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Watchdogs say Ukraine’s judicial reform on brink of catastrophe

by Oleg Sukhov June 24, 2022 11:00 PM 4 min read
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Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption watchdogs issued a statement on June 24 saying that the Ethics Council, the judicial reform's main body, has undermined trust in the process by approving tainted candidates for top jobs and vetoing an anti-corruption crusader.

“Since the Ethics Council’s decisions are concealed and there is no public communication of the motives for such decisions, the Ethics Council jeopardizes the trust in the reform’s results,” the Anti-Corruption Action Center, Dejure and AutoMaidan said in a joint statement.

The watchdogs lambasted the Ethics Council for destroying transparency. The council has banned broadcasts of its interviews with candidates, citing alleged security risks due to the ongoing Russian invasion.

According to the three organizations, the Ethics Council’s decisions may lead to “catastrophic” results both for judicial reform and Ukraine’s European integration prospects. Judicial reform is a key requirement for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.

Two civil society activists, who spoke with the Kyiv Independent on conditions of anonymity, said the Ethics Council has decided not to communicate with the civil society in an alleged effort to prevent external influence. As a result, it has come under the influence of corrupt actors, the two said.

Lavly Perling, one of the foreign members of the Ethics Council, denied the accusations of wrongdoing.

“All Ethics Council arguments concerning the candidates will be set out in the decisions, which will be published on the website,” she said.

“The Ethics Council’s views on why real-time broadcasts are not currently available have also been repeatedly explained and published. Transparency is a value for the Ethics Council, but it is also the council’s responsibility to ensure the safety of candidates and their family members. All interviews are recorded and will be published after the martial law.”

The Ethics Council comprises three Ukrainian judges and three foreign experts. Four members are needed to approve a decision. If the vote is split equally, the foreign members’ opinion prevails.

The foreign experts include British judge Anthony Hooper, U.S. judge Robert Cordy, and Lavly Perling, an ex-prosecutor general of Estonia.

The council’s task is to select members of the High Council of Justice, the judiciary’s highest governing body, based on ethics and integrity standards.

Tainted candidates

In May, the Ethics Council approved the candidacies of incumbent High Council of Justice members – Inna Plakhtiy, Oksana Blazhivska, and Vitaly Salikhov – claiming that they meet integrity standards.

AutoMaidan, Dejure, and the Anti-Corruption Action Center said that these candidates had violated asset declaration rules, refused to punish numerous judges implicated in corruption, and persecuted whistleblowers and anti-corruption crusaders. They have also voted for appointing tainted judges recognized by civic watchdog Public Integrity Council as not meeting integrity standards.

Specifically, Plakhtiy has refused to open probes against Pavlo Vovk, the head of the Kyiv District Administrative Court. Blazhivska has refused to open a probe against Vovk’s deputy Pavlo Ablov, while Salikhov has refused to initiate a probe against another judge of Vovk’s court, Kyrylo Garnyk.

Meanwhile, Blazhivska's sister Natalia used to be a judge at the Kyiv District Administrative Court herself under Vovk’s leadership.

Vovk, who has been charged in two corruption cases, has become a symbol of lawlessness and impunity in Ukraine. Ablov and other judges of his court also face corruption charges.

Blazhivska, Salikhov, and Plakhtiy have also been implicated in other wrongdoings, according to the anti-corruption watchdogs. They did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2015, Plakhtiy was investigated in a bribery case at the Lutsk city court. She says the case has been closed.

In 2011 she also issued a ruling despite having a conflict of interest. Her daughter Kateryna Trots was a representative of the plaintiff.

Blazhivska became a judge in 2010 after her father became a deputy of pro-Kremlin Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka, an ally of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych and a suspect in a corruption case. Previously, her sister Natalia Blazhivska has admitted that her father had helped her become a judge.

On June 23, the Ethics Council also approved the candidacies of lawyer Vyacheslav Talko and judge Olena Zaichko. The anti-corruption watchdogs say they also have violated asset declaration rules and do not meet ethics and integrity standards. They did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Talko may have top-level political protection since he has co-founded firms with several members of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team, the anti-corruption watchdogs said.

In 2020, Zaichko also issued a ruling in favor of a firm investigated for unlawful acquisition of land plots in collusion with Kharkiv’s authorities. Immediately after the ruling, her children got an apartment free of charge from Kharkiv City Hall.

Whistleblower judge

While tainted candidates were greenlighted by the Ethics Council, a well-known anti-corruption crusader was not, watchdogs say.

On June 23, the Ethics Council vetoed Larysa Golnyk, a judge at Poltava’s Oktyabrsky Court, claiming that she does not meet integrity standards.

The Ethics Council has not yet published its reasons for vetoing Golnyk. Perling from the Ethics Council told the Kyiv Independent that the motives for the decision would be published on June 24.

Golnyk, Ukraine’s most famous whistleblower judge, has become a symbol of integrity for civil society watchdogs.

In 2015, Golnyk published video footage featuring Poltava Mayor Oleksandr Mamai pressuring her to close a corruption case against him. She also published footage of his deputy, Dmytro Trikhna, unsuccessfully trying to bribe her in exchange for closing the case. They deny the accusations of wrongdoing.

Trikhna was sentenced to a two-year suspended term in January, while Mamai remains unpunished.

Golnyk has also accused Oleksandr Strukov, an ex-chairman of her Oktyabrsky Court, of pressuring and physically assaulting her in connection with the Mamai case, which Strukov denies.

Golnyk was also beaten by unknown men in 2017 in what she sees as revenge for her whistleblowing campaign. The police have failed to identify the attackers.

“For many Ukrainians (Golnyk) has become the symbol of honesty, resilience and zero tolerance for any manifestations of corruption," Dejure, AutoMaidan, and the Anti-Corruption Action Center said. “We believe that this decision by the Ethics Council is absolutely mistaken and kills the trust in the process and results of the Ethics Council’s work. It demotivates those who publicly fight corruption in the courts and motivates those who keep silent about it.”

Golnyk is skeptical about the prospects of judicial reform. She believes that a lack of transparency has led to disappointing results.

“The philosophy of the judicial reform was to appoint people who would come to (the High Council of Justice) to break the system,” she told the Kyiv Independent. “Agents of change were needed. But we have not achieved and will not achieve this.”

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