Ukrainian Parliament reboots State Bureau of Investigations, unblocks probe into Maidan massacre
On Thursday, 3 December, the Ukrainian Parliament passed key legislation to reform the State Bureau of Investigation (DBR). The institution was launched in 2018 to deal with the crimes committed by top officials, law enforcers, military officers, and judges. The MPs have supported the reboot of the institution. As a result, the current DBR chief and his deputies are to be dismissed. In addition, the legislators supported an amendment that would not let the investigation of the Maidan massacre to be temporarily suspended for an undefined term. It was the amendment, the need for which made lawyer for the families of killed Euromaidan protesters, Euheniya Zakrevska, and other activists to go on hunger strike, demanding the parliament to adopt it.
While passing the Maidan investigation amendments is rather perceived as a victory by the civil society, the general reboot of the DBR has raised discussions.
What the reboot foresees
The changes are envisaged by the presidential draft law #2116 On the Amendments to the Law of Ukraine on the State Bureau of Investigations Regarding the Improvement of the Activities of the State Bureau of Investigation. The bill suggests more than 300 amendments to the DBR law.
Out of 396 legislators who participated in the vote, 250 MPs supported the draft law.
The most discussed transformation for the DBR changes the powers of the head of this institution. Previously, the DBR chief shared his or her powers with two deputies. The new legislation makes the chief a single-handed leader.
The idea was that the decision-making shared with deputy-heads would deprive the DBR leader of the opportunity to abuse power.
“Later it turned out that the approach when the deputies and the head are appointed under different political quotas is wrong. The deputies and the head started conflicting. That is why the Parliament has now decided to deny the deputies the opportunity to approve particular decisions and provided the DBR head with the right of the single-handed decision,” Mykola Havroniuk, Director for Scientific Development of the Center for Political and Legal Reforms said.
According to the new legislation, the new head will be appointed by the President on the proposal of the competition commission which is going to be formed by the Bureau itself. Also, now the DBR head will be responsible for appointing his or her deputies and defining their responsibilities.
Current DBR chief Roman Truba and his deputies lose their posts when the new legislation comes into force. The bill would become law after both Rada speaker and President have signed it, and when after that it gets published in Rada’s official newspaper Holos Ukrainy.
Under the new law, the DBR will not be considered a central executive body, but it will receive the status of a state law enforcement institution.
Other changes are related to the organizational and territorial structures of the Bureau, its staff headcount, and the grounds to bring the Bureau’s employees to justice.
Prior to the relaunch
In the last few months, the Bureau of Investigations has frequently found itself at the center of scandals, many of which were related to its current head, Roman Truba.
In particular, prior to the Parliament’s voting for the reform, the Telegram channel Trubu Prorvalo [“a pipe burst” – a pun on the last name of the DBR head which means ‘pipe’ in Ukrainian] released the new portion of the incriminating evidence against Truba. As its first pieces started emerging during the last month, the head of the DBR called the kompromat a fake.
The records allegedly wiretapped in Truba’s office included a conversation of Presidential Office head Andriy Bohdan arguing that the DBR investigators should stop searches related to oil interests of oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. The materials also contained the reports by Truba’s subordinates on the possibilities to dismiss the head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau Artem Sytnyk due to his luxury holiday-making and alleged meddling in the 2016 US elections. The conversations were also related to the cases against the ex-President Petro Poroshenko, former acting Healthcare Minister Uliana Suprun, and other officials.
Meanwhile, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau searched the apartment of Ihor Shcherbyna, Truba’s close associate. Shcherbyna used to hold the position of the head of the Investigative Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office (2014-2015). Truba, in his turn, served as his deputy. Later, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecution Office informed on the exposure of a former employee of the PG Office who promised to close a case against a Kyiv’s construction developer in exchange for a $150,000 bribe.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reacted to the report, which emerged just on the eve of the DBR voting,
“‘The right hand’ of the DBR head is suspected of receiving a bribe in the amount $150,000. This is one more argument in favor of the necessity to relaunch the management of the Bureau,” a Facebook post on the presidential account reads.
