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Vital watchdog body refuses to take part in Potemkin reform of Ukraine’s judiciary

Halya Coynash
The Public Integrity Council is suspending any involvement in the official process for assessing judges which it sees as a charade aimed at retaining judges in their posts, while reporting “successful completion” of reforms . 

The Public Integrity Council is suspending any involvement in the official process for assessing judges which it sees as a charade aimed at retaining judges in their posts, while reporting “successful completion” of reforms. 

In announcing an official press briefing on 26 March, the Council explains that in less than a year the High Qualification Commission of Judges [HQCJ] is supposed to reassess five thousand judges.  In the space of just one and a half hours on 23 March, an HQCJ panel managed to hold interviews with nine judges.  This, they believe, confirms the fake nature of the so-called reassessment which is intended to provide cosmetic gloss to a conveyor-belt procedure for retaining the status quo.

What that means is that supposedly reformed courts will have judges who were earlier involved in persecuting Euromaidan activists, whose actual assets do not match their declared income; who are known to have passed questionable rulings later challenged in the European Court of Human Rights; or who often visit occupied territory, with this jeopardizing Ukraine’s security.

HQCJ is accused of coming up with a pseudo-check of judges’ professional level and integrity, without civil society having any real opportunity to influence this process.

It is so that the authorities cannot yet again use civil society to claim the achievement of judicial reform to both the Ukrainian public and international organizations that the Public Integrity Council have decided to suspend involvement.  They express the hope that they will have public support for this and promises to do everything to ensure that the evaluation process with respect to judges takes place in a transparent and effective way.

It remains to be seen how the latter can be achieved without direct involvement, however the frustration is very easy to understand. 

The Public Integration Council, which is made up of representatives of civil society, first took part in the competition for 120 vacant posts in the Supreme Council initiated in November 2016.  That finally ended in July 2017 with 25% of the Council’s negative assessments of candidates having been overridden. 

The devised system had seemed ideal on paper.  In practice, it turned out that the Council’s opinion had only to be ‘taken into account’, before being ignored.  Yes, a two thirds majority of HQCJ members were needed to override a negative assessment  regarding each specific candidate, but this was on the basis of a secret vote, and proved disturbingly easy to achieve. 

The statistics could have been worse since a couple of particularly notorious candidates withdrew at the last moment.  These included Yaroslav Romanyuk, known for his public attempt to justify ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s ‘dictatorship law’ and a ruling to evict a 97-year-old woman,

The Council, had provided detailed grounds for their negative opinions regarding 140 candidates (37%).  These were based on intensive study of previous court rulings, including those involving Euromaidan, information from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, as well as on over three thousand reports received from members of the public.  Information was also provided that needed to be checked concerning a further 128 candidates.

Despite the work carried out by the Council, as well as several civic organizations, the successful candidates included 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.  Another negative assessment overridden concerned Stanislav Holubytsky whom the Council deemed unsuitable because of his part in sentencing Volodymyr Panasenko to life imprisonment despite the absence of any credible evidence and despite anybody seriously believing that the defendant was guilty.

There were also successful candidates whose unexplained wealth or connections had not only received negative assessments from the Public Integrity Council, but had also prompted scrutiny by the Skhemy anti-corruption journalist investigative team.  As reported earlier, the journalists’ presence outside the building where the first group was taking the written test, and their uncomfortable questions about the expensive vehicles that currently working judges were turning up in led to a dramatic increase in the number of candidates arriving by public transport on subsequent days!

The press briefing will take place on 26 March at 11.a.m.  Address: Ukrainian House, Khreshchatyk

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