Witty Protest Highlights Critical Choice for Ukraine - Supreme Court Judges or Monsters in Judge’s Robes
Ukrainian civic activists staged a clever protest action in Kyiv on September 13 in a final attempt to prevent 30 judges who received negative assessments from the Public Integrity Council from being appointed to the Supreme Court. The protest comes on the eve of the first High Council of Justice meeting on Thursday to confirm or reject the 120 successful candidates.
Thirty activists donned judges’ robes and monster masks for their march through the centre of Kyiv. They began at the President’s Administration, since the President bears full political responsibility for judicial reform and proceeded to the Supreme Court building.
Asked for their reasons for wanting to be Supreme Court judges, the ‘monsters’ gave answers like: “Because I always honestly took bribes, and honestly convicted people for nothing” and “because the Supreme Court is the highest judicial body, and you can get the most money for passing the required rulings”.
The monster masks may have been extreme, but civic activists do see very serious grounds for concern. Of the 120 candidates, a full 25% had been selected with the negative assessment of the Public Integrity Council being overridden. The Council, which was made up of representatives of various NGOs, had studied huge amounts of information before making their assessments. The candidates they believe do not meet the standards of integrity and professional ethics required had, for example, played a role in political persecution, banned peaceful protests during Euromaidan or passed seriously questionable rulings, some of which had later been slammed by the European Court of Human Rights. Others had given false or inadequate information on their declarations or could not explain the source of their wealth.
All of the above are major factors for the low esteem in Ukrainian society that judges are generally held in. This first ever public competition for Supreme Court judges was supposed to provide a real opportunity for change, and civic activists feel understandably frustrated that such a large percentage of the candidates should have been chosen despite compelling grounds for doubting their suitability .
Many were also angered by the upbeat assessment of the competition given by President Petro Poroshenko. In addressing the Verkhovna Rada on September 7, he asserted that none of the candidates rejected by the Public Integrity Council had ended up on the final candidate list, which is very clearly untrue.
The High Council of Justice is due to agree or reject judges to the highest court in the land with two of the competition’s winners (Alla Lesko, Alla Oliynyk) actually members of the Council, and another member (Pavlo Hrechkivsky) currently facing attempted fraud charges. Another member is Yaroslav Romanyuk, currently Head of the Supreme Court. In that capacity back on January 17, 2014, Romanyuk tried to justify the ‘dictatorship laws’ passed by Viktor Yanukovych’s regime to try to crush the Maidan protests. He withdrew from the competition only after winning a place.
The Public Integrity Council, Rehabilitation Package of Reforms [RPR] and a number of other NGOs earlier appealed to the President and the High Council of Justice to not appoint judges of questionable integrity. They warned that there could be no hope of real reform of the Supreme Court if the 30 were appointed, receiving indefinite tenure.
The rules for this first competition had seemed exemplary. The Council’s opinion had to be taken into account, with a two thirds majority of members of the High Qualification Commission of Judges [HQCJ] needed to override a negative assessment regarding each specific candidate. This was, however, on the basis of a secret vote, and proved relatively easy to achieve.
The successful candidates include Viacheslav Nastavnyy who is known to have passed a ruling in the overtly political criminal proceedings and imprisonment during the Yanukovych period of Yury Lutsenko, who is now the Prosecutor General. He has the second highest rating for the Cassation Court in Criminal Cases, just above another candidate whom the Council had negatively assessed.
Stanislav Holubytsky had been deemed unsuitable because of his part in sentencing Volodymyr Panasenko to life imprisonment despite the absence of any credible evidence. Many lawyers and human rights defenders are convinced that nobody ever believed that Panasenko had anything to do with a car bomb on 26 October 2006 which injured a Lviv politician and killed a young girl who was walking past the car. He was arrested and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment, they believe, because somebody had to be found. Holubytsky cannot have been unaware of the concerns over this case, yet Panasenko remains imprisoned to this day.