war crimes in Ukraine

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Whistle-blower judge exposes sinister role of Bohdan in Zelensky administration

Halya Coynash

Larysa Holnyk, the Poltava judge who faced persecution and a physical attack after exposing corruption, has published disturbing details of a recent attempt to enlist her in a politically-motivated criminal investigation against former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.  The story highlights concerns regarding the role played by the recently created State Bureau of Investigations [SBI] and Andriy Bohdan, the highly controversial head of the President’s Administration.  It also points to what seems like coordination between SBI Director Roman Truba, Bohdan and the latter’s long-standing friend and former close aide to ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, Andriy Portnov.

This is just one of numerous grounds for concern over Bohdan’s powerful position in the administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky.  The post he officially occupies is now called the Office of the President  - a renaming carried out by Zelensky and his team in order to bypass the Law on Lustration.  According to this law, Bohdan is expressly prohibited from holding public office, including the post of Head of the President’s Administration, because of the high-ranking post he twice held in the government under ex-President Viktor Yanukovych.  One of the first scandals around Bohdan’s name involved a still unexplained secret meeting he held with the then head of the Constitutional Court on the eve of the second round of the presidential elections.  The Court is due to give its assessment as to whether the 2014 lustration law is constitutional, and it was clearly in Bohdan’s interests for it to be declared unconstitutional. The adverse publicity that the meeting received was probably the reason why the court sitting was postponed at the last minute.

Although Holnyk has now published a detailed account of events, under the title ‘The Bohdan Factor’, the initial approach dates back to June.  She reported it at the time, and stressed in her post that she had witnesses to the encounter, should anybody think to accuse her of defamation. 

The chronological events begin with her decision in June to take part in the competition announced by Zelensky for two positions in the High Council of Justice, a body responsible for formation of the judicial corps, where judges work and for ensuring judicial independence. Two weeks after making her application, on 22 June, she posted an appeal to President Zelensky regarding the need for real reforms.  The post asked him to give her that much attention and to at least respond with a ‘like’ to her Facebook post. 

A reaction was forthcoming, although from Bohdan, not Zelensky.  That very same day, a Saturday, he asked on Facebook if she would “take part in the work”, to which she responded, “half-jokingly”, that “in publicly useful work, yes”.

At the time, she writes, she did not link the events three days later with that exchange of comments under her post.

On 25 June she received a visit from somebody who said that he was there on behalf of Roman Truba, SBI Director.  He asserted that SBI analysts had followed her law suit against Poroshenko (over the delay with giving her life tenure as a judge), and suggested that she lodge a report of a crime committed.

She refused, saying that if in SBI they saw grounds for such a report, let them lodge it themselves, but that she saw no prospects for a court case. She later pointed out that it is within the SBI’s scope to initiate a criminal investigation themselves if they see the need, yet they had instead tried to get her to do this.

In a blistering post that day, she stressed that she was against trumped-up criminal prosecutions, and that Truba was not probing where he should be.  She noted a report suggesting that Truba was trying to prove his ‘services’ to the new President and coming up with a whole lot of criminal investigations against Poroshenko, including some without any basis. It is vital, she said, to have at least a partial overhauling of the SBI.

It was at the end of this post that she noted that she had witnesses to this conversation, should there be any plans for some kind of provocation or a defamation suit. 

To her bemusement, she says, she discovered shortly afterwards that a report similar to what they wanted her to write, “but on the scale of the whole country”, had been lodged by Andriy Portnov. 

As reported, Portnov, who was First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration under Yanukovych, returned to Ukraine on the eve of Zelensky’s inauguration and immediately lodged the first claim against Poroshenko with SBI. Portnov, rather incredibly, alleged that Poroshenko had ‘provoked’ Russia’s attack on three naval boats in November 2018, and that this constituted state treason. 

Portnov was clearly aiming for maximum publicity, and spaced out his numerous claims against Poroshenko to the SBI.  These included the one which the SBI Director had proposed that Holnyk write just three days after Bohdan asked her if she was willing to take part “in the work”.

In Portnov’s report, Poroshenko is claimed to have interfered in the work of judges by not appointing them in timely fashion, with this having supposedly resulted in grave consequences in the form of a staggering 390 million UAH to the state coffers. This alleged offence, it was asserted, had “resulted in access to the justice system becoming more difficult, a reduction in its speed and quality; had undermined the authority of the judiciary and had impact on its independence”.

On 29 June, Holnyk gave a damning assessment of this politically-motivated ‘investigation’ and of Portnov’s part in it given that, as a lawyer, he had to understand that his allegations lacked the fundamental components of a crime.  She also pointed to the likely coordination between Portnov and the head of SBI “and the huge risk that politicizing this law enforcement body carries”.

As a lawyer, Portnov may well understand what constitutes a crime, however he was close to Yanukovych throughout the latter’s presidency and, at very least, remained silent throughout the politically motivated trials of Yanukovych’s rival Yulia Tymoshenko and members of her former government. 

Bohdan was also a member of the government during the Yanukovych regime, and did not in any way speak out against such travesties of justice and judicial corruption.

The links between the SBI investigation, Portnov and his long-standing friend Bohdan seem a little more circumstantial, although there do seem to be many such threads.  They start with the apparent link between the question that Bohdan put to Holnyk on 22 June 2019, and the visit on 25 June from a person saying he was speaking on Truba’s behalf.  If the person was not, then how did the report that Holnyk refused to lodge came to be made just days later by Portnov?   On 24 July, TV24 published an investigation into what investigative journalists saw as seriously exaggerated and / or premature assertions made by Truba regarding corruption in the Ukrainian Defence Ministry, and a mysterious meeting on the eve of high-profile searches at the Defence Ministry between Truba and Bohdan. As with the meeting between Bohdan and the then head of the Constitutional Court that could remove the lustration law hanging over Bohdan, a meeting alone need not prove anything underhand, but it does raise questions.

Holnyk clearly views the rejection of her candidacy for the two posts in the High Council of Justice as linked with her earlier exposure of the apparent links outlined here.  There had been a list of six names, which included, aside from Holnyk, two people whose professional integrity had been questioned by profile civic organization and three other people who, she says, had publicly recognized her as being in first place.

There has been no response from Zelensky and his team to the scandal over the taped conversations between the president of the Kyiv District Administrative Court Pavlo Vovk and two other judges, although the corruption they appear to reveal was a devastating indictment of the judges themselves, and of two other prominent public figures.  Most worryingly, there was yet another unexplained visit by two members of the High Council of Justice to the Office of the President on the eve of the HCJ’s controversial vote to not suspend the judges implicated.   

Holnyk says that she was present at the relevant session of the HCJ.  It was clear that the judges saw no need to worry, and even mocked the prosecutors who were seeking their suspension. 

The scheduled formation of a new High Qualification Commission of Judges, which will be responsible for choosing new judges and checking those already serving will be begun by an unreformed High Council of Justice.  The latter, Holnyk says, will “clean itself up on the go, through the efforts of an ethics commission made up of several members of the High Council of Justice and international experts. 

The decisions of both the High Qualification Commission of Judges and the High Council of Justice will go to the same Kyiv District Administrative Court whose president even the most damning of taped conversations proved incapable of dislodging.

“It seems that somebody has already drawn up a scenario for subordinating judges to the new administration”, Holnyk concludes.

See also: Head of Zelensky Administration linked to negotiations with Russia that prompted Euromaidan

Details about Larysa Holnyk here: Ukrainian judge persecuted, physically attacked & prevented from joining Anti-Corruption Court after exposing corruption

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