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Supreme Court Candidate Exposed for Sentencing Innocent Man to Life Imprisonment

Halya Coynash
It is, of course, for the court to determine a man’s innocence, however in the case of life prisoner Volodymyr Panasenko, nobody has ever believed he is guilty. Now, after Panasenko has been in prison for over 10 years, his trial has proven a career nemesis for one of the judges who sentenced him.

It is, of course, for the court to determine a man’s innocence, however in the case of life prisoner Volodymyr Panasenko, nobody has ever believed he is guilty. Now, after Panasenko has been in prison for over 10 years, his trial has proven a career nemesis for one of the judges who sentenced him. 

With the first-ever competition for Supreme Court posts reaching its finale, the Public Integrity Council has issued its opinions with respect to candidates whom it considers do not meet the required standards of professional ethics.  The Council is an overseeing body made up of representatives of NGOs, lawyers, scholars and journalists.  Any negative opinion can only be overridden by at least 11 of the 16 members of the High Qualification Commission of Judges. 

The Council’s negative assessment in the case of Stanislav Holubytsky, who is presently a judge of the Lviv Regional Court of Appeal is based on the judge’s role in one case, with this providing “grounds for concluding that the Candidate does not meet the criteria for integrity and professional ethics”.

On September 19, 2008 Holubytsky was one of a panel of judges who sentenced Volodymyr Panasenko to life imprisonment, with this sentence soon afterwards upheld by the Supreme Court. 

Already in 2009, the then Human Rights Ombudsperson Nina Karpachova cited the conviction of Panasenko as an example of “flagrant cases of judges applying life sentences as a means of resolving conflict in cases involving business structures”. She called the case obviously commissioned, and expressed the hope that the truth could be established.  

The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and Kharkiv Human Rights Group have repeatedly called for a judicial review of this case as obviously flawed. 

While stressing that it is not assessing the content of the ruling passed back in 2008, the Public Integrity Council writes that it cannot ignore the public reaction to the Panasenko case and the influence that it had on public confidence in the judiciary.  While Holubytsky was not the presiding judge, he could have used his right to express a dissenting opinion, and did not.

The Panasenko case

On 26 October 2006, a bomb, planted under the car of Roman Fedyshyn, Lviv City Councillor and owner of the Shuvar market, exploded.  Fedyshyn was only slightly injured, but a 14-year-old girl walking past the car was killed. 

Volodymyr Panasenko had created the company behind the Shuvar market together with Fedyshyn, and his wife also owned 8% of the shares. 

A month after the blast, the police had caught one person suspected of carrying out the attack, and declared another person wanted (he was arrested in 2013), as well as Oleksandr Rudy, the suspected go-between between those carrying out the crime and the person commissioning it.

Rudy was arrested while undergoing treatment for alcoholism in a psychiatric clinic.  In all, he was to sign four totally different ‘confessions’.  He first claimed that the blast had been ordered by Fedyshyn himself to improve his political rating.  He was told by the investigator Roman Sharko that Fedyshyn could not be the person, so Rudy then named the Shuvar administrator M. Bokalo.  This was also deemed wrong, so Rudy came up with a third ‘confession’ where he said that the bomb blast had been commissioned by two men – Bokalo and Panasenko.  A fourth ‘confession’ mentioned only Panasenko. 

Rudy later wrote a statement saying that he had given false testimony against Panasenko under pressure from the investigator. The pressure, he specified, consisted of threats that he would get life himself if he didn’t provide the testimony and beatings.

During both the first court trial, and then at appeal level, Rudy stated clearly that Panasenko had nothing to do with the crime and that it had been commissioned by somebody else.  He also asserted that there had been no intention of hurting anybody, the blast was only supposed to frighten Fedyshyn and thus convince him to sack somebody. 

This was ignored at all levels, and Panasenko was sentenced to life imprisonment.  There is evidence of falsification of the case, and certainly Panasenko’s lawyer Natalya Krisman is convinced that everything was done to put Panasenko away for life.  She says that neither the investigators nor the court really tried to conceal their certainty that Panasenko was innocent.  It was simply that the other candidates had power and could not be touched. 

Human rights activists who have seen plenty of falsified cases in Ukraine consider the Panasenko case unprecedented for the degree of cynicism and brazen falsification. 

It is now Ukraine’s legislators who are obstructing the chance for Panasenko and a number of other life prisoners to find justice in Ukraine, instead of having to rely upon the European Court of Human Rights.  Draft law No. 2033a was tabled back in 2015, and even passed through a first reading in November that year. 

The bill offers life prisoners or others serving long sentences a chance of judicial review in very specific cases.  A prisoner or his/her representative would be able to apply for a review of their case if the only evidence against the person was from confessions or other testimony obtained through illegal means, for example, torture or some benefit gained from testifying against the defendant.  Review would also be possible if there were grounds for believing that the evidence had been falsified and / or where the court had rejected evidence proving the defendant’s innocence.  A further reason would be if the sentence did not seem proportionate to the case. 

The fact that a draft law with such clear safeguards against abuse should still, almost two years on, be unpassed is an indictment on Ukraine’s first post-Maidan parliament.  The Public Integrity Council’s assessment is directed against the appointment of one specific judge, but is a clear message that Ukraine’s parliamentarians would do well to heed.  


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