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Ukraine’s commitment to democracy in question

FILE - In this June 8, 2012 file picture Dutch soccer fans pass a protest poster that calls for release of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in Kiev, Ukraine.

Nigel Treblin/AP

A bill in Ukraine aiming to ban "propaganda" that favourably portrays gays and lesbians is the latest sign of intolerance in the country, and is a clear violation of its international human rights obligations. The West, including Canada with its large population of Ukrainian heritage, must pressure the former Soviet republic to respect freedom of speech and outlaw discrimination and arbitrary punishment.

Ukraine, which has only been an independent country since 1991, has aspirations to join the European Union. However, before an EU association agreement can be concluded, the government of Viktor Yanukovych will have to reverse the anti-democratic tide. During the campaign for parliamentary elections, set for Oct. 28, international observers will have a chance to monitor democratic norms and freedom of the press.

Then there is the troubling case of Yulia Tymoshenko. The former prime minister narrowly lost the 2010 election and was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of office related to a natural gas deal with Russia. Yet the charges brought against her are seen as politically motivated, as they involve allegations already dismissed by the courts.

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Ms. Tymoshenko suffers from spine-related health problems and has complained of physical abuse in prison. In a recent video she calls Ukraine a "criminal country" and accuses President Yanukovych of "mafia rule."

To restore his democratic credentials, Mr. Yanukovych should release the opposition leader. Ukraine has also been criticized by Human Rights Watch for its treatment of asylum seekers, and for denying as many as 80,000 cancer patients access to morphine and other pain killers. The government should amend existing laws to end unnecessary suffering, and implement further reforms to improve the integrity of the asylum hearing process.

Mr. Yanukovych has said that "Ukraine's future lies with Europe." But he must work harder to illustrate a commitment to democratic institutions, judicial independence, freedom of the media and respect for all citizens.

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