Outrage in Ukraine as Yanukovych lawyer appointed first deputy head of body investigating Maidan crimes
Iryna Venediktova, Acting Director of Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigations, has spoken of the need to restore public confidence in a state body recently entrusted with around half of the investigations into Maidan crimes. The need is certainly there, but it can hardly be met by an appointment which has aroused consternation and anger among Maidan victims and lawyers.
The rumours at the end of December 2019 that Oleksandr Babikov was likely to be appointed Deputy Director of the State Bureau of Investigations [SBI] have proven well-founded. On 14 January 2020, Venediktova confirmed to the families of slain Maidan activists and lawyers that Babikov would be appointed to the post if recommended by the selection committee and if he successfully passed the special check. She was more than a little sparing with the truth since the committee had clearly already recommended him, and the special check was underway. During the evening of 20 January, she announced that the appointments had been made, with Babikov given the post of First Deputy Director. She chose to express her indignation at the public wave of anger, insisting that the department in charge of Maidan cases is subordinate to the SBI Director, and that “all measures have been taken to avoid a conflict of interests”.
In fact, the only measure seen to date was denial. Concern about the appointment is linked with the fact that Babikov was one of the lawyers who represented former President Viktor Yanukovych in a number of criminal prosecutions, which will now fall under SBI’s jurisdiction.
It seems that the selection commission has found no conflict of interests in Babikov’s role, with the argument appearing to be that he was not Yanukovych’s personal lawyer, and merely acquainted himself with the cases.
Yevhenia Zakrevska from the Advocacy Advisory Panel (of lawyers representing Maidan victims or their families), asserts that this is far from the truth. Yes, Yanukovych’s contract was with Babikov’s firm, Aver Lex, not him personally, however there is ample proof that Babikov was personally involved as Yanukovych’s defence lawyer in at least three criminal prosecutions. These included the prosecution over charges of exceeding power with respect to the violence and killings during the Euromaidan protests.
It is surely not difficult to understand why the families of slain Maidan victims should be outraged by this appointment. The latter have already seen the only serious trial of suspected Maidan killers effectively destroyed through the release of all five suspects as part of the prisoner exchange on 29 December 2019.
Now they see a person whose duties while working for Aver Lex included defending Yanukovych given a role on Maidan investigations, and they do not believe in his objectivity. Volodymyr Holodnyuk, whose young son was killed on Maidan, and who has watched the trial of his son’s suspected killers collapse, says that he is deeply outraged by such an appointment. “If Babikov defended Yanukovych, who gunned down Nebesna Sotnya (the Maidan activists killed), how can we now trust him to defend the interests of Maidan?”
Zakrevska believes that Yanukovych’s defence might well have objections to Babikov, who was employed by Aver Lex to represent Yanukovych, now becoming SBI First Deputy Director, where he will be overseeing the state’s investigations into these crimes. There are also legal problems since Ukraine’s Criminal Procedure Code clearly states (in Article 77 part 2) that a prosecutor or investigator cannot take part in a criminal prosecution where s/he was formerly a defence lawyer. While the post of Deputy Director is not the same as being an investigator, but he will be in charge of them, and also responsible for an audit of Maidan cases.
It is hard to understand the stubbornness with which Babikov’s candidacy was pushed. Were there really no other candidates, whose appointment would not arouse controversy?
A number of human rights groups joined the families of slain Maidan activists and their lawyers on 18 January in appealing to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the heads of parliamentary factions, Venediktova and the Prosecutor General, Ruslan Riaboshapka over Babikov’s feared appointment. They pointed to the lack of transparency with respect to the competition and noted other concerns over members of SBI. As reported, Oleksandr Buryak, who was recently appointed head of the department on investigating crimes against Maidan protesters is a person who was recently implicated in a major judicial corruption scandal.
All of the civic and human rights groups agreed that there is an evident conflict of interests. They noted that Yanukovych has not once admitted any of the charges laid against him, with this meaning that the position of the defence in such cases directly contradicts that of the investigators.
“Such a candidate from the point of view of legislation and common sense should not even have gone through the stage of document checks and been admitted to the shortlist for interviews. The information that Babikov has been Yanukovych’s lawyer appeared on the Internet in December 2019 and there was nothing to stop the above-mentioned proceedings from being checked to learn who was responsible for the defence and to give the relevant information to the commission.
However this was obviously not done, or, still worse, the commission also ignored the information.”
The authors of the appeal pointed out that Article 28 of the Law on Preventing Corruption obliges all public officials, including within SBI, to take measures to stop any real or potential conflict of interests from arising. They believed that the fact that Babikov had reached this stage in the proceedings, despite being fully aware of the conflict of interests that would ensue, demonstrated a lack of honesty and willingness to mislead the commission. They demanded a repeat competition, held with transparency and in compliance with the law. There should be full information about the course of the competition and they asked that in future actions be avoided that continue to discredit the reputation of the State Bureau of Investigations.
On 20 January, their calls were ignored.