Halyna Chyzhyk: Is Zelensky involved in covering up corrupt judges?
By Halyna Chyzhyk.
On July 17, the detectives of the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) conducted searches on the premises of the notorious District administrative court of Kyiv (OASK). The same day NABU published a new portion of the recordings of the head of court Pavlo Vovk. The recordings reveal large-scale crimes supposedly committed by judges. However, instead of immediate suspension of judges from the office and public condemnation of such behavior, the High Council of Justice (HCJ), which is the main judicial governance body in Ukraine, stands up for dubious judges. Moreover, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova sabotages the investigation, while the Office of President Volodymyr Zelensky makes very poor statements on the case.
OASK judges conversations when no one listens
NABU suspects OASK judges in a series of crimes. In particular, the creation of a criminal group, bribery, taking illegal decisions, creation of artificial obstacles in the activity of judicial governance. Official charges were announced to the head of court Pavlo Vovk, his deputy Eugeny Ablov, judges Bogdan Sanin, Volodymyr Keleberda, Ihor Kachur, Oleksii Ogurtsov, and Ihor Pogribnichenko. The head of State Judicial Administration (SJA), a former higher court judge, and a former member of the High Qualification Commission of Judges are also suspects in the case.
According to the investigation, the group planned to seize state power. This may seem surreal until one listens to the recordings published by the NABU. In his cabinet, Vovk with others in detail discusses how the court’s authority can be used in judges` interests and in the interests of politicians and oligarchs. For instance, there is one episode where Vovk supposedly discusses the idea of making a decision about the absence of a coalition in Ukraine’s parliament – as a revenge to former President Poroshenko and as a gift to newly elected Zelensky. In another conversation, Vovk allegedly boasts that he stands behind the Constitutional Court decision which canceled criminal responsibility for illicit enrichment.
Vovk with others tried to avoid qualification assessment by undermining the authority of the High Qualification Commission of Judges (HQCJ) members. In exchange for the appointment of new HQCJ members loyal to OASK, they helped the head of SJA Mr Kholodniuk to keep his office. On August 3, the High Anticorruption Court chose a measure of restraint to Kholodniuk. One of the key pieces of evidence brought to court by prosecutors is the forensic report proving that the voice recorded by NABU really belongs to Pavlo Vovk.
However, in this situation it is not even the content of the tapes that is as shocking, but the appalling non-existent reaction to it by the rest of the judiciary. I have not seen a public statement condemning, or, at least, criticizing the alleged crimes and corrupt practices of OASK judges revealed by the NABU. Almost all judges, with some exceptions, continue to keep silence and pretend as if it is not their business. The High Council of Justice even went further by making a public statement accusing NABU in a smear campaign against the judiciary. In other words, according to the HCJ, Ukrainian judiciary is jeopardized not by the OASK judges but by the NABU. The relevant position was unanimously approved at the HCJ hearing on July, 23.
So, why does HCJ cover dishonest judges? The answer lies in the content of the recordings. At least three members of the HCJ appear in the case – Pavlo Hrechkivskii, Oleg Prudyvus and Victor Hryschuk. According to published extracts of the recordings, Vovk communicated with them and discussed the future decisions of the HCJ. In particular, Vovk supposedly suggested Hrechkivkii to organize a “coalition” within HCJ to sabotage the appointment of some of the Supreme Court judges. All three HCJ members were invited to be questioned to the prosecutor’s office. Although it is not clear whether other HCJ members have a relation to the case, but they all stand for each other and for OASK.
Importantly, there is clear evidence that the investigation of the case is sabotaged by the Prosecutor General’s Office. The prosecutor who authorized searches was removed from the case the next day after public announcement. The group of prosecutors leading the case in SAPO was replaced too. The person who stands behind these decisions is Prosector General Iryna Venediktova. Moreover, Venediktova had been refusing to sign a plea to suspend the OASK judges for almost a month.
Even more concerning is a recording published two weeks ago by Censor.Net news agency. According to the recording, the head of a department in the Prosecutor General’s Office in the name of Venediktova tried to convince prosecutors running the case to cancel searches in OASK. Although NABU conducted searches, it seems OASK judges had been informed of it as detectives found a note saying “empty is empty” in the safe.
It looks like Zelensky joined the dark side. The President’s Office broke the silence by providing a poor response to the journalist’s request. In the response, it refers to the presumption of innocence and states there are no grounds for liquidation of the court. However, the presumption of innocence did not prevent Zelensky from accusing Andrii Antonenko and Yulia Kuzmenko of the murder of Pavlo Sheremet during the briefing on a case in December 2019. In the light of Zelensky’s election promises to dismiss corrupt judges on a daily basis, this response looks especially miserable. Of course, no one expects the President to send judges to jail but he could send a simple message to the public that such behavior will not be tolerated and, if proven guilty, the judges should be sentenced.
But the absence of Zelensky’s reaction to the recordings proving that Venediktova`s subordinate tried to disrupt searches is concerning too. Zelensky is the only person having political control over Venediktova. He supported the dismissal of Rouslan Riaboshapka from the office and ensured her appointment. Should this be interpreted as Zelensky being personally interested in covering the OASK? Meanwhile, now the OASK is considering a claim to cancel the registration of the Servants of People political party. From the recordings published by NABU we know that such a claim is an instrument used by the OASK to blackmail public officials. One should not forget that Ukraine will soon have local elections in autumn, and the OASK will consider cases in that regard.
In any case, the longer Zelensky ignores the seriousness of the situation, the harsher consequences he will suffer. The OASK case is not only about OASK – NABU recordings prove that the whole judiciary is controlled. In 2017, OASK should have been liquidated as other local courts but at the last moment Poroshenko deleted OASK from the presidential decree on liquidation. In 2019, during the last month of Poroshenko’s presidency, OASK took numerous decisions against Poroshenko. One bright example is the decision regarding the illegality of the nationalization of Privatbank. Thus, Zelensky has all the chances to repeat the fate of his predecessor. Or, he can initiate the long-awaited liquidation of OASK – Zelensky is the only person in the country who can do that according to the law. This will be the strongest signal to law-enforcement bodies, judiciary, Ukraine’s Western partners, and, of course, Ukrainian society whose hunger for justice has not been fulfilled since the Revolution of Dignity.
Halyna Chyzhyk is an expert on the judiciary at the Anti-Corruption Action Center.