Mr. Yanukovych. Russia finished in a tie for 135th place.

“If Poroshenko’s government were serious about fighting corruption, it would have reformed its courts and put high-level crooks in jail years ago,” said Melinda Haring, the editor of Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert blog and a longtime observer of political developments in Ukraine and the region. “At this point, it looks like Poroshenko is committed to preserving the status quo.”

She also points to attacks on a number of journalists in the past few years with no charges filed. In some cases, even murder, attacks were classified as lesser charges of hooliganism.

The International Monetary Fund is delaying payments that are part of a $17.5 billion loan package to Ukraine because Mr. Poroshenko has been slow to create an anti-corruption court. That follows a failed government attempt late last year to limit the powers of the state anti-corruption authority.

Ukraine’s parliament on March 1 approved a first reading of the bill for the proposed anti-corruption court. The president predicts the bill will be “definitively approved in the spring.” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini traveled to Kiev this month to press Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman to strengthen the court and make fighting corruption a top priority.

Ukraine’s anti-corruption forces “must be allowed to do their work independently, with enough powers and resources to investigate, prosecute and eventually ensure the conviction of those responsible for corruption,” she said March 12.

If Mr. Poroshenko doesn’t create the court, he clearly doesn’t want change, said Timothy Ash, a London-based emerging markets strategist who focuses on Ukraine.

“We are approaching a key decision point, with fair questions to be asked if the Poroshenko administration is really serious about fighting corruption,” Mr. Ash said. “The fact that no one has been brought to account for corrupt practice sends a very bad signal to the population at large and perhaps signal to others that corrupt practice wins.”

Meanwhile, the country is locked in a bitter military stalemate with its more powerful neighbor, Russia.

Once part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Russia have been in a state of undeclared war since 2014, when Russia exploited the confusion of the revolution to invade and annex Ukraine’s territory of Crimea. Soon afterward, a Russian-backed separatist conflict broke out in the eastern region of the country. The ongoing armed conflict has claimed more than 10,000 lives, many of them civilians, and shows no signs of ending.

The Shabunin case undercuts Kiev’s argument that the government is worthy of Western political and economic support in the struggle against authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Shabunin has faced numerous online attacks, including a web video, reposted by a deputy prosecutor general, that looked like an American television news report about Mr. Shabunin’s corruption problems. It was quickly revealed that the video was fake and the broadcaster was an American actor.

“This is straight from Putin’s textbook,” said Mr. Leshchenko, who likened Mr. Shabunin to Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who had planned to run against Mr. Putin in Russia’s March 18 presidential election before he was disqualified on what Navalny supporters say were trumped-up embezzlement charges. “They are trying to devalue the results of anti-corruption activists’ findings by saying that they are corrupt themselves.”

Mr. Poroshenko’s press office declined to comment.

Mr. Shabunin has faced more than harassment. Authorities are investigating tax evasion charges against the Anti-Corruption Action Center, which receives most of its funding through foreign grants, said Mr. Shabunin.

Late last year, Ukrainian lawmakers passed legislation that compels anti-corruption organizations to file detailed yearly disclosures of their assets and incomes, mirroring a favorite tactic of Mr. Putin to pressure independent organizations in Russia.

Ironically, the disclosures were modeled after the very forms that anti-corruption activists like Mr. Shabunin had fought to make obligatory for public servants.

“This law opens anti-corruption activists to pressure and harassment,” Amnesty International Ukraine said in a statement. “It violates their right for privacy, making them publish personal information, including home addresses.”

Mr. Poroshenko has proposed eliminating the requirement. But, with the deadline for the first disclosures approaching on April 1, the parliament controlled by Mr. Poroshenko’s bloc still hasn’t voted on the president’s proposal.

“This law is more harmful than Russia’s law on foreign agents,” said Mr. Shabunin, referring to Russia’s 2012 legislation that made all nongovernmental organizations with foreign funding register as foreign agents. “Our leaders declare their devotion to Western values, but to fight us they are using the tools invented in Russia.”

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