Case against notorious judges shows dire need of reforming Ukraine’s judiciary
Now Vovk and other judges of the Kyiv Administrative District Court, which is headed by Vovk, face new charges by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU).
On July 17, judges Vovk, Yevhen Ablov, Ihor Pohribnichenko, Ihor Kachur, Bohdan Sanin, Oleksiy Ohurtsov and Volodymyr Keleberda were charged with organized crime, usurpation of power, bribery and unlawful interference with government officials.
Vovk and the other judges denied the accusations and called the NABU actions an attempt to put pressure on the court. They also called charges politically motivated.
The case has exposed the law enforcement system’s ability to protect its most notorious members. Audio tapes implicating Vovk published by the NABU have also revealed how unreformed and sure of its impunity the judiciary is.
Legal experts and anti-corruption activists are calling for the liquidation of Vovk’s court and argue that the Vovk case clearly demonstrates the need for genuine reform of the judiciary – something that has not happened so far.
“We are unique. We are the only court that has survived all of them for five years. Unliquidated, unreformed, unassessed,” Vovk boasted and quipped, according to the NABU tapes.
Vovk also quips in the tapes that no one should doubt the court’s “political prostitution.” Meanwhile, one of his court’s judges said in the tapes he supports “any lawlessness in the judiciary branch.”
In February 2019 Vovk told a representative of one of the presidential candidates that he can organize a court ruling against a Central Election Commission regulation if the court gets a bribe, according to the tapes.
“Are there any interested parties that can sponsor this?” Vovk said. “(The relevant judge) must realize that there is an interest on the part of interested politicians who can sponsor this.”
In March 2019 Vovk also said that the court is ready to issue a certain ruling in a case involving an unidentified company only if the company is ready to bribe the court, according to the recordings.
“If they are ready to sponsor this, then we’re ready to issue this shit,” he said. “If they’re not ready, let them fight.”
In the tapes, Vovk also discussed getting a bribe for a court ruling rejecting a ruling by the National Agency for Preventing Corruption on a lawmaker’s administrative infraction.
The tapes also document Vovk’s alleged efforts to unlawfully influence the Constitutional Court and get control over it, according to the NABU.
In February 2019 the Constitutional Court canceled the law criminalizing illicit enrichment.
“Thanks to our common efforts, the decision to recognize the illicit enrichment (law) as unconstitutional has been born,” Vovk told one of his court’s judges after the ruling was issued. “That’s why you can buy anything you want.”
The judges of the court also discussed getting their assets “out of their shadows” after the ruling and come up with excuses for unexplained wealth.
“I think you and Ablov can now declare the $1 million in income from stock that you had. Your mom gave it to you as a gift when you were a child,” Vovk joked.
“Or golden bees were born in your house,” another judge added.
One of the court’s judges also told Vovk: “Chief, you effectively pressured Constitutional Court judges through lawmakers, and a case may be opened against you.”
Vovk also boasted that one of the Constitutional Court judges – Viktor Vasilyevich (an apparent reference to judge Viktor Kryvenko) supported the ruling on illicit enrichment because Vovk “matters” to him. Kryvenko did not respond to a request for comment.
“We already own two courts – the Constitutional Court and the Kyiv Administrative District Court,” Vovk also said in the tapes.
Vovk and Ablov were personally interested in the Constitutional Court ruling because the NABU had investigated illicit enrichment cases against them. Both had to be closed after the ruling.
Commenting on the late judge who authorized searches in his illicit enrichment case, Ablov called him “a fucking viper” and “drug addict” and said “fuck him”, according to the tapes.
The recordings also show Vovk’s alleged efforts to abuse his power to interfere with journalists’ activities.
In March 2019 the Slidstvo.info investigative project published a report on Ablov’s birthday, which was attended by numerous influential officials and politicians.
In the tapes, Vovk asked a certain “Sasha”, an official from the Security Service of Ukraine, to give him data from Slidtsvo.info journalist Yevhenia Motorevska’s phone to track down who had tipped her off about the celebration.
According to the tapes, Vovk and Ablov also organized a fake bomb threat in an effort to disrupt a High Council of Justice meeting on Ablov’s dismissal in April 2019. Eventually Ablov, who has been examined for an allegedly unlawful ruling to disperse protesters during the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, has escaped dismissal.
“We should hire activists who should say that there’s a bomb at the High Council of Justice,” a lawyer working with Vovk and Ablov said, according to the NABU.
Vovk said in the tapes that he had met Andriy Kryshchenko, head of Kyiv police, and told him that he “must react to certain bomb threats the right way.” The police did not respond to a request for comment.
In March 2019 Vovk talked about trying to prevent the participation of Supreme Court Chairwoman Valentyna Danishevska in High Council of Justice meetings through a lawsuit that Vovk himself is considering. His aim was to obstruct the appointment of Supreme Court judges by the High Council of Justice, according to the NABU.
“If we kick ‘D’ out, we’ll be able to kick out (some Supreme Court candidates),” Vovk said in the tapes. “I don’t want her to take part and vote. Maybe she’ll be afraid of our lawsuit and get sidelined.”
