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RFE/RL Investigation Discovers That Ukrainian Court Awarded Yanukovych’s Interests On The Eve Of Russian Invasion
The Moscow-friendly former leader Viktor Yanukovych was getting ready for his offensive, a legal attempt to overturn the Ukrainian legislature’s 2014 decision to strip him of his title and status as president, as Russian troops massed in the tens of thousands along Ukraine’s borders in December 2021.
After two months, the Russian army overflowed the border, with many of them moving southward toward Kyiv in what was widely seen to be an attempt to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s administration and ensure the installation of a leader who would be sympathetic to Moscow.
Evidence and reports from the media imply that Yanukovych was a potential candidate for such a position within the Kremlin. Schemes, the RFE/RL Ukrainian Service investigative section, conducted a journalistic investigation that turned out information regarding two court decisions that, at least in the eyes of millions of Ukrainians, may have given the fugitive ex-president’s appointment some validity.
Even if the Russian military’s advance on Kyiv was a complete failure, concerns about the court system’s susceptibility to outside influence remain in light of the timing of the cases and the ruling in response to Yanukovych’s request for reinstatement.
Yanukovych appointed Yevhen Ablov, the vice chairman of OASK, as the judge who decided his second case. Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur, the judge who decided his first case, was a deputy minister of industrial policy during Yanukovych’s term as prime minister in 2006–07.
Prosecutors have submitted an indictment charging “the creation of a criminal organization and abuse of power” before an anti-corruption court, and Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur and Ablov are among those implicated. The chief judge and four additional OASK judges are also charged.
These circumstances never led to a public inquiry into whether the judges’ involvement in Yanukovych’s cases constituted a conflict of interest.
In his first case, Yanukovych demanded that OASK acknowledge that the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, lacked the constitutional authority to declare on February 22, 2014, the day after he had fled Kyiv after the Maidan protest movement came to an end and started his flight to Russia, that he had resigned from office.
Putin has long maintained that Yanukovych is the sole legal president of Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s narratives and justifications for the February invasion heavily rely on his fabrication that the previous president’s removal from office was the product of a coup supported by the West.
The matter was taken on by OASK on December 28, 2021, and Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur was given it.
In 2007, Yanukovych, then prime minister, designated Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur as his deputy minister of industrial policy. During the large demonstrations known as the Orange Revolution, Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur was a member of the Central Election Commission (CEC) that certified Yanukovych as the president of Ukraine in 2004. The Supreme Court later overturned this decision, citing election fraud. Viktor Yushchenko, Yanukovych’s opponent, prevailed in the repeat of the election.
Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur did not remove himself from Yanukovych’s case despite this background. A hearing was set for February 16, 2022—a little more than a week before Russia would invade Ukraine on that date.
Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur wrote in an early December ruling that the case should be considered by the Supreme Court in its original form, as it contained violations. On December 6, the Court upheld Yanukovych’s conviction for treason after he asked for Russian military assistance to put an end to the 2014 protests. After Yanukovych made the necessary adjustments, the judge recommended that the suit be redrafted. The lawsuit was then retained by OASK.
When asked about the timeline for the case, Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur said that court secretaries are in charge of scheduling. He stopped talking about the matter after that.
Without providing further details, he stated, “I can hardly hope for an objective interview since RFE/RL negatively covers the activities of the judicial system as a whole.” After Schemes revealed that a judge on Ukraine’s Supreme Court was a Russian citizen, the judge was removed from office.
Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur turned aside when asked why he had not recused himself from the Yanukovych case.
However, Kachura’s involvement in the CEC’s vote in support of Yanukovych in the 2014 election raises questions about impartiality, according to Vadym Valko, an attorney with the charity Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv.
Soon after, more questions regarding OASK would surface.
Eight days following the acceptance of his first case by OASK, Yanukovych sued the Ukrainian assembly once more. This time, he claimed that the president cannot have his title revoked by parliament short of impeachment.
On January 5, 2022, this lawsuit was accepted and sent to Yevhen Ablov, the Deputy Chairman of OASK, who was appointed to the court by Yanukovych in 2010.
Ablov was one of just three of OASK’s forty-three judges who were purportedly available at the time; however, Schemes’ analysis of case rulings showed that there were six more functioning justices, for a total of nine.
He chose to judge on the matter without consulting the plaintiff or the defense, as allowed by Ukrainian law.
Although the Code of Administrative Proceedings cautions courts against issuing summary judgments in matters about public interest, Ablov contests the notion that Yanukovych’s attempt to reassume his presidential title was unusual.
“Every case we handle in the legal system affects millions of people; in OASK, that number is even higher,” he said to Schemes.
Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur and Ablov ultimately came to the same conclusions about the Yanukovych lawsuits within a day of one another: to dismiss the suits “without consideration” since the eight-year-old six-month window for appealing legislative acts had passed. Yanukovych had the opportunity to ask for an extension earlier, but he chose not to.
The rulings of the two judges, which were rendered on April 20 and 21, came about two weeks after Russia had finished removing its troops from the vicinity of Kyiv and rerouting them across the border. The withdrawal was just one of several significant defeats for Putin’s purported objective of enslaving the Russian people and the Russian army.
It is unclear why OASK continued to accept Yanukovych’s lawsuits after the deadline for doing so expired.
