What Ukraine's Supreme Court bribery scandal means

Ukrainian authorities have cracked down on corruption at the highest level of the country's judiciary

Ukraine Supreme Court
Ukraine Supreme Court
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DW

It could be the largest case of bribery that Ukraine's judiciary has ever seen.

On May 16, Supreme Court Chairman Vsevolod Kniaziev and another unnamed court representative were convicted of corruption amounting to $2.7 million (around €2.5 million) by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office of Ukraine (SAP).

Both have since been arrested and face eight to 12 years in prison if found guilty.

According to NABU Director Semen Kryvonos, the case involves judges, the leadership of the Supreme Court and intermediaries from the Finance and Credit group of companies owned by billionaire and former parliamentarian Kostiantyn Zhevago, who is currently abroad.

Zhevago's press office said that he had nothing to do with the case. But the anti-corruption watchdog said in a statement that "as a result of complex operational and technical measures, NABU obtained information about the contacts between a businessman, the owner of the Finance and Credit group, and a lawyer, the head of a bar association. During the investigation, it was revealed that the bar association was used to conceal criminal activities. Under the guise of legal services, members of the group arranged with judges about rulings in favor of their "clients" (individuals or legal entities) for a certain 'reward'."

NABU did not disclose which lawyers' association was involved.

Millions for a favorable ruling?

A court hearing scheduled for March 15 was postponed "to gain time for the accumulation of certain funds and to reach agreements," NABU director Kryvonos said. The mediators were to collect $900,000, and representatives of the Supreme Court were to collect about $1.8 million — all from Zhevago.

Then, on April 19, the Supreme Court reached a verdict in favor of the entrepreneur, revalidating a 2002 contract. It concerned the purchase and sale of 40.19% of the shares in a mining combine in Ukraine's Poltava region, owned by Zhevago's Ferrexpo, the country's largest exporter of iron ore pellets. The shares in the combine were to be transferred to four companies of former shareholders.

On May 3, the parties involved reportedly received the first tranche of their illegal "reward," followed by a second tranche on May 15.

"The leadership of the Supreme Court was caught in the act," NABU Director Kryvonos said, adding that investigators found a substantial amount of money while searching the suspects' apartments, homes and offices, "proving the activities of this criminal organization."

NABU and SAP also presented recordings of conversations between the suspects, which they collected in a YouTube video summary of the case.

Officials stressed that although only two people have so far been arrested, other judges potentially involved remain under investigation. SAP head Oleksandr Klymenko also said that the crimes uncovered in this operation could be part of an even larger corruption network in the courts.

Chief justice removed

The Supreme Court convened a meeting in Kyiv on May 16, at which the justices said they were "shocked" by the investigation. They pledged to act in accordance with the "principle of self-purification" and to handle all necessary measures.

Additionally, 140 of the 142 judges present expressed their no-confidence in the court's chairman, Vsevolod Kniaziev, via secret ballot. Until a new chairman is elected, Dmytro Luspenchyk, the judge with the longest tenure, will perform his duties.

Hope in further reforms

"I am surprised by how many people seem amazed that there is bribery in the Supreme Court," Mykhailo Zhernakov, head of Ukraine's DEJURE Foundation, a civic organization that promotes the rule of law and reforms in the justice system, told DW.

He also sits on the Public Integrity Council, one of two entities in the country that determines judicialeligibility for candidates by evaluating their ethics and integrity.

"We at the Public Integrity Council, which has been closely monitoring the Supreme Court's staffing, have always pointed this out, as early as 2017," Zhernakov added.

Despite such complaints about the lack of integrity among judges, the High Qualification Commission of Judges, which decides on appointments to the court, has not wanted to acknowledge this situation, he said. Zhernakov also pointed out that 12 of the 18 judges who voted in favor of the Zhevago case verdict in April were rated negatively in terms of integrity.

"I don't want to say that all 18 who passed this verdict are corrupt. But in order for a verdict to be steered in a certain direction, you need a majority to vote for it," he added.

Kateryna Ryzhenko of anti-corruption NGO Transparency International Ukraine believes that the Knyazyev case is a serious blow to Ukraine, including in terms of judicial reform.

"I would not say that this is the end of reforms, because this case is a positive indicator of work by the country's anti-corruption authorities," she told DW, adding that authorities are investigating despite Russia's war of aggression on Ukraine and are not afraid to take action even against officials as high-ranking as Supreme Court judges. "This is exactly the system of checks and balances we have been talking about for years," Ryzhenko said.

Ukraine hopes to join both NATO and the European Union, both of which will require a massive reduction in corruption in the country, which ranks quite low on global indices. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself ran for office on an anti-corruption and reform platform.

In light of this bribery case, the selection process for Supreme Court judges should be reviewed, Ryzhenko added. "This is another confirmation that reforms, especially judicial reform, must continue."

That's because independent courts will also play a crucial role in the country's post-war reconstruction, she said.

"This is what the society in the country expects, in addition to our foreign partners. If we want big international financial injections for reconstruction, we need to show that our judiciary is capable of punishing all the violations of those who greedily grab large sums of money coming to Ukraine."

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.

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