Up to UAH 68,000 in Fines and 3 Years in Jail: How Courts Defend the National Flag from Desecration

Over the decade, the most convictions under Article 338 of the Criminal Code were in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

17 September 2021

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Over the decade, the most convictions under Article 338 of the Criminal Code were in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

30 years ago, on September 18, 1991, the blue and yellow flag was made the national flag of Ukraine. Under Part 1, Article 338 of the Criminal Code, the public desecration of the national flag, coat of arms, or anthem can be punished with a fine or three years of prison. Over the past 10 years, courts have handed out 36 such sentences.

Most of them—over one-third of the overall number—were handed out in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

A lookup on the Babusia court case search engine shows two waves of sentences for desecration of national symbols, peaking in 2015 and 2020 at 10 and 7 cases, respectively. After both of the peak years, there were drops—only 1 sentence in 2016 and no sentences this year so far.

Dynamics of sentences under Part 1, Article 338 of Criminal Code of Ukraine

Most convicts performed similar actions: in the presence of witnesses, they tore national flags off fixtures in the streets and, depending on the mood, either ripped, trampled upon, burned, or threw the flags in the trash. Some ways of desecration were more exotic—one convict blew his nose on the flag he had torn off, while another one “made obscene gestures directed at the flag”.

For a decade, vandals that tore off flags usually got away with a UAH 850 fine or conditional sentences. The cases of imprisonment used to be rare—around one in eight. The time was different in each case—six months, a year, two years, and three years as a maximum.

The law became more stringent in February 2019. As per its new edition, the fines have grown by tens of times. Two such fines of UAH 17,000 and UAH 25,500 were ruled in 2020.

Besides, in the summer of 2021, a draft law was registered in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine to expand the clause of Part 1, Article 338 of the Criminal Code and establish criminal liability for “public desecration of the Ukrainian language as the state language”. The punishment is the same as that for desecration of the flag: a fine of UAH 17,000–68,000, up to six months of arrest, or up to three years of imprisonment.

Notably, Part 2, Article 338 establishes criminal liability for desecrating the flag or coat of arms of a foreign state, but no sentences have been handed out under it in the past 10 years.

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