US slams lack of rule of law, stalled EuroMaidan cases in Ukraine
Meanwhile, the suspicious circumstances of the arrest and hasty deportation of two Turkish nationals ...
Activists block entrance to the Lukyanovsky pre-trial detention center to stop the release of former Berkut officers suspected of murdering protesters by the Kyiv Court of Appeal on Dec. 28, 2019.
The U.S. Department of State has criticized a continued absence of rule of law in Ukraine and called out alleged sabotage of investigations into the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution.
The State Department made the comments in its 2019 country report, published on March 11. It also mentioned problems with freedom of speech, torture, arbitrary arrests and other human rights violations.
“While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary,” the report states, “courts were inefficient and remained vulnerable to political pressure and corruption.”
No rule of law
Despite efforts to reform the judiciary and the Prosecutor General’s Office, “corruption among judges and prosecutors remained endemic,” the State Department wrote.
“Civil society groups continued to complain about weak separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches of government,” the department said. “Some judges claimed that high-ranking politicians pressured them to decide cases in their favor, regardless of the merits. Some judges and prosecutors reportedly took bribes in exchange for legal determinations.”
Last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky initiated a judicial reform with the ostensible aim of firing tainted judges and creating credible judicial institutions. However, the High Council of Justice, the judiciary’s highest governing body, failed to create the two commissions that would have led the reforms by deadlines set under the law.
Civic activists have urged Zelensky to submit a bill to resolve the situation and re-launch the reform, but this has not happened.
On March 12, the Constitutional Court dealt a final blow to the reform, declaring most of the law unconstitutional.
“The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine noted little progress had been made in investigating the killings of EuroMaidan protesters,” the report continued.
“Human rights groups criticized the low number of convictions despite the existence of considerable evidence. A Feb. 19 statement by Amnesty International alleged that law enforcement bodies ‘resisted and obstructed justice’ in relation to EuroMaidan cases,” it said.
The Department of State also noted that the Prosecutor General’s Office had dissolved two units within the Special Investigation Department responsible for EuroMaidan cases.
“Human rights experts saw the decision as another step endangering investigations into EuroMaidan-related crimes,” the department said. “On Oct. 28, human rights groups and families of the victims released a joint statement expressing their fear that investigations into the killings will be further delayed or halted altogether.”
Lawyers for EuroMaidan protesters have also lambasted ex-Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka and acting State Investigation Bureau Chief Iryna Venedyktova for firing trustworthy investigators and prosecutors in charge of EuroMaidan cases, including Sergii Gorbatuk, and appointing discredited ones in their stead. On Jan. 20, Venedyktova appointed Oleksandr Babikov, ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s former defense lawyer, as the first deputy head of the bureau.
The main EuroMaidan case, which investigates the murder of 48 protesters in a single day in February 2014, collapsed after five ex-police officers on trial were released by the Kyiv Court of Appeals in December as part of a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia’s proxies in the Donbas.
Vitaliy Tytych, one of the EuroMaidan lawyers, said he would file a formal complaint to initiate an investigation into crimes that he claims may have been committed by Zelensky, Riaboshapka and the court as part of the suspects’ release. Such crimes could include unlawful interference with the judiciary and prosecutors, aiding the escape of fugitives and the issuing of an unlawful court ruling, he added.
Zelensky, Riaboshapka and the court did not respond to requests for comment on the issue. The Prosecutor General’s Office has denied accusations of blocking EuroMaidan cases.
The Department of State also highlighted reports “that state actors ordered or took part in targeted attacks on civil society activists and journalists in connection with their work, which in some cases resulted in death,” specifically referencing the murder of Kherson-based whistleblower Kateryna Gandziuk.
Gandziuk died in November 2018 after being attacked with acid in July 2018.
In June 2019, a court sentenced five alleged perpetrators of the crime to prison terms ranging from three to six years as a result of a plea bargain. Gandziuk’s supporters saw the bargain as an attempt to let the organizers escape punishment.
Businessman Oleksiy Levin (Moskalenko); Vladyslav Manger, a former member of ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party; and Igor Pavlovsky, an aide to Mykola Palamarchuk, an ex-lawmaker from ex-President Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc, have been charged with ordering the attack on Gandziuk. They deny the charges.
Gandziuk’s father Viktor and the “Who Murdered Katya Gandziuk?” group of activists have also said that ex-Kherson Oblast Governor Andriy Hordeyev and his ex-deputy Yevhen Ryshchuk are implicated in the murder. They have not been formally charged and deny the accusations.
The Department of State said that Russia’s proxies in the Donbas “suppressed freedom of speech and the press through harassment, intimidation, abductions and assaults on journalists and media outlets.”
“With some exceptions, individuals in areas under government control could generally criticize the government publicly and privately and discuss matters of public interest without fear of official reprisal,” the department said.
However, the department said that, according to Institute of Mass Information, “as of September 1, there had been 20 reports of attacks on journalists, including one killing during the year, compared with 22 cases and no killings during the same period in 2018.”
The department mentioned an attack by government officials in March 2019 on Radio Liberty investigative reporter Kateryna Kaplyuk and camera operator Borys Trotsenko. It also noted a court ruling to grant prosecutors access to internal documents and email correspondence of the independent news outlet Novoye Vremya.
“Human rights organizations frequently criticized the government for taking an overly broad approach to banning books, television shows, websites and other content,” the department added.
It also said that the authorities had used libel lawsuits to intimidate the press, citing a lawsuit by Zelensky’s ex-Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Schemes show.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights “did not note any progress in the investigation and legal proceedings in connection with the 2014 trade union building fire in Odesa that stemmed from violent clashes between pro-Russian and Ukrainian unity demonstrators.”
Forty-eight people died during those clashes. As of Aug. 15, preliminary hearings had begun against three high-ranking Odesa police officers and two officials charged with abuse of authority, forgery and dereliction of duty in connection with the event.
The department also criticized Ukrainian authorities’ cooperation with authoritarian governments to target dissidents. It cited reports “that state agents abducted and deported without due process foreign citizens whose return was allegedly sought by their governments.”
On Dec. 12, Azerbaijani blogger Elvin Isayev was extradited from Ukraine to Azerbaijan for allegedly violating migration laws, the department said. On September 10, before Isayev arrived in Ukraine, the European Court of Human Rights invoked Rule 39 to halt his extradition from Russia to Azerbaijan after his Russian citizenship was revoked.
Meanwhile, the suspicious circumstances of the arrest and hasty deportation of two Turkish nationals — journalist Yusuf Inan and businessman Salih Zeki Yigit — from Ukraine in July 2018 sparked outrage from human rights organizations.
In 2017, seven associates of Mikheil Saakashvili, who formerly served as president of Georgia and governor of Odesa Oblast, were also deported to Georgia by Ukrainian authorities without court warrants. Some of the Georgians claimed they had been beaten. Under Ukrainian law, deportation without a court warrant is illegal.
In February 2018, Saakashvili himself was deported without a court warrant. He returned to Ukraine after Zelensky restored his Ukrainian citizenship in May 2019 and, in February 2020, the State Investigation Bureau charged former border guards with his unlawful deportation.
By Oleg Sukhov