Return to Yanukovych’s selective justice condemned as thousands protest plan to arrest Poroshenko
Former Soviet dissidents have added their voices to a strong statement protesting at the ever-increasing criminal prosecutions brought against former President Petro Poroshenko. These they consider “selective justice and political persecution” returning Ukraine to the times of Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych. Their warning that this damages Ukraine’s image in the world was surely confirmed on 18 June by reports in the international media about the thousands who came to show Poroshenko support at a court hearing which had initially been to seek his detention. The hearing was eventually adjourned until 1 July, however concerns about selective justice are hardly allayed by the fact that the judge hearing the case is Serhiy Vovk, who gained notoriety under the Yanukovych regime for his role in the politically motivated prosecution and imprisonment of Yuri Lutsenko.
Outside the Pechersky District Court on 18 June, Poroshenko stated that yet another criminal case had been initiated against him, over Tomos, the creation and recognition of the autocephaly (autonomous status) of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in January 2019. The criminal proceedings, he explained, were for supposedly “inciting religious enmity” through this move.
It would be nice to dismiss this suggestion as preposterous or to assume that the State Bureau of Investigations [SBI] would terminate such an ‘investigation’ immediately after formally initiating it. Unfortunately, the fact of such an investigation, initially begun by the State Security Service [SBU], has been confirmed as ongoing. In fact, the first criminal proceedings against Poroshenko over alleged ‘treason’ had seemed just as absurd, yet resulted in an active SBI investigation which has only helped Russia’s propaganda machine against Ukraine. As reported, in May 2019, Andriy Portnov, former deputy head of Yanukovych’s Administration, returned to Ukraine on the eve of Volodymyr Zelensky presidential inauguration and immediately lodged the first of a large number of criminal allegations, most against Poroshenko. On that occasion, he claimed that Poroshenko had “provoked Russia’s attack on three Ukrainian naval boats near Crimea on 25 November 2018 and its seizure of 24 Ukrainian POWs. This parroted the Kremlin’s own narrative, and seemed quite ludicrous, yet months later, the SBI proved to be questioning the finally released POWs and, therefore, effectively assisting the Kremlin.
Even if the SBI does decide that criminal charges over the establishment of a fully autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine are excessive, that will still leave 17 criminal proceedings against Poroshenko initiated since Zelensky came to power. Small wonder that there have been warnings over recent days from former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski; from the US Embassy in Kyiv and from the European Parliament against any attempt to take Poroshenko, who is now the leader of the largest opposition party in the Verkhovna Rada into custody.
It is unclear whether it was these warnings or the likely reaction to the former President’s detention on the eve of his father’s funeral that prompted Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova to announce that she was seeking adjournment of the court hearing. Having spoken until 16 June (the day that Oleksiy Poroshenko died) of plans to ask for Poroshenko to be remanded in custody, the prosecutors now said that they would be asking for him to give an undertaking to appear at all hearings and to inform them of his whereabouts, at least up till 10 July.
In fact, any other outcome, but adjournment of Thursday’s hearing, would have been suicidally foolish given not only the above-mentioned reactions, but also the thousands of Ukrainians who came out to show their support and solidarity with the former President.
There had been so many criminal cases against Poroshenko that the announcement on 10 June of plans to remand him in custody was initially reported by many journalists to be over a previous ‘investigation’. It turned out, however, that the charges of ‘abuse of power’ pertained to what the SBI investigators called Poroshenko’s “evidently criminal order to get a military official, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service to exceed his power and official duties” and his appointment of Serhiy Semochko as First Deputy Head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (details here).
It was under Yanukovych that Ukraine was heavily criticized by the international community for application of ‘selective justice’. While occasionally one charge or another might refer to an actual infringement, it was generally understood that Ukrainian legislation, as well as the enforcement bodies and certain judges, were being used for political motives.
The above-mentioned statement in the form of an open letter to President Zelensky was posted on 14 June by Josef Zisels, former Soviet dissident and now Head of Vaad, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine. Among the first signatories were Myroslav Marynovych, one of the first members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group who spent 10 years in a Soviet labour camp and exile for his courage, and also Ihor Kozlovsky, a religious scholar who was held hostage in the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ for two years. The authors write:
“We have been prompted to turn to you over recent events which are returning our country to the times of Yanukovych. Ukraine was supposed to have been freed of arbitrary rule; selective justice and political persecution after the Revolution of Dignity. We are appalled by the actions of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the SBI, which are reinstating those foul phenomena to Ukrainian reality. These contain elements of the formation in Ukraine of a police state.
The shameful, unlawful and unprofessional stunt staged around the supposed “informing of suspicion to the fifth President of Ukraine and MP, Petro Poroshenko ill serves the authorities. It significantly worsens the image of our country in the world. Such actions discredit the law enforcement system itself and demolish the already law level of confidence in it. The public are sent a dangerous signal that laws are not written for the enforcement bodies. And therefore, tomorrow any rights can be stamped on, all you need is the political commissioning.
We are forced, with great sadness, to note that repression against political opponents has returned to Ukraine. It is shocking that the main target of this repression should be Petro Poroshenko, a person thanks to whose efforts Ukraine was able to hold out in confrontation with Russia during the hardest years”.
The authors express frustration that the criminal investigations were initiated by members of Yanukovych’s team, and echo the messages of hostile Russian propaganda, and say that these have now been taken up by the current President’s people. All of this, they stress, hurts Ukraine’s reputation in the world. If Poroshenko epitomized for the international community decisive resistance to Russia’s armed aggression, what is Zelensky’s team epitomizing by persecuting Poroshenko? They refer in particular to the above-mentioned criminal investigation over the attack by Russia on Ukrainian naval boats in Ukraine’s territorial waters. This, as mentioned, was claimed by Portnov to be Poroshenko’s ‘treason’, and has actually resulted in an SBI investigation. The authors are convinced that the charges over Poroshenko’s appointment of Semochko are also bizarre given that such appointments are among the President’s constitutional powers. They stress that this “can place in doubt any staffing questions, passed both by the current, and future leaders of the state. This is a dangerous precedent.”
As reported earlier, Zelensky has already used manipulative and legally questionable methods for at least one appointment. His choice for Head of the Presidential Administration, Andriy Bohdan, was prohibited from holding that post because of his role twice during the Yanukovych regime. Zelensky ‘got around this’ by changing the name of his administration to ‘Office of the President’. Since the law on lustration mentions ‘President’s administration’, not this new title, this seems an obvious attempt to bypass a law in force. Are all Ukrainian Presidents to anticipate prosecution for alleged ‘abuse of power’ as soon as they leave office?
The authors of the appeal call on the country’s present leaders to “stop political persecution and concentrate on uniting the Ukrainian public in countering Russian aggression and to begin upholding Ukraine’s interests on the international scene and improving the lives of people in Ukraine”.