Current discourse | Anti-graft agency arrests Supreme Court chief over controversial ruling favoring oligarch

Anti-graft agency arrests Supreme Court chief over controversial ruling favoring oligarch - Photo
Zhevago and Knyazev (collage - Daryna Dmytrenko/LIGA.net)
16.05.2023, 18:21

Anti-graft agencies detained Supreme Court head Vsevolod Knyazev on suspicion of bribery. The group allegedly acted in the interests of an oligarch

updated

On Tuesday, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office charged Knyazev and his accomplice, lawyer Oleh Horetskyi, under Part 4 of Art. 368 (obtaining an unlawful benefit). The issue of appealing to the High Council of Justice and the High Anti-Corruption Court is currently being decided. In addition, the plenum of the Supreme Court dismissed Knyazev from the post of the court's head, although he remains a judge of the Supreme Court.

On Monday, detectives from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau detained Supreme Court Chief Justice Vsevolod Kniazev. According to the investigation, he is a member of a "back office" that could facilitate the adoption of a decision necessary for businessman Kostiantyn Zhevago in exchange for a bribe. And not only for him.

"This is yet another confirmation that, unfortunately, there are clans in the judicial system that replace each other in power. But the essence of the problem does not change," Olena Shcherban, a lawyer at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, told LIGA.net.

WHAT HAPPENED. At the beginning of 2023, law enforcement officers received information about a "criminal group" involving the leadership of the judiciary.Therefore, the NABU decided to carry out an operational penetration of the group with the help of an undercover detective, NABU Director Semen Kryvonos said at a briefing.

"As a result... we have recorded a number of contacts between the owner of the Finance and Credit group (Zhevago – ed.) and one of the owners of a law firm that was used to cover up criminal activity," said the NABU chief.

The head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office, Oleksandr Klymenko, clarified that the law firm was allegedly an intermediary between the court leadership and people who wanted to resolve a case in court for a bribe. Moreover, this concerned not only the Supreme Court, but also "most courts in Ukraine."

Zhevago and the above-mentioned lawyer allegedly agreed to give a bribe to high-ranking officials of the Supreme Court for making a decision in favor of the businessman, Kryvonos said.

REFERENCE. The Supreme Court made the decision Zhevago needed on April 19, the NABU said, but did not specify what exactly it was about. According to open sources, on April 19, the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the appellate court, according to which Zhevago's company Ferrexpo tried to sue 40% of the shares of the Poltava Mining and Processing Plant.

Zhevago's press service categorically denies that the businessman has anything to do with the situation around the Supreme Court: "The information in some media outlets that Zhevago may have received undue benefits from people acting in the interests of the businessman is completely false. Kostiantyn Zhevago has never given and could not give anyone such instructions."

In early May, the lawyer allegedly received an instruction from the leadership of the Supreme Court to divide the bribe among the members of the "criminal group". The first part of the bribe was received on May 3, and the second on May 15. And it was during the second "tranche" that detectives caught the court leadership red-handed.

Схема – НАБУ

Besides, according to Kryvonos, members of the group tried to influence the election of members of the High Qualification Commission of Judges, which is responsible for the selection and qualification assessment of judges.

Обшуки у справі Князєва (Фото – НAБУ)

Currently, two people have been detained, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Knyazev. The NABU also emphasized that investigative actions are ongoing, and there may be new detentions and charges in this case.

WHY IT MATTERS. The Supreme Court is the court above all courts, AntAC lawyer Shcherban tells LIGA.net: "And the head of the Supreme Court actually heads the judicial self-government in the country and can influence any head of any court."

According to her, the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court resolves all key issues and disagreements in judicial practice. "And it can break down any case: criminal, commercial, civil," adds Shcherban.

She is convinced that this case suggests that the Supreme Court reform has been unsuccessful.

"This case is very similar to the group that existed around the former head of the OASK (District Administrative Court of Kyiv) Pavlo Vovk (the so-called "wolf pack" – ed.)," explains Shcherban. "But the situation here is even worse, because we are talking about the highest court in the country and the activities of judges after the so-called purge."

The newly created Supreme Court began its work in 2017 as a result of the judicial reform under President Petro Poroshenko. According to the Dejure Foundation, the Supreme Court is mostly composed of old judges, of whom 44 judges (23%) were found to be dishonest.

"Supreme Court judges are shocked by these events... This is a black day in the history of the court," the Supreme Court plenum said in a statement adopted by 142 judges on Tuesday. The plenum also decided to launch a no-confidence motion against Knyazev, which should result in his resignation as head of the court. However, Knyazev will not lose his position as a Supreme Court judge.

The authorities are thinking about what to do with the Supreme Court and judicial reform in general, a source in the President’s Office told LIGA.net. According to him, there are no clear scenarios yet.

In February 2023, Knyazev publicly criticized the Deputy Head of the Zelenskyy administration, Andriy Smirnov, calling him an "imitator of judicial reform." In an interview with LIGA.net, Smirnov linked Knyazev's accusations to the government's intention to carry out "a profound judicial reform that we have agreed with international partners."

Smirnov did not respond to LIGA.net's request for comment on the situation with the Supreme Court.

Olha Piskunova, an expert at the Center of Policy and Legal Reform, opposes the idea of shooting from the hip and forming the Supreme Court from scratch.

"Any reform is an iterative process," she explains in a comment to LIGA.net. "The first iteration showed that the funnel that is supposed to weed out dishonest judges is not working properly yet.

That is why it is now crucial to form a professional and honest composition of the HQCJ, which should develop a new mechanism for selecting judges, she adds: "The process of cleansing the judiciary is long and gradual. You can't dismiss all the judges in one day and recruit new honest ones the next day."

The Supreme Court can be cleansed in a year or two if we want to, Shcherban believes. But for this, an independent HQCJ must be created.

According to her, the important role of the HQCJ is confirmed by NABU's statements that the "Knyazev group" allegedly tried to influence the competitive selection to the HQCJ.

After the charges were announced, law enforcement officers now have to turn to the High Council of Justice (HCJ), which must authorize the detention of Knyazev and other Supreme Court judges within five days. Only then will the case be transferred to the High Anti-Corruption Court, which will elect a measure of restraint.

"The HCJ's consideration may be a litmus test for the success or failure of the relaunch of this body," Shcherban said.

In her opinion, the HCJ's decision will show whether the judicial system is ready to deal with such cases and whether judges are ready to demonstrate that they do not want to be part of such a system.

Currently, two people have been detained, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Knyazev. The NABU also emphasized that investigative actions are ongoing, and there may be new detentions and charges in this case.

 

WHY IT MATTERS. The Supreme Court is the court above all courts, AntAC lawyer Shcherban tells LIGA.net: "And the head of the Supreme Court actually heads the judicial self-government in the country and can influence any head of any court."

 

According to her, the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court resolves all key issues and disagreements in judicial practice. "And it can break down any case: criminal, commercial, civil," adds Shcherban.

 

She is convinced that this case suggests that the Supreme Court reform has been unsuccessful.

 

Yurii Smirnov
Yurii Smirnov
Special correspondent, LIGA.net
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