West’s credibility at stake if Avakov is extradited to Ukraine
Arsen Avakov, former Kharkiv Regional Governor, ally of imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and likely successful candidate in this year’s parliamentary elections, has been arrested in Italy. The Ukrainian authorities initiated criminal proceedings against him at the beginning of the year over “abuse of power” and he was announced on the Interpol wanted list soon after.
He was detained in Italy on Sunday with the official story being that he was stopped in a routine check of documents. This seems a touch unlikely since Avakov, who is hoping to stand in the October parliamentary elections, and has not asked for political asylum, has never concealed his whereabouts and has openly crossed state borders.
The Italian authorities are presently awaiting material from Ukraine’s Prosecutor General to back up their extradition request. Members of the opposition Batkivshchyna Party have written to the Italian authorities setting out their grounds for asserting that the prosecution is politically motivated. In Italy Avakov will be represented by two Italian lawyers.
The charges against the former Governor and popular opposition politician in Kharkiv are ominously reminiscent of those against Tymoshenko, former Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko and others. In fact, pretty well everything is similar to those cases.
The charges involve the same “abuse of power” clause which has given cause for concern regarding selective use of justice with relation to more prominent leaders of the opposition. While it is for the Italian court to determine the substance of the charges, their timing and nature have led to very specific concerns being voiced in Ukraine. Nor are such concerns expressed only by members of the political opposition. Soon after Avakov was placed on the Interpol wanted list, the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and Kharkiv Human Rights Group addressed a letter to Interpol explaining the many doubts regarding the criminal proceedings.
There must also be serious question marks over how fair any trial of Mr Avakov would be if he were to be extradited to Ukraine. These are fuelled by the recent sentencing of former Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko to 4 years imprisonment after a trial in which prosecution witnesses spoke of having been told what to write in their testimony and / or pressurized by the Prosecutor’s Office. The trial was marred by many other serious procedural infringements not investigated by the court, while the charges themselves concerned practice within the Ministry which a number of witnesses said was standard before and has continued since Lutsenko’s term in office.
It is very much to be hoped that the application for Avakov’s extradition will be rejected. Any other course would surely send very dangerous signals to those in power in Ukraine and to the Ukrainian public. Avakov’s extradition would demonstrate willingness by a court in an EU country to disregard serious doubts about the very charges, Avakov’s role in the alleged offence, and about well-founded scepticism regarding chances of his receiving a fair trial.