Get-Out-of-Jail Cards Frustrate Ukraine's Anti-Corruption Cops

  • Suspects in high-level cases all released on bail by judges
  • Ukraine is awaiting creation of dedicated anti-graft court

Corruption-battling cops in Ukraine are hitting obstacles in their quest to snare misbehaving officials.

While a belated crackdown on graft is finally producing high-level arrests, many probes aren’t reaching court and suspects are often freed on bail against investigators’ wishes. The latest case -- the alleged embezzlement of $17.3 million at a state-owned uranium-ore plant -- saw a former lawmaker from ex-Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s party released pending possible trial.

That decision was the result of pressure from sympathetic fellow legislators, according to Artem Sytnyk, head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, known as NABU. He says politicians are shunning the demands of the nation’s second revolution in a decade, which ousted Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 in pursuit of greater state transparency and rule of law. It took more than two years to return $1.5 billion seized from his accounts to the state budget.

“It’s not a test for the bureau -- it’s a test for our political elite,” Sytnyk told reporters last week. “When lawmakers start to abuse the prosecutor, the judge, when they openly press, it seems to me that our elite has failed the test.”

As well as the lawmaker in the current case, Mykola Martynenko, judges have bailed the head of the Central Electoral Commission, the deputy chairman of state energy company NAK Naftogaz and Roman Nasirov, head of the Fiscal Service, who was freed after his wife and father-in-law stumped up 100 million hryvnia ($3.7 million). They all deny corruption charges.

Suspects will continue to be freed on bail, in line with Ukrainian legislation that’