In March 2019 Vovk also discussed obstructing the appointment of ex-High Council of Justice Chairman Ihor Benedysyuk to the Supreme Court through a conflict of interest ruling by the National Agency for Preventing Corruption.
Vovk said Benedysyuk was nervous that he might not be appointed to the Supreme Court because he had not allowed Artur Yemelyanov, an influential judge charged in an obstruction of justice case, to run in the Supreme Court competition.
“If (High Council of Justice member Pavlo) Grechkivsky creates a coalition, everyone must bow to him and agree with him on who will win (Supreme Court jobs),” Vovk said.
Vovk also revealed some information on how powerbrokers influenced the hiring of Supreme Court judges.
“In the Supreme Court competition, (ex-President Petro Poroshenko’s deputy chief of staff Oleksiy) Filatov in some aspects flouted the line of (Poroshenko Bloc lawmakers Ihor) Kononenko and (Oleksandr) Hranovsky,” he said.
High Council of Justice
In March 2019 Vovk instructed one of the judges to arrange a fake lawsuit to cancel the results of a competition for High Council of Justice jobs.
“Filatov shouldn’t even think of getting into (the council),” Vovk said. “We’ll come up with some lawsuit. Why should we let this asshole get in there?”
In the tapes, Vovk also said he had talked to Hranovsky about the matter.
“I told him ‘Sasha, in the context of our friendly relations, I warn you beforehand that if I see some asshole whom I don’t like (in the High Council of Justice), tell (then President) Petro Oleksiyovich (Poroshenko) that I’ll fuck him up.”
The recordings also mention Interior Minister Arsen Avakov directly or indirectly several times. His spokesman Artem Shevchenko declined to comment.
In April Vovk told Ablov that, thanks to him, the court is associated with Avakov, metaphorically calling him “backpacks.” He also said in the tapes that he had talked to “backpacks” about the bomb threat at the High Council of Justice.
In 2017 Ablov ruled that an auction to supply backpacks to Avakov’s Interior Ministry was legal, helping to whitewash the minister.
In that year, Avakov’s son Oleksandr and the minister’s ex-deputy, Serhiy Chebotar, were charged by the NABU with embezzling Hr 14 million ($550,000) by supplying overpriced backpacks to the Interior Ministry. Chief Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky’s office, however, closed the case a year later despite published video evidence that shows Chebotar and Oleksandr Avakov discussing the corrupt deal.
According to the recordings, Vovk and Ablov also discussed interfering in a decision not to hire Ablov as a State Investigation Bureau official. Specifically, they discuss influencing the Kyiv Administrative District Court judge who was considering canceling the decision and threatening the judge with a criminal case if he does not agree.
“The (State Investigation Bureau) commission is controlled by Avakov’s people,” Vovk said. “I reached an agreement with Avakov. So tell him to issue a ruling, and it won’t be appealed.”
Four sources at the NABU and the Prosecutor General’s Office told the Kyiv Post that Zelensky’s former chief of staff Andriy Bohdan is also mentioned in the Vovk tapes. Specifically, one of the sources said that Vovk talked about vacationing with Bohdan in June 2019.
It is not clear if Bohdan, who did not respond to a request for comment, is mentioned in other contexts. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press.
According to the tapes, in April 2019 Vovk was also trying to organize a court decision based on a fake lawsuit to ban top government officials, including Poroshenko, from leaving Ukraine.
“Fuck (former High Qualification Commission Head Serhiy) Kozyakov, fuck (ex-High Council of Justice Chief Ihor) Benedysyuk, fuck the Supreme Court and all that shit, except for Hranovsky of course,” Ablov said in a reference to the lawsuit.
In August 2019, the Prosecutor General’s Office charged Vovk and other judges of his court with obstructing the work of the High Qualification Commission of Judges, issuing unlawful rulings and unlawfully interfering in the work of other judges.
In 2019, prosecutors applied to extend the pre-trial investigation period by three months. However, Kyiv’s Shevchenkivsky Court rejected their motion and ordered the Prosecutor General’s Office to either close the case against the judges or send it to trial within five days. The prosecutors did not send it to trial, and the case stalled indefinitely after that.
In June the Constitutional Court made it even harder to try Vovk by canceling the law criminalizing unlawful rulings.
However, the deadline for sending the old case to a court does not apply to the new charges against the judges announced in July, and the new case may be sent to trial.
Two sources at the NABU and the Prosecutor General’s Office told the Kyiv Post that Deputy Prosecutor General Andriy Lyubovich is facing pressure from Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova for authorizing the new charges. The Prosecutor General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Lyubovich has been stripped of oversight over cases into murders of protesters during the 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution and over the State Investigation Bureau, according to the sources. He was also deprived of the authority to register criminal cases and kicked out of the Vovk investigation group, the sources said.
Prosecutors in the Vovk case were threatened with dismissal if they went ahead with searches at Vovk’s court, one of the sources said. Venediktova is also dragging her feet on applying to suspend Vovk and the other judges, and it’s not clear if she will do that, the source added.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press.
“The Vovk tapes are not just about Vovk and his court but about the whole judiciary, which is rotten at its core,” Halia Chyzhyk, a judicial expert at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, said on Facebook. “The judiciary’s lack of reaction to this horror film only confirms this.”