A woman leaves the offices of the Ukrainian General Prosecutor in Kiev, Ukraine.
A woman leaves the offices of the Ukrainian General Prosecutor in Kiev, Ukraine. © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Ukraine: Fighting Judicial Corruption in Wartime

Strenuous efforts continue to address long-time situation in which judges were elected with no competition or integrity checks. 

Thursday, 15 June, 2023

Ukrainian anti-corruption authorities say that the ongoing war has not impeded their fight against graft in the judicial system, one of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s key election pledges and an issue central to EU accession.

In the most recent high-profile case,  National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) detectives last month detained Supreme Court chairman Vsevolod Knyazev and lawyer Oleh Horetskyi on suspicion of accepting bribes amounting to 2.7 million US dollars.

NABU head Semen Kryvonos described Knyazev’s arrest as "the biggest exposure of the highest official in the judicial branch of power" in Ukraine since the anti-corruption drive began. 

Strenuous efforts have been made in recent years to address a long-time situation in which judges were elected by their peers without any competition or checks on their integrity. 

Driven by the demands of the 2014 revolution to cleanse the public sector of corruption, the administration of then-president Petro Poroshenko began judicial reforms resulting in the launch of a new Supreme Court at the end of 2017.

It was not well-received, with activists noting that many veteran judges with ambiguous reputations joined the new court. 

With the exception of the launch of the High Anti-Corruption Court, other plans  - including a qualification assessment of all judges -  were not completed before Zelensky was elected in 2019. He in turn began fresh reforms, including a competition to elect a new High Qualification Commission of Judges (HQCJ), one of the main bodies of judicial governance in Ukraine. 

However, the ongoing conflict inevitably disrupted the pace of reform and affected work in progres. After the full-scale invasion began, the HQCJ and High Council of Justice (HCJ), ceased functioning. These bodies select, appoint and dismiss judges, as well as bringing them to disciplinary measures. (Several of their powers, including the transfer of judges from occupied regions or those experiencing active conflict - as well as changing the jurisdiction of courts - were transferred to Knyazev as head of the Supreme Court.)

The High Council of Justice was able to resume work in January this year, relaunched by a congress of judges which re-elected its eight members.  This meant that they were able to appoint the 16 members of the HQCJ, from a field of candidates selected by a commission divided between Ukrainian and foreign judges and lawyers. This in turn opens the way for the pressing need to complete evaluations and appoint more than 2,500 judges who are still needed for the justice system to fully function.

As the judicial reforms continue, the conflict has also affected the practical work of anti-corruption bodies.

"In the beginning, there was a perception that maybe [because] the war had started the level of corruption in Ukraine would decrease, but we see that this has not happened,” said Volodymyr Vasylchuk, head of the detective department of the NABU. “Those who made money through corruption, who had access to power and got rich because of it, also used the war to make money because during martial law, many decisions are made according to a simplified procedure - purchases, transfer of property, etc. And therefore, the transparency of these procedures decreases. That's why we have more work.” 

The war has also impacted on the staffing levels in anti-corruption institutions. NABU detectives, together with prosecutors from the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAP), agree on investigative actions and refer cases to court. However, immediately after the full-scale invasion, a number of NABU detectives and 13 out of 57 SAP prosecutors joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. This has led to an increased burden on those involved in investigations.

Meanwhile, Vasylchuk noted that the war had also given some suspects in corruption cases the opportunity to evade responsibility. Some left the country before the full-scale invasion and still have not returned, while others were serving in the armed forces.

"During the hearings, the High Anti-Corruption Court gives the participants of the court process, including suspects or accused persons, the opportunity to participate using their own technical tools, for example, to connect to the court via video link from a phone. Some, really, are obliged to return to Ukraine, and in case of non-compliance with this decision, they are wanted.

“In addition, there are those who try to cover up [by the fact] that they serve in the Armed Forces, although in some cases they are actually somewhere far from the front lines or refer to the fact that the commander allegedly does not allow them to attend court hearings,” Vasylchuk continued. “I think there will also be manipulations along the lines of, ‘I fought, I defended you, and you want to put me in prison.’ But it will be necessary to deal with each such fact separately.”

SAP head, Oleksandr Klymenko, who was approved by the prosecutor general last summer, emphasised that nonetheless, since the start of the full-scale invasion, the prosecutor's office had handed over 99 indictments to the court and, together with NABU, informed more than 250 people of suspicions against them. 

Among them were the former head of the State Property Fund, the deputy minister of infrastructure, officials of Ukrnafta - the largest oil and gas production company of Ukraine - the head of the Supreme Court and a former deputy who is suspected of offering a bribe to the mayor of Dnipro, the former head of the Asset Recovery and Management Agency (ARMA). 

He said that the impact of publicising potential corruption on Ukraine’s image was not  a factor.

"We strive for transparency, if excessive communication does not harm the case," Klymenko said, adding,”In Ukrainian society, there is a high demand for the fight against corruption. 

And as surveys show, it is during wartime that our society sees corruption as the main internal enemy that can hinder our victory. That is why stopping criminal schemes, prosecuting those involved persons in such schemes by law, returning funds to the budget, on the contrary, has a positive effect on the country's reputation - both in the eyes of its own citizens and our international partners." 

Vasylchuk agreed that the facts of corruption harmed the country's image much more than the dissemination of information about high-profile detentions. 

"Any process of cleansing is difficult,” he continued. “But at present, all understand that there is no caste of untouchables in the country.”

Vasylchuk said that the main task for the NABU and SAP in the coming years would be control over the use of funds allocated for the reconstruction of Ukraine. 

"Foreign donors want the funds they allocate to be spent as intended, not to be stolen,” he said. “Of course, there will be such facts - there are practically no completely honest countries, but there must be mechanisms so that these cases can be detected and investigated, and the guilty persons brought to justice."

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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