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Venediktova drives out key figure helping Ukraine achieve justice over crimes in Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbas

28.07.2021
Halya Coynash

Gyunguz Mamedov at the Prosecutor General’s Office

Gyunguz Mamedov has resigned from his post as Deputy Prosecutor General just weeks after Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova removed him from his post as Head of the ‘War Department’.  His lawyers have made it quite clear that he was driven out through pressure from Venediktova’s Office, with this including a campaign aimed at discrediting him. 

This is not the first time that Venediktova has ousted people who had gained public trust by achieving results, while making very disturbing appointments.  Within weeks of taking over in March 2020, she removed Viktor Trepak from his post in charge of the investigations into crimes linked with Euromaidan, into the murder of Kherson activist Kateryna Handziuk, and some other high-profile cases. It was under Trepak’s leadership that in the space of just a few months significant progress was achieved in cases that had been stalled for years. 

Venediktova needs grounds for dismissing Deputy Prosecutors.  Moving them has now achieved the same end.  Trepak resigned immediately and in an interview made it clear what he saw as the reason. After saying that his team had been very close to identifying those who had commissioned the fatal attack on Handziuk (and had captured a key suspect hiding out in Bulgaria) , he commented: “You get the impression that certain people have no interest in a real result”.

The situation with Mamedov was in many ways identical.  Although Mamedov held his post must longer than Trepak, there had been ominous signals back in August 2020 of plans to remove him, with the ongoing rumours coinciding with the appointment in September 2020 of Maksym Yakubovsky as Deputy Prosecutor in charge of Maidan  .  There were several compelling reasons why Yakubovsky’s appointment elicited outrage, but concern was particularly strong due to his links with the ‘Ukrainian Choice’ party of controversial pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk. 

Venediktova’s initial decree on 29 June 2021 removed Mamedov as Head of the ‘Department for overseeing criminal proceedings into crimes committed in conditions of military conflict’, otherwise known as the War Department.  He was supposedly just moved to another post, heading the Department for Protection of Children and Countering of Domestic Violence, and was also to work with a training centre for prosecutors.  

Such senseless removal of the person who has headed the War Department since its creation by Venediktova’s predecessor, Ruslan Riaboshapka, already aroused outrage in civil society.  Venediktova, however, went one step further that day and appointed Yakubovsky to replace Mamedov.  Not only did Yakubovsky have no experience to justify the move, but there would also be a flagrant conflict of interest as Medvedchuk is currently under criminal investigation on suspicion of crimes that fall directly within the jurisdiction of the War Department.

The following day, the decree was changed with Venediktova instead taking control over the War Department herself.  The circumstances around this move only compounded the concern that it aroused.  Venediktova ignored public calls from leading human rights and civic NGOs last year to remove Yakubovsky, and had clearly left him in charge while on a visit to Estonia, since it was he who signed the new decree on 30 June.

There was one crucial difference between the moves against Trepak and Mamedov.  The latter did not resign from his post as Prosecutor General until almost a month later, on 26 July.  In reporting his resignation from the prosecutor’s office after 25 years of service, Mamedov’s lawyers stress that the management of the Prosecutor General’s Office deliberately created difficult conditions and had, in every way, blocked Mamedov’s work.  They write that the pressure brought to bear on him makes a mockery of the fundamental principle of prosecutors’ independence.

On 8 July, just over a week after removing him from his managerial role in the War Department, Venediktova issued another decree, this time taking away his post in the  Department for Protection of Children and Countering of Domestic Violence, and his role in the prosecutor training centre.

One of the methods used had been to strip him of his access to state secrets, although this was valid until August and would surely have been extended.  During a meeting with representatives of leading human rights NGOs on 5 July, Venediktova had essentially waffled for two hours, unable to provide any credible reason for her decision to remove Mamedov.  As reported earlier, it was during that meeting that Venediktova first spoke of “two letters from the SBU [Ukraine’s Security Service]” which had purportedly caused her decision.  The SBU, she claimed, had informed her that Mamedov had “infringed the rules for access to state secrets” and that it had been on the basis of that information that she had, “scrupulously following established rules and procedure”, removed Mamedov’s access to state secrets.  

It is difficult to take this at all seriously.  There was no mention of this before the announcement that Venediktova had removed Mamedov from his post; he had been moved, not dismissed; and, in any case, he should undoubtedly have been informed of allegations against him. On 7 July, Mamedov and his lawyers from the Miller Law Firm publicly demanded to see these ‘secret letters’ used, post fact, as the excuse for removing him and as a method of discrediting him.  His lawyers have now stated that “there are no lawful grounds for the dismissal of our client, and an information campaign aimed at discrediting him has therefore been used.” 

They note that Mamedov was merely accused of not having stated in his documents that he also works for the Odesa National University and dismiss this as being a formal pretext.  They point out that Mamedov handed the SBU the standard package of documents which he had provided during previous procedure for obtaining access to state secrets. Both the SBU and Venediktova ignored the fact that Mamedov’s work at the University had been given in annual declarations and there had clearly been no attempt to conceal it.  They are therefore convinced that there were no grounds for stripping him of access to state secrets (nor for removing him from his posts). By removing his particular areas of responsibility, Venediktova effectively reduced his post with the aim clearly of achieving his removal altogether.

They consider the decision to be not only without legal justification, but also politically motivated.  Venediktova has now taken control of high-profile criminal investigations, in particular against Medvedchuk’s people within the ‘Ukrainian Choice’ party “who provided support for the seizure of Crimea and played an active role in organizing and running the so-called ‘referendum’” (on 16 March 2014, which Russia tried to use to justify its land-grab).  At the end of June, indictments against two leaders of ‘Ukrainian Choice’ were passed to the court, with this coinciding with the initial decision to replace Mamedov by Yakubovsky, despite the latter’s links with ‘Ukrainian Choice’ and glaring conflict of interest. 

Mamedov’s lawyers express concerns voiced from the outset by Ukraine’s most prominent human rights NGOs.  Olha Skripnik is Director of the Crimean Human Rights Group which has worked closely with Mamedov since 2016, first in his capacity as Crimean Prosecutor, then as the Head of the War Department.  She is convinced that Mamedov’s removal is a political decision linked with the Office of President Volodymyr Zelensky.  It was no accident that she was speaking on a program entitled Issues of National Security, since both the successful working of Ukraine’s War Department and the present measures are of just such critical importance.  At very best, this is the replacement of a person with considerable experience and expertise vital for the joint investigation into the downing of MH17 and cases before the International Criminal Court and other courts, by a person who has neither experience nor expert knowledge.  At worst, this is deliberate sabotage of those cases and others. Venediktova’s actions are gravely jeopardizing the work that Ukraine has achieved in investigating war crimes committed in occupied Crimea and Donbas and the hope of holding those responsible, and Russia itself, to account.  

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