Ludmla Nikitkina: Political Prisoner or Economic Hostage?
Ludmila Nikitkina, Deputy Head of the United Opposition’s Pervomaisk Election Headquarters has been in custody since July 2012.
Pressure on the courts in Ukraine comes in all shapes and sizes. The real or entirely illusory threat of such pressure has long been used as a convenient means of keeping people behind bars. A person can be held in a SIZO [detention centre) for years on the nebulous grounds that he (or she) could try to divert the course of justice. A week ago MPs who sought to act as guarantors in order to secure the release of Ludmila Nitkina, in custody since July last year, were told by the judge that their action was aimed at putting “pressure” on the court. Since Ms Nikitkina remains in the Kyiv SIZO, that is clearly one form of pressure to which Judge Berbele proved insusceptible.
One of the MPs, Mykola Knyazhytsky believes Ms Nikitkina to be a political prisoner – simply not high-profile enough to capture the attention of the Cox and Kwaśniewski EU Delegation.
The problem is, I suspect, more complex. Alarm bells ring when we learn that a major political opponent of the current President has been arrested, or when a candidate in with a good chance of winning the elections has been placed on the international wanted list (like Viktor Romanyuk, or, a year ago, Arsen Avakov)
Such alarm bells did indeed ring back in July and early August 2012. On 7 August the election watchdog OPORA reported that the 30 July custody order against Ludmila Nikitkina, Deputy Head of the United Opposition’s Pervomaisk Election Headquarters had been upheld. A protest had taken place outside the court.
Ludmila Nikitkina was arrested on 27 July with the charges related to her position as Financial Director of the limited liability company “Agrofirma Kornatskykh” The charges are under Article 191 § 4 of the Criminal Code (embezzlement, misappropriation or acquisition of property through abuse of official position). She is accused of having embezzled public funds in receiving subsidies back in 2008. The amount supposedly stolen from the State was 149 thousand UAH (around 14 thousand EUR).
With the same bells sounding all too often, the problem is precisely what makes such charges a perfect weapon. They are difficult to check, while the political motive for ongoing prosecution does not seem entirely clear.
Pervomaisk was certainly one of the most scandalous of all electoral districts in October 2012 with the Central Election Commission having initially stated that 100% of the votes had been counted and that Anatoly Kornatsky from the United Opposition had won, and then changed this to give the victory to the Party of the Regions candidate Vitaly Travyanko. While Ludmila Nikitkina would have been involved in campaigning for Kornatsky, and works for his company, it is harder to see how her arrest could have impact on Kornatsky or the United Opposition. Nor is the situation so obvious as to make other party campaigners feel warned off by her experience.
Another motive has been put forward by Volodymyr Boiko in an article which includes an interview with Anatoly Kornatsky. The latter asserts that there has been a battle for some years now with people very close to Artem Pshonka, son of the current Prosecutor General. He speaks of criminal cases, unscheduled checks and other forms of pressure having been used in an effort to force him to relinquish the lucrative agricultural business. There were a number of criminal investigations in 2010 and 2011 which do not appear to have gone any further.
The allegations are serious and would have to be verified. The urgent need for such a check is clear since f they are true then Ludmila Nikitkina’s prosecution may well be part of this pressure
Knyazhytsky asserts that no independent audit has found any irregularities, and that the documents which supposedly incriminate Ms Nikitkina were not, in fact, signed by her.
Of considerable concern is the fact that Ms Nikitkina is imprisoned in the Kyiv SIZO and the above-mentioned court case was under Judge Berbele in the Svyatoshynsk District Court. Berbele is presiding judge in the case of three young men in detention for well over a year now over highly dubious terrorist charges. The men are accused of planning to blow up the monument to Lenin on the town square in Boryspil, Kyiv region.
Why Ludmila Nikitkiva is in Kyiv at all is unclear with the charges against her solely linked with her work in Mykolaiv.
It is less than likely that this was so that protests held since Ludmila Niktikina’s arrest, including a letter to the President signed by 1348 women from Mykolaiv did not “put pressure” on the courts.
With concern so rife about Ukraine’s justice system and the purposes it serves, judges have shown themselves to be quite impervious to any publicly articulated pressure.
Ludmila Nikitkina, who is not a young woman and who suffers from high blood pressure has been held in detention now for almost nine months. Public scrutiny cannot be pressure unless there is something to hide.