Defender of dictatorship laws set for judge post in Ukraine’s Supreme Court ‘reform’
In yet another move discrediting the much-trumpeted reform of Ukraine’s Supreme Court, the High Qualification Commission of Judges has overcome the civic veto imposed on the appointment of Yaroslav Romanyuk to one of the judges’ posts vacant. A two-thirds majority (11 out of the 16, with only three voting against) saw nothing unacceptable about the appointment of a judge who publicly defended the repressive anti-protest laws of January 16, 2014, and whose ruling, evicting a 97-year-old from her home, was found by the European Court of Human Rights to have violated the elderly lady’s rights.
There has long been concern over Ukraine’s first ever public competition for vacancies, and Romanyuk is not the first questionable candidate to have overcome a negative assessment from the Public Integrity Council, made up of representatives of civic society. Not everybody is aware, however, of the corruption allegations made against some candidates, or of the reasons why the life sentence that Lviv judge Stanislav Holubytsky passed on Volodymyr Panasenko was deemed by the Public Integrity Council to be quite sufficient to disqualify him.
Romanyuk, on the other hand, earned widespread notoriety through his defence of the laws introduced and pushed through parliament, with flagrant violations, by former President Viktor Yanukovych. The laws were totally undemocratic and aimed solely at crushing the Euromaidan protests. It was after their illegal adoption that Right Sector activists on Maidan publicly rejected the non-violent resistance shown up till then. Their argument was simple: Yanukovych had declared war against the Ukrainian people, with the laws meaning that activists, however peaceful, faced arrest and imprisonment.
Romanyuk had recently been appointed President of the Supreme Court and stated the day after the laws were ‘passed’ that they complied with European standards. He asserted, for example, that the European Court of Human Rights envisaged the right to impose restrictions and sanctions if “the human right to freedom of expression undermines public interests and public confidence in the court”
This was one of the disqualifying factors perceived by the Public Integrity Council. The case in which an elderly lady was deprived of her home, and the subsequent damning ruling in Bochan v. Ukraine was another, as was the fact that Romanyuk had initiated a submission to the Constitutional Court trying to get the judicial reform declared unconstitutional. He also maintained that all current Supreme Court judges should be automatically reappointed.
The Qualifying Commission’s overruling of the Public Integrity Council’s negative assessment was profoundly disappointing, but not especially unexpected. The NGO CHESNO had reported earlier that there had been a clear difference between the attitude of members of the Commission to Romanyuk during his interview, and that of the member of the Public Integrity Council present.
Instead of questions about his assets, trips and mistakes, he was asked philosophical questions like whether, if he could return in time, he would still choose to be a judge. It was only the Public Integrity Council representative who asked any hard-hitting questions.
The competition is not yet over however it is looking likely that the Public Integrity Council’s negative opinions will have been ignored in the majority of cases. The two-thirds majority needed to overrule these assessments has proven easy enough to obtain, in large part due to the fact that the vote is secret.
As reported here, legislation was adopted in 2016 to both strengthen the role of the Supreme Court and to ensure a renewal process of its judges through competition. Applications were invited for the first 120 vacancies in November 2016.
As with similar test procedure for prosecutor’s office vacancies, the apparent openness to candidates from outside the system proved on paper alone. The selection committee removed 45% of such candidates (defence lawyers, legal specialists, etc.) before any tests were taken meaning that only 189 of the 467 judges could possibly come from outside the system.
There were constant problems with lack of transparency. The High Qualification Commission of Judges was supposed to publish information about the candidates on its site. It failed to do so, and since so much of the information was damning, this task was taken up by the NGO CHESNO.
There was further scandal when 43 candidates who had not passed the test and should have been knocked out of the running, were slipped back in.
The Public Integrity Council, an overseeing body made up of representatives of NGOs, lawyers, scholars and journalists, demanded an explanation of the method of evaluation and of each Commission member’s assessment given. The calls for transparency went unanswered, and there was also no reaction to the request for the Commission to waive the regulation allowing for the vote on the Public Integrity Council’s assessment to be secret.
The Public Integrity Council issued a negative assessment regarding 140 candidates (37%). These were based on intensive study of previous court rulings, including those involving Euromaidan, information from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, as well as on over three thousand reports received from members of the public. Information was also provided that needed to be checked concerning a further 128 candidates.
While the Public Integrity Council’s assessment was being overridden, there were worrying signs that efforts were being made to discredit the Council itself. The Council publicly called on journalists to not succumb to pressure and produced commissioned defamatory attacks on the Council or its members.
The Supreme Court is the last hope of justice in Ukraine. It should have become the guarantee against the travesties of justice that have resulted in Volodymyr Panasenko and many other people receiving seriously questionable life sentences.
Nobody has ever believed that Panasenko had anything to do with the bomb on 26 October 2006 which insured a Lviv politician and killed a young girl who was walking past the car that exploded.
Draft law No. 2033a has been awaiting consideration from parliament for almost two years now, despite the obvious need to rectify grave miscarriages of justice, like that which has resulted in Panasenko having already spent over 10 years in prison. Many other prisoners, including Ukraine’s most famous victim of torture, Oleksandr Rafalsky have died, betrayed to the end by Ukraine’s justice system.
Parliamentarians are in no hurry to pass this bill, with the suspicion arising that they and/or the Prosecutor General’s Office are protecting the corrupt prosecutors and judges implicated in the cases. One of the judges, Holubytsky, is now in the running for Ukraine’s stubbornly unreformed Supreme Court.