Another argument against Truba came from civil society which stated that the DBR chief and his institution were dependent on Andriy Portnov, former deputy head of the runaway president Viktor Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration.
Immediately upon his return to Ukraine, Portnov applied to the DBR to investigate a number of allegations against former President Poroshenko. As told by activists, Portnov also has his fingers in the trials against protesters who participated in the Revolution of Dignity, and the trials in other cases.
Discussions over the changes
The experts involved in the transformations of the DBR and in the law enforcement reforms in general have different opinions regarding the changes.
First of all, the provisions that give the single-handed management powers to the DBR chief and define the key role of the president in his appointment raise concerns. Particularly, the fact that the legislation concentrates powers of this law enforcement body in the hands of its head who, in turn, is personally accountable to the President.
“In such a way, Volodymyr Zelenskyy will be able to receive the power over the institution,” Andriy Kovalenko, Delovaya Stolytsia editor-in-chief wrote.
The journalist adds that there were talks about the president’s discontent with the work of the DBR due to the lack of imprisoned high-profile officials investigated by the institution. Nevertheless, Kovalenko believes that Zelenskyy is not interested in investigations against Poroshenko because it might cause critics from the Western partners. Those who are interested in Poroshenko cases are Portnov and Kolomoiskyi.
“At the same time, Zelenskyy does not need Portnov to have his influence on the DBR. So the new law will allow denying the power of this ‘lawyer’ over the institution. In this story, Truba’s future is defined and he will not be appointed for the second time. Except that, he might work as an acting head before the new DBR chief is appointed.”
The new law has also been criticized because it might be contradicting the Constitution.
“I think that without an audit of the first year of the DBR work the changes are premature,” wrote Yevhen Krapyvin, a specialist of the Expert Center for Human Rights.
At the same time, Oleksandr Liemenov, a lawyer and an anti-corruption policy expert, considers the relaunch as a positive step,
“The president appoints the DBR head in a not single-handed way. He has such a right only for an acting head. However, the head will be selected as a result of an open competition with the participation of international experts (even though they will be in the minority).”
The expert also praised getting rid of the quasi-collegiality of DBR management. As before, political parties just divide the top positions between themselves.
The Maidan probe amendment
Last but not least, the Parliament has passed the amendment on the DBR which would prevent the pause in the probe into the 2014 Maidan massacre. Previously, the MPs did not find time to pass the amendment. It made Yevheniya Zakrevska, a prominent Ukrainian lawyer for the families of Heavenly Hundred to go on a hunger strike demanding the Parliament to vote for it. Other activists joined her protest.
The pause in the Maidan killings probe was caused by the reforms in Ukraine’s public prosecution. Shortly after the Revolution, the Special Department for the Maidan cases was created within the Prosecutor General’s Office (GPU). The agency had dealt with the cases throughout the post-Maidan years until now. In 2018, the DBR was launched. In effect, the crimes committed by law enforcers, like the Maidan killings, fell under DBR’s jurisdiction.
Moreover, a recent large-scale public prosecution reform transferred the investigative function from prosecutors to DBR and other law enforcement bodies. It was a long-awaited step, though it worsened the situation with the Maidan cases, most of which had to be transferred to the DBR, and some to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU). The question arose: who will investigate these cases now? Will new people explore everything from scratch or the current investigators would continue with the probe?
Zakrevska and other activists were standing for a simple amendment to the DBR law that could fix the issue, allowing the GPU prosecutors who have been investigating the Maidan cases to continue their investigation as DBR operatives, getting employed in the institution without a competition.
On 3 December the MPs voted for the corresponding amendment separately. It allows the investigators who worked on the Maidan cases within the GPU to continue their work within the DBR without competition. 334 MPs voted for the amendment.
Further on, the President should sign the adopted draft law, and the inner procedures are to be finalized within the DBR to allow the investigators and prosecutors of the PG Office who have already been working on the Maidan cases to be able to continue their work within DBR.