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Human Rights Groups Urge Ukraine To Fix Shortcomings In Proposed Reform Of Security Service

Members of Ukraine's security service, the SBU, during training in March 2021.
Members of Ukraine's security service, the SBU, during training in March 2021.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and more than 20 other groups have encouraged Ukraine’s parliament to address shortcomings in a proposed law to reform the country’s security service before passing it.

HRW is among 23 civil society groups that on June 3 sent a letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the co-authors of the draft legislation to change “problematic” parts of the proposal, which is being prepared for passage, possibly later this month.

The reform is essential to help the security service, known as the SBU, transform into an effective agency that respects and upholds international human rights norms, HRW said in a news release.

But the draft law contains provisions that could be damaging for human rights, the groups said, urging Ukrainian lawmakers to address problems stemming from the draft law’s lack of clarity and properly defined powers and roles, and its provisions maintaining, or in some cases strengthening, regulations that jeopardize human rights and fundamental freedoms.

“The ongoing initiative to reform the security agency, which Ukraine’s partners and allies have long urged the government to undertake, is both needed and long overdue,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. “But for the reform to succeed, and to strengthen Ukraine’s rule of law, several key problematic aspects of the proposed law have first to be addressed.”

The groups’ letter said that while the reform was supposed to streamline the SBU’s work as an intelligence agency and remove law enforcement functions from its mandate, the proposed draft law “extends the scope of the [SBU’s] activities beyond the protection of national security by providing the agency with a vast mandate to investigate a potentially wide variety of crimes.”

The SBU conducts large-scale anti-terrorist exercises in the Kherson region in April 2021.
The SBU conducts large-scale anti-terrorist exercises in the Kherson region in April 2021.

The letter called this “deeply problematic in light of serious, credible allegations by Ukrainian anti-corruption and human rights groups of [SBU] involvement in corruption, corporate raiding, and interfering with anti-corruption investigations undertaken by other state agencies.”

The draft law also retains the SBU’s powers of arrest, seizure, detention, interrogation, and surveillance, without clear oversight, the letter said.

While the draft law reiterates the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment in detention, it does not provide sufficient protections to prevent abuses in detention or guarantee such due process measures as requiring the SBU to ensure a detainee has a lawyer, according to the groups that signed the letter.

The groups also point out that a provision to phase out the SBU’s pretrial investigative functions gradually by 2024 and another to allow the agency to operate temporary detention facilities until January 2023 are not supported by a clear road map that would ensure that these deadlines are met.

Noting that the reforms are “long overdue,” the letter encourages Ukraine’s leadership not to squander the opportunity to adopt a bill that “adheres to the stated vision of limiting the role and powers of the [SBU] and that upholds Ukraine’s international obligations and respects fundamental rights and freedoms."

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