Prosecutor General sabotages Ukraine’s legal front against Russia over war crimes in occupied Crimea and Donbas
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Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova has made another baffling appointment with grave implications for Ukraine’s inter-state legal battles with Russia. On 29 June, she replaced Gyunduz Mamedov, who has played a vital role in Ukraine’s international legal suits against Russia with Maksym Yakubovsky, a person who has long been associated with controversial pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk. Human rights defenders are outraged over a move they fear will destroy the Department for overseeing criminal proceedings into crimes committed in conditions of military conflict (otherwise known as the War Department). The move is all the more shocking as it is specifically thanks to Mamedov that real progress has been achieved over the last 18 months, and there can be no good reason for his being pushed aside.
As the Crimean Human Rights Group stresses, the independent work carried out by the War Department is “an absolutely critical front in the legal war against the Russian Federation”. This includes international legal proceedings over the downing by a Russian BUK missile of Malaysian airliner MH17 in July 2014; Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine; war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the occupying forces in Crimea and Donbas.
Human rights groups expressed concern about pressure on the War Department in a widely endorsed statement back in August 2020, pointing to fears that the Department’s very existence, and Mamedov’s role in it were under threat. They stressed then that, whatever the reasons for such pressure, the only party which stood to gain from the destruction of Ukraine’s War Department was the aggressor state, the Russian Federation.
They pointed out that over the previous nine months, the Department had developed a strategy for investigating war crimes in Donbas. It had made it possible to fully investigate the link between the events in 2014 in Crimea and those in Donbas. It had also begun preparing a base of evidence to be handed to the International Criminal Court.
Gyunduz Mamedov was appointed Deputy Prosecutor General under Venediktova’s predecessor, Ruslan Riaboshapka, in October 2019. Earlier, from 2016 he had been the prosecutor for the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and had been very important in establishing fruitful cooperation between the enforcement bodies and NGOs with respect to documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Mamedov’s work as Crimean Prosecutor was carried on after October 2019 by Ihor Ponochovny. The Crimean Human Rights Group writes that the degree to which both men and their team have worked very effectively can be seen in the fact that thus far twelve reports regarding crimes committed in occupied Crimea falling under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court at the Hague have been passed to the Court. CHG notes that many of these were written in cooperation with human rights groups. As reported, in December 2020, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court [ICC], Fatou Bensouda announced that there were reasonable grounds for believing that war crimes and crimes against humanity, falling within ICC jurisdiction, had been committed in connection with the conflict in Donbas and with Russia’s ongoing occupation of Crimea. The Prosecutor spoke very positively of the assistance which Ukraine’s authorities had provided to her Office in their preliminary investigation.
Why remove the person whose efforts have been so important in achieving progress unless you want to destroy the War Department? It is small wonder that human rights groups associate the problems that this Department has faced with Iryna Venediktova’s appointment as Prosecutor General.
Several of Venediktova’s appointments have aroused concern, and her decision in August 2020 to appoint Maksym Yakubovsky to the post of Deputy Prosecutor General prompted a letter of protest from a large number of human rights and other civic organizations. Yakubovsky was from 2011 to 2013 involved in the ‘Independent Ukrainian Centre for Legal Initiatives’ which is linked with Medvedchuk and his ‘Ukrainian Choice’ party. Yakubovsky’s involvement in a PR campaign for ‘Ukrainian Choice’ is not just of concern because of Medvedchuk’s pro-Russian position and friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The party has also gained notoriety for anti-Semitism and homophobia. Yakubovsky himself has been implicated in at least one journalist investigation over suspicious amounts of assets.
It is Yakubovsky who has now been appointed to replace Mamedov, while the latter is to be responsible for protecting children and countering domestic violence, as well as for cooperating with a training centre for prosecutors. Ukrainska Pravda notes that Yakubovsky’s appointment may be of particular concern since it is specifically this department that could be involved in investigating the crimes in connection with which Medvedchuk and his party are now facing charges. It would be prosecutors from the team now passed from Mamedov to Yakubovsky who would represent the prosecution in cases concerning crimes committed in Donbas and occupied Crimea.
Even without such clear grounds for suspecting a conflict of interest, this is an unequivocally disastrous move.
Probably in response to outrage over her initial appointment of Yakobovsky to be in charge of the ‘War Department’, on 30 June the Prosecutor General issued a new order. Despite all of the concerns detailed above, Yakubovsky will remain Deputy Prosecutor General, involved in issues concerning the Specialized Prosecutor in the Military and Defence Sphere, as well as the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor.
If this was indeed a reaction to criticism, it failed to address the most flawed part of Venediktova’s reshuffling, namely the removal of Gyunguz Mamedov from a role critical for Ukraine which he had performed admirably.