Does being the guest of the Ukrainian government during Euro 2012 condone that government’s imprisonment and torture of political opponents?
This question weighed heavily on European ministers ahead of the competition that started this weekend, with many choosing to stay away as a sign of their disapproval.
But while the culture minister, Uffe Elbæk (Radikale), chose to make the journey, he spent three hours on Saturday, ahead of Denmark’s first fixture against the Netherlands, meeting with political activists.
Tatjana Mazur, head of human rights group Amnesty Ukraine, told Information newspaper after the meeting that she appreciated that Elbæk had taken time to meet with them.
”They listened to our concerns and it was obvious they were both touched and moved by what they had heard,” Mazur said. “The ministers were asking what they could do to help.”
Elbæk met with a wide range of political activists, including the lawyer for jailed opposition leader Julija Tymosjenko, representatives from gay and lesbian organisations, political activists who claim to have been subjected to torture, the Ukrainian Helsinki Union for Human Rights, as well as employees of a local TV station that had been closed by the authorities.
After the meeting Elbæk said it had been evident that the activists appreciated that he had taken the time for the meetings.
“It was clearly very important for the torture victims to tell their stories and feel listened to by the wider world," Elbæk told Information. "One thing is reading reports and another is standing face to face with people who had been abused, sometimes with electric shocks.”
After the meetings, Elbæk attended the football match but declined the invitation to watch the game from the VIP lounge and instead chose to sit with fans.
“I and the Danish government have decided that I won’t be sitting in the VIP lounge but with the audience because there is a risk that by being in the VIP lounge it will be interpreted as support for the system,” Elbæk told Politiken before heading to the Ukraine.
A majority of Danish MPs including Per Stig Møller (Konservative) and Lykke Friis (Venstre), opposed Elbæk’s attendance.
"You send a signal that you legitimise the regime by going," Friis told Politiken. "You cannot compromise on human rights. You have to stay away and that is what the majority of EU countries have done."
British, French and German ministers have all said they had no plans to attend the games. But while the Dutch sports minister had first declined to attend, he attended the meetings with Elbæk on Saturday.