The deputy chief of staff of Zelenskiy, Andriy Smirnov, who is in charge of judicial reform matters, informed Schemes that OASK’s choice to accept Yanukovych’s two lawsuits caused a lot of controversies and raised the possibility that the judiciary and specific judicial bodies would be utilized as a tool by some individuals to carry out their nefarious schemes.
Smirnov did not provide further details, just stating that he had “a serious conversation” with Pavlo Vovk, the chairman of the court, about the issue.
Zelenskiy warned lawmakers that the court would “put an end to any state achievement, reform” in April 2021, and he encouraged them to dissolve OASK.
There isn’t any hard evidence connecting Yanukovych’s litigation to a potential Russian conspiracy to bring him back to power after the invasion on February 24. However, there is information that implies Putin thought Russia would prevail in a matter of days or weeks at most.
However, Putin has long portrayed 72-year-old Yanukovych as the only legal leader of Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s narratives and justifications for the February invasion heavily rely on his fabrication that the former president’s removal from office was the product of a coup supported by the West.
Yanukovych backed down from signing a trade agreement with the European Union in November 2013 due to pressure from Putin, calling for closer connections with Russia in its place. This move sparked massive demonstrations known as the Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity.
Following deadly fighting between security forces and Maidan protestors, who claimed the authorities had opened sniper fire into their ranks, he fled for Russia in late February 2014. The Russian military then occupied Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and Moscow encouraged separatism throughout eastern and southern Ukraine, sparking conflict in the Donbas region. Now, that battle is a part of the larger war that Russia started on February 24 when it invaded.
A week or so later, a plane that Yanukovych had used was spotted in the Belarusian capital, and the well-known media outlet Ukrainska Pravda quoted an unidentified Ukrainian intelligence source as saying that Yanukovych was in Minsk as part of what could be a plan for his return to power in Ukraine. However, the report was never confirmed.
In a statement released by Russian official media on March 8, Yanukovych made a “presidential” plea to Zelenskiy, asking him to “stop the war at any cost and reach a peace agreement.”
Because of Yanukovych’s “role in undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine and the state’s stability and security,” the European Union placed sanctions on him in August.
The EU sanctions document claimed, citing “different sources,” that Yanukovych was part of a Russian covert operation that replaced Zelenskiy in the early stages of the invasion.
In any event, Ukrainian political expert Volodymyr Fesenko stated that any Russian plan to utilize the lawsuits to portray Yanukovych as Ukraine’s legitimate leader would only have succeeded if Russia had taken over Kyiv and Yanukovych had returned “on tanks.”
Fesenko made the following statement to Current Time, the Russian-language network operated by RFE/RL in collaboration with VOA: “Yanukovych is not just, to recall the famous Russian expression, a less-than-fresh sturgeon, but rather a long-rotten sturgeon whom no one needed in Kyiv except the Russians.”
Judges in Ukraine who were investigating Ihor Kochura as part of a well-known criminal case remained employed
The High Council of Justice, which must approve the suspension, claims that illegal charges were brought and that improper evidence was gathered.
Three of the prosecutor general’s requests for the temporary suspension of Kyiv District Administrative Court (KDAK) judges were returned unconsidered by the High Council of Justice, while two more were denied.
RFE/RL says that this is in line with the September 1 HCJ declaration.
The rulings made by the HCJ involve judges Ihor Pohribnichenko, Volodymyr Keleberda, Oleksiy Ohurtsov, and deputy chairman of the KDAC, Yevhen Ablov.
The move on Pohribinchenko, Keleberda, and Ohurtsov was returned by the HCJ without consideration, purportedly because of a “violation of the procedure for pressing charges”.
The Criminal Procedure Code was allegedly broken to gather the evidence against the judges, and the risks associated with their continued operations were deemed “not justified” by the HCJ, despite having taken the motions on Ablov and Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur into consideration.
Furthermore, the HCJ stated that Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova’s motions did not include information about the National Anti-Corruption Bureau’s ties to the KDAC, which was made public on September 1.
“The publication on the NABU website of materials not attached to the Prosecutor General’s motions, considered by HCJ, has signs of influence on the High Council of Justice in an extra-procedural manner, which will be assessed based on the current legislation,” stated the statement.
Judges attempting to seize state power: case background
- On July 17, NABU raided the Kyiv District Administrative Court (KDAK) and the State Judicial Administration (SJA). Later, NABU detectives charged Court Chairman Pavlo Vovk, his deputy Yevhen Ablov, five judges, and SJA head Zenoviy Kholodnyuk with setting up a criminal organization and seizing state power.
- Later, NABU noted that another four persons were set to be charged.
- According to the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO), 12 individuals, led by the KDAC chair, acted as part of a criminal organization that aimed to seize state power by establishing control over the Higher Qualification Commission of Judges and the High Council of Justice and creating artificial obstacles in their work.
- SAPO claims that members of the criminal organization have been handing down tailored rulings serving their interests, as well as the interests of political and business elites.
- Later, Vovk and the chairman of State Judicial Administration Kholodniuk stated that they had not been served with charge papers.
- On August 11, NABU announced that seven defendants had been put on the wanted list in the case of an alleged seizure of state power by the Kyiv District Administrative Court leadership: Pavlo Vovk, Volodymyr Keleberda, Ihor Kochura AKA Ihor Kachur, Mykola Sirosh, Ihor Pohribnichenko, Oleksiy Ohurtsov, and Serhiy Ostapets.
- On August 12, the Kyiv District Administrative Court’s press service said the “wanted” judges were at their workplaces.