NEWS FROM UKRAINE - THE PEOPLE AGAINST CORRUPTION, AND ON THE EASTERN FRONT, AND IN THE HAGUE

11.03.17


UD. 11 March 2017.  

By Iryna Terlecky.

A week in which people power overshadows the power of the judiciary and Russia faces the International Court of Justice.

The people against corruption

The Maidan revolution showed, amongst other things, that Ukrainians had had enough of rampant, state-sponsored corruption and misappropriation of public funds which enriched an inner circle of politicians and oligarchs while impoverishing public services and the people. 

When ex-President Yanukovych fled, Ukrainians were horrified at the conspicuous trappings he left behind, and since then, the new system of electronic declaration of income for public officials has started to lay bare the wealth that politicians and officials have amassed.

Three years on from the historic events of Maidan, Ukraine still ranks 131st out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s corruption index. 

Ukrainians across the country feel that little, if any, progress has been made in cracking down on corrupt officials.

However, the last several days has shown that activists are no longer prepared to stomach a legal system which can be manipulated by those seeking to avoid justice. 

On 3 March, Roman Nasirov, head of Ukraine’s Fiscal Service and an ally of President Petro Poroshenko, was removed from his post pending an investigation into allegations that he defrauded the state of 2 billion hryvnyas. The public, online wealth-declaration database suggests that Nasirov, along with his wife, keeps cash in dollars and euros worth $2.2 million.

Late on 2 March, as National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) investigators closed in on the 38-year old Nasirov, he claimed to have suffered a heart attack and was taken to hospital, seemingly unconscious, where the authorities filmed him lying in a bed as they read out the charges against him. 

He was wheeled into the courthouse on Friday 3 March on a stretcher, surrounded by both lawyers and medical professionals, in what many claimed to be a performance worthy of an Oscar.

The drama dragged into the weekend, as apparently no judge could be found for a hearing on Nasirov’s detention. 

As the 72-hour deadline for his detention neared at midnight on Sunday 5 March, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the courthouse, blockading it until early 6 March to ensure that Nasirov did not leave before a judge arrived. 

He was considered to be a flight risk because, contrary to Ukrainian law, he possesses Hungarian and British passports, along with his Ukrainian citizenship, according to the NABU.

Eventually a judge arrived at the court on Monday 6 March and the hearing on Nasirov’s detention began. 

Proceedings dragged on for more than 14 hours until 03.13. the next day, when the court remanded Nasirov to two months of pretrial detention. 

The judge made Nasirov surrender his foreign passport and said he would be granted house arrest if he posted 100 million hryvnyas ($3.7 million). 

If he makes bail, the judge added, he must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.

Anti-corruption campaigners were jubilant. 

Member of Parliament and a key instigator of the Maidan protests Mustafa Nayyem said, powerful figures who may have felt “untouchable” now have a sense of “how it tastes” to be held to account “even if you are a close friend of the president.”

“Yesterday [Nasirov] was a millionaire with a big car...and he was sure he would be released. But today, and for 60 more days, he is in jail.”

Daria Kalenyuk, executive director of the Kyiv-based NGO Anticorruption Action Centre, called Nasirov’s arrest “historic” and one of the biggest legal challenges for Ukrainian authorities since the country spun off from the Soviet Union in 1991.

“It is the first time since [Ukraine’s] independence that a person in such a top, influential office in Ukraine, through which millions of funds are transferred daily, has been arrested and charged with corruption,” Kalenyuk told RFE/RL.

Many wondered how uncomfortable President Poroshenko might be with the very public events surrounding his ally, but his public statement was unexpectionable. 

He applauded NABU’s case against Nasirov and called it “a shining example” of the effectiveness of anticorruption reforms in Ukraine and proof of the bureau’s independence.

“As of today, a high-ranking official is notified of suspicion without informing the president. I think this is exactly what we sought while creating an independent agency,” Poroshenko said via his press service on 6 March.

Volodymyr Fesenko, chairman of the Kyiv-based Penta Centre for Applied Political Studies, told Interfax-Ukraine on March 7 that the Nasirov case was “explosive,” adding that, at least in the coming months, it will be one of the main factors in the course of political developments in Ukraine and a test of how committed the government is to real action against corruption. 

Activists believe that continued pressure will be needed to ensure that a mistrusted judicial system will see the Nasirov case through and have no illusions about their role in pressing for action, as Mustafa Nayyem commented;

“Yes, we have problems with prosecutors, problems with our court systems, an inexperienced [NABU]. But we have an inspired Ukrainian society that is asking for justice.” 

And on the Eastern front…

For several weeks, a group of around 100 military veterans, parliamentary deputies and activists have blocked rail lines in eastern Ukraine in a bid to end what they call a “trade in blood” – both the movement of coal, iron ore and other bulk items across the front line, and smuggling allegedly run by corrupt members of the security services.

“We are proud that the blockade has hit the pockets of the occupiers. We should call it a war and stop ... all trade with the occupied territories,” parliament member Semen Semenchenko, a blockade advocate, told The Associated Press.

The blockade has seriously disrupted trade on both sides of the front line, cutting off much of the coal shipments to government-controlled territory and impeding shipments from the mills and factories in the east. 

Economists speculate that the move puts at risk the half a million jobs and $3.5 billion in revenue from steel exports in the east that depend on the coal trains. 

Separatists have now begun seizing mines and factories on territory that they control, in a move the Kremlin called a justified response to a blockade of the region. They include those owned by tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, who is Ukraine’s richest person and whose foundation has been the largest provider of humanitarian aid to a war-battered population. 

His Metinvest holding company announced last week that it had stopped operations at a steel mill and a coal mine because of the blockade, risking putting 20,000 people out of work. 

Akhmetov’s foundation said in a statement that its work in the region was paralysed after separatists blocked access to Akhmetov’s Shakhtar FC arena in Donetsk, which hosted the 2012 European soccer championships and now serves as a warehouse for relief efforts. 

The foundation said it has given away more than 11 million food packages direct to local residents. 

The separatists do not allow Ukrainian aid in, and in recent months have banned virtually all international organizations from operating there.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s government has spoken out against the blockade, saying it hurts ordinary Ukrainians in the rest of the country by cutting off coal shipments from separatist regions and creating power shortages. 

However, it has taken no action to break it, as it is not prepared to clash openly with nationalist activists. 

And in The Hague…

On 6 March, judges in the The Hague began hearing a landmark case brought by Kyiv over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian government is asking the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ highest court, to fine Russia for “intervening militarily in Ukraine, financing acts of terrorism, and violating the human rights of millions of Ukraine’s citizens.”

Russia, which publicly denies sending troops or military equipment to eastern Ukraine, is widely expected to challenge the jurisdiction of the court.

The first hearing was largely devoted to requests for so-called conditional measures, which sides can ask judges to impose to ensure a conflict does not escalate while the case is being heard. 

Olena Zerkal, a deputy foreign minister of Ukraine who headed the country’s delegation in court, asked judges to order Russia to halt all financial, material, and other support to separatist forces while the case is heard.

Unsurprisingly, Russia has denied the accusations and claimed that the ICJ has no jurisdiction over the case. 

It is maintaining its position that it is not a party to the conflict and has no direct way to influence pro-Russian militants in southern and eastern Ukraine.

ICJ hearings can take years and any decision of the court could be blocked by Russia at the UN Security Council. 

However, at the very least, the ICJ case will create a prolonged public discussion about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, highlighting how far Russian disinformation is prepared to go, and from that point of view, can only be a positive step for Ukraine.

 

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