It could be the largest uncovered bribery case in Ukrainian judicial history to date. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) and the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Anti-Corruption of Ukraine (SAP) charged Supreme Court Chairman Vsevolod Knyasiev and another representative of the court, whose name is not given, on May 16 of corruption transferred in the amount of approximately 2.7 million dollars.
Both have now been arrested. If convicted, they face eight to twelve years in prison. 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 Ukrainian businessman Kostyantyn Shevago, who is currently abroad.
The Ukrainian anti-corruption authorities have raised serious allegations against Vsevolod Knyasiev, chairman of the Supreme Court
While Schewago let it be known through his press office that he had nothing to do with bribery in the Supreme Court, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) specified its allegations.
“Through the actions taken, we have identified a number of contacts between the owner of the Finance and Credit group and the owner of a lawyers’ association intended to cover up criminal activity. It was agreed that senior court officials would be responsible for a verdict passed the entrepreneur wanted to achieve would be rewarded illegally.” NABU did not say which lawyers’ association it was.
Millions for an ordered judgment?
The court hearing scheduled for March 15 was postponed “to allow time for the accumulation of certain funds and to make arrangements,” Krywonos said. Accordingly, the intermediaries should collect $ 900,000 and representatives of the Supreme Court around $ 1.8 million from Schewago.
Then, on April 19, the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the contractor, reinstating a 2002 contract. He was involved in the purchase and sale of a 40.19 percent stake in a mining combine in Ukraine’s Poltava region owned by Ferrexpo, the country’s largest exporter of iron ore pellets. The combine’s shares were to be transferred to four companies, former shareholders.
On May 3rd, those involved are said to have received the first part and on May 15th the second part of their illegal “reward”. “The leadership of the Supreme Court was caught red-handed,” says NABU Director Krywonos. Investigators found a significant amount of money during searches of the suspects’ apartments, houses and offices and secured evidence “that proves the activities of this criminal organization”.
In addition, representatives of NABU and SAP presented recordings of discussions between those involved. Officials stressed that while only two people have been arrested so far, the involvement of other judges in the case is still under investigation. In addition, SAP CEO Oleksandr Klymenko stated that the crimes uncovered could be part of an even larger corruption network in the courts.
dismissal of the Chief Justice
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court in Kyiv called a session on May 16 where judges said they were “shocked”. They pledged to act according to the “principle of self-purification” and to take all necessary measures.
In addition, 140 of the 142 judges present expressed their distrust in a secret ballot in the chairman of the court, Vsevolod Knyasiev. Pending the election of a new chairman, Dmytro Luspentchyk, the judge with the longest term, will take over the duties.
Hope for further reforms
“I’m surprised how many people are amazed that there is bribery in the Supreme Court. We at the Social Council for Integrity, which has been closely monitoring the appointment of the Supreme Court, have always pointed this out since 2017,” said the head of the Ukrainian DEJURE Foundation Mykhailo Shernakov in an interview with DW.
He reminded that the Public Council had long complained about the lack of integrity of the judges, but the then Supreme Qualification Commission for Ukrainian judges, which decides on the appointment of the court, did not want to see this.
He also pointed out that of the 18 judges who voted in favor of the Schewago case in April, 12 received negative integrity assessments. “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 that votes in favor of it,” stressed Zhernakov.
Kateryna Ryzhenko of Transparency International Ukraine believes that the Knyasiev case is a serious blow to Ukraine, including in terms of judicial reform. “I wouldn’t say that this is the end of the reforms, as this case is a positive indicator of the work of the country’s anti-corruption authorities,” she told DW. The authorities would investigate despite Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine and would not hesitate to take action against high-ranking figures such as Supreme Court judges. “This is exactly the system of checks and balances we’ve been talking about for years,” Ryschenko explained.
She thinks the selection process for Supreme Court judges should be re-examined in light of the recent bribery case. “This is further confirmation that reforms, especially judicial reform, must continue,” Ryzhenko underlined.
Independent courts would also play a very important role in the post-war reconstruction of the country. “That’s what society in the country expects, but also our foreign partners. If we want large international financial injections for reconstruction, then we have to show that our judiciary is able to punish all the violations of those who greedily reach for large sums of money who come to Ukraine.”
Adaptation from the Ukrainian: Markian Ostapchuk.