Thursday, December 1, 2022

New top prosecutor accused of sabotaging graft cases, persecuting opposition

by Oleg SukhovJuly 23, 2022 9:39 pm
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New top prosecutor accused of sabotaging graft cases, persecuting oppositionDeputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko attends a meeting of the heads of law enforcement agencies in Kyiv, on June 1, 2021. (UNIAN)

Oleksiy Symonenko, who became acting prosecutor general on July 17, may be formally appointed as the prosecutor general by the Verkhovna Rada next week, with his past record suggesting he values loyalty to the presidential administration more than being effective on the job.

“He’s as loyal to the authorities as possible,” Oleksandr Lemenov, head of anti-corruption watchdog StateWatch, told the Kyiv Independent. “Whenever (President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy) Yermak needs something, Symonenko does it.”

Lemenov's words are echoed by a number of Ukrainian civil activists and anti-corruption watchdogs. Symonenko has a long track record of going after the opposition.

When he was a top official at Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) under pro-Kremlin ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, he went after Yanukovych’s main political opponent, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The European Union eventually ruled criminal cases against Tymoshenko to be politically motivated prosecution by the Yanukovych regime.

Under the current administration, Symonenko spearheaded a case against ex-President Petro Poroshenko, seen as Zelensky's main political rival.

Symonenko has also helped destroy a corruption case against Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff Oleh Tatarov, signing an order to transfer the case from the independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine to the presidentially controlled Security Service.  

“This reshuffle is just an attempt to protect corrupt officials from the future chief anti-corruption prosecutor,” Vitaly Shabunin, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center’s executive board, wrote on Facebook. “It is Symonenko who buried the Tatarov case. And in the same way, he’ll whitewash other allies of the president and Yermak.”

Symonenko did not respond to a request for comment.

Controversies

The official motivation for the dismissal of Symonenko’s superior, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, was that she failed to crack down on law enforcement officials who collaborate with Russia.

However, Symonenko’s credentials are far from impeccable as far as Russia is concerned.

He has been linked to several former allies of pro-Kremlin ex-President Yanukovych. These include Yanukovych’s security chief Valery Khoroshkovsky and Tatarov, a former top police official who was investigated for allegedly helping to crack down on protesters during the 2013-14 EuroMaidan Revolution.

On July 19, Symonenko also re-assigned functions between his deputies and tasked Deputy Prosecutor General Maksym Yakubovsky, a former lawyer and associate of pro-Kremlin lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk, with prosecuting war crimes.

Meanwhile, Symonenko’s asset declarations have raised questions on whether his family could afford to buy considerable assets.

Symonenko owns a 2,500-square-meter land plot in Kyiv Oblast. His wife owns a 640-square-meter house in Kozyn, a high-end suburb of Kyiv, four land plots in Kyiv Oblast, a 128-square-meter apartment in a high-end neighborhood in Kyiv, and a Mercedes S-Class Coupe.

She has also declared Hr 4.1 million ($110,000) in cash, and a Hr 8 million ($220,000) loan from a friend.

Role in Tymoshenko case

Yet, the biggest question about Symonenko is his past record of allegedly politically motivated prosecutions.

Symonenko has been investigated for his possible role in fabricating a 2012 criminal case against Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s main political foe, and ex-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, former top investigator Sergii Gorbatuk told the Kyiv Independent. Gorbatuk was in charge of the investigation into the allegedly fabricated case.

Symonenko, 45, worked as a prosecutor from 1998-2010. In 2010 he started working at the SBU, which was headed by Yanukovych-backed Khoroshkovsky. Under Khoroshkovsky, Symonenko was appointed as the first deputy head of the SBU’s investigative department.

SBU investigators working under Symonenko’s leadership sought to have Tymoshenko and Lazarenko convicted for alleged embezzlement of state funds.

They accused Lazarenko of providing state guarantees for the Hr 3.1 billion ($405 million) debt of United Energy Systems of Ukraine, a private gas trader, to Russia’s Defense Ministry.

He allegedly provided them in a letter to Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin during Lazarenko’s premiership back in 1996-1997. At that time, United Energy Systems of Ukraine was headed by Tymoshenko.

However, the accusations were false because there were no debt guarantees in Lazarenko’s letter, and he did not have the authority to provide them anyway, Gorbatuk argued.

To make the case against Lazarenko and Tymoshenko stronger, the investigators allegedly colluded with courts to force the Ukrainian government to pay the debt to Russia’s Defense Ministry, according to Gorbatuk.

In 2012 several judges upheld the Russian debt claim against the Ukrainian government despite the fact that it had been previously rejected by Ukrainian courts.

Of the total amount, the Ukrainian government paid Hr 32 million ($4 million) to Russia before the whole Hr 3.1 billion claim was canceled as unlawful by the Kyiv Commercial Court in 2014. Meanwhile, the embezzlement case did not make it to trial. 

In 2018, Gorbatuk drafted charges against the four judges who upheld the Russian debt claim. They were accused of embezzling Ukrainian state funds by helping the Yanukovych administration fabricate the case against Lazarenko and Tymoshenko.

However, Anzhela Stryzhevska, who was a deputy of then-Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko, refused to authorize the charges. Gorbatuk was fired in 2019 before he could complete the investigation.

The Kyiv Independent has obtained a copy of a draft of the charges for one of the judges and Gorbatuk’s letter to Stryzhevska on the issue. Stryzhevska did not respond to a request for comment.

The debt guarantee case is just one among many investigations launched against Tymoshenko under Yanukovych.

In 2011, Tymoshenko was sentenced to a 7-year jail term on abuse of office charges in another case. Since then, this case has been recognized as unlawful political persecution by both the Ukrainian and European authorities.  

Sabotaging case of Oleh Tatarov

Symonenko worked at the SBU until 2019. He became a deputy of Prosecutor General Venediktova in March 2020.

His most famous debacle on the job is his role in the sabotage of a corruption case against Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff Tatarov.

Tatarov is seen by anti-corruption activists as a symbol of lawlessness, who was publicly protected by Zelensky during several briefings. The president has repeatedly refused to fire him despite mounting evidence of wrongdoing.

In December 2020, Tatarov was charged by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) with giving an Hr 250,000 ($10,000) bribe to a forensic expert on behalf of ex-lawmaker Maksym Mykytas in 2017. Mykytas was a suspect in an embezzlement case, and Tatarov was allegedly helping to whitewash him through a fake forensic assessment. Tatarov denied the accusations. 

However, the Tatarov case was effectively destroyed by the Prosecutor General’s Office, the SBU, and the courts.

In December 2020, Symonenko used a court ruling as a pretext to transfer the Tatarov case from the independent NABU to the politically subservient SBU. The NABU believes the transfer of the Tatarov case to be unlawful since it is entirely within the bureau’s jurisdiction.

Then Symonenko replaced the group of prosecutors in the Tatarov case in what appeared to be another effort to sabotage it.

In late December 2021 prosecutors reporting to Symonenko refused to arrest Tatarov and claimed that the legal grounds for the charges were not sufficient. The NABU denied this, saying that there was enough evidence to charge him.

Meanwhile, the High Anti-Corruption Court ruled in January 2021 that the case must be investigated by the NABU and instructed Venediktova to consider transferring it back to the bureau. Venediktova refused.

Another effort to block the case happened in February 2021, when a court refused to extend the Tatarov investigation. Prosecutors subordinate to Symonenko effectively buried it by missing the deadline for sending it to trial.

There is evidence that Symonenko had contact with Tatarov during the investigation despite a conflict of interest. In September 2021, Symonenko attended a birthday party held by Tatarov, according to an investigation by the Ukrainska Pravda news website.

"Symonenko's links to Tatarov became absolutely obvious after the Ukrainska Pravda investigation," Vadym Valko, an expert at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, told the Kyiv Independent. 

The Tatarov case was eventually killed in December 2021, when a court ordered prosecutors to close it.

Going after Poroshenko 

In December 2021, Symonenko also signed charges against ex-President Poroshenko, Zelensky’s main political opponent. He was accused of committing treason by organizing coal supplies from Russian-occupied areas in the Donbas in 2014-2015.

Poroshenko’s opponents hailed the case as a triumph of justice since there is public demand for holding the former president and his allies accountable for their alleged wrongdoings. However, others accused the Prosecutor General’s Office of pursuing a political vendetta against Poroshenko in Zelensky’s interests.

Venediktova decided not to sign the notice of suspicion herself in an apparent effort to avoid the accusations of political bias. She took an official day off to allow her deputy Symonenko to take charge of the case.

Since then, the Poroshenko case has seen no progress, and prosecutors have yet to present strong evidence against the ex-president.

Symonenko also supervised the investigation into the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv on July 20, 2016.

The investigation has come under fire because no firm evidence of the suspects’ guilt has been presented, and the suspects have been released from custody. The case has effectively collapsed.

Another case that Symonenko oversaw was against civic activist Serhiy Sternenko. In 2021 he was sentenced to seven years in jail on charges of kidnapping a pro-Russian activist and illegal weapons possession.

The Sternenko trial has triggered a series of protests due to what many saw as an unfair verdict reached with procedural violations and political motives by a controversial judge. Sternenko was later released from jail, and the verdict against him was overturned.

Oleg Sukhov
Oleg Sukhov
Political reporter

Oleg Sukhov is a political reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He is a former editor and reporter at the Moscow Times. He has a master's degree in history from the Moscow State University. He moved to Ukraine in 2014 due to the crackdown on independent media in Russia and covered war, corruption, reforms and law enforcement for the Kyiv Post.

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