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Alarm bells ring as chief Maidan crimes investigator threatened with criminal charges

Halya Coynash
Civic activists and Euromaidan victims’ lawyers have sounded the alarm about a major offensive against Serhiy Horbatyuk and his special investigative department. Several criminal investigations have been initiated against members of the department and Horbatyuk could himself be facing criminal charges for alleged ‘negligence’.

Civic activists and Euromaidan victims’ lawyers have sounded the alarm about a major offensive against Serhiy Horbatyuk and his special investigative department which has been described as the “last bastion within the Prosecutor General’s Office really doing anything to investigate Euromaidan-related crimes”.  Several criminal investigations have been initiated against members of the department and Horbatyuk could himself be facing criminal charges for alleged ‘negligence’. 

Horbatyuk spoke publicly on April 20 about what he calls major obstruction from the Prosecutor General’s Office [PGO] leadership.  He specifically accused Yury Stolyarchuk, Deputy Prosecutor General of pressure on the investigation into crimes against Euromaidan activists, and said that he had made a formal complaint about this to acting PG Yury Sevruk.  An internal investigation is due to report back on April 27.

Both Sevruk and Stolyarchuk are considered to be close allies of former Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, and both men have been mentioned as in the running to take Shokin’s place.  While President Petro Poroshenko is believed to want Yury Lutsenko to take over, the latter does not have a legal background, and a bill, already prepared, must be passed to allow this hurdle to be overcome.

Conflict with the PGO management is not new, and the Advocacy Advisory Panel, a civic initiative of Euromaidan victims’ lawyers, and other civic organizations have on many occasions reported attempts to sabotage the vital work being carried out by Horbatyuk and his relatively small team of investigators (see: Political PR & sabotage instead of real investigation on eve of 2nd Maidan anniversary)

Now, however, as Horbatyuk told, there are several criminal investigations underway against members of his department.  He doesn’t know if charges will be laid against him, but believes it possible. Most ominously, the head of the unit investigating crimes committed by law enforcement officers has submitted his resignation, obviously threatened with dismissal otherwise.  This, Horbatyuk, says, happened after they asked at a meeting for “these unlawful investigations to be stopped, or for an explanation of what the crime was supposed to be”.  They were told that it wasn’t their business, and that if they didn’t cooperate with the investigation and didn’t answer questions, they would all be sacked. 

A small group of MPs, including Serhiy Leshchenko joined with the Advocacy Advisory Panel lawyers at a press conference in parliament on Wednesday.  Leshchenko spoke of grounds for fearing that there are plans to formally charge Horbatyuk in order to get him off the Maidan investigations. 

The charge, quite incredibly, is supposed to be of ‘negligence’ over the investigation into the fire at the Odesa Trade Union building during major disturbances on May 2, 2014.  ‘Incredibly’ not because the Prosecutor General’s Office and all Ukraine’s authorities have not consistently failed the victims of that tragedy through the inadequate investigation. This, in fact, prompted the 2 May Group, a civic initiative investigating the events that day to call for the investigation to be handed over to Horbatyuk’s special investigations department.  The latter, however, needed to be given the people to deal with an entirely new investigation and was clearly not.  Nor have they been given the time, and it is easy to understand the suspicion that a pretext has simply been found to remove Horbatyuk who has shown great independence and openly criticized the management in the past for obstruction. 

Oleksandra Matviychuk, head of the Centre for Civil Liberties and Euromaidan SOS, recalls how for an entire year after Euromaidan, successive Prosecutor Generals failed to properly organize an investigation.  The only coordination centre, she writes, began working in January 2015, thanks to Horbatyuk and his team.  It was only then that Euromaidan SOS received a call finally asking them for the material which had been ignored after they handed it to the Prosecutor General’s Office back in February 2014. 

She stresses that this tiny department for special investigations under Serhiy Horbatyuk began work on thousands of episodes and without offices, computers and photocopiers.   It was thanks to them that the investigation finally got off the ground, and has made progress. 

Yevhenia Zakrevska, one of the Maidan lawyers, pulls no punches: “Without Horbatyuk the investigation into Maidan cases will simply stop.  It won’t be slowed down, won’t be temporarily suspended, it will just stop. The investigators will not work without his protection, and will not be able to. There is objectively nobody to replace him. You can discuss the effectively of what there is now for a long time.  You must, and must demand more which is, in fact, what we constantly do, but without him, there won’t be anything”. 

She suspects that the PGO management, and probably the President’s Administration understand this very well, but that independent individuals who go against the established vertical of power within the PGO are viewed as more dangerous than the damage to reputation caused by folding the investigation. 

In a blog on Ukrainska Pravda, Leshchenko accuses Shokin’s people of launching an attack against “the internal opposition”.  He asserts that it was Stolyarchuk who tried to get Horbatyuk moved to Lviv a month ago and who advised him to go of his own accord, since the new Prosecutor General would certainly get rid of him. 

Leshchenko points to other independent people who have faced dismissal (former Deputy Prosecutor General David Sakvarelidze), strange investigation targeting an anti-corruption NGO, or downright criminal proceedings (against ex-Deputy Prosecutor General Vitaly Kasko) over the last couple of months. 

It would be a bitter irony if the Odesa 2 May investigation were to be used as an excuse for getting rid of Horbatyuk and his team.  There was effectively no response from the authorities to a damning assessment of the failed investigation from the Council of Europe’s International Advisory Panel on Nov 4, 2015, nor to constant calls from the 2 May Group.  Frustration may be high that more than two years later, so few people have been held to account over Maidan crimes, but something has been achieved. That against all odds and thanks to a small team which is now, most worryingly, under direct threat.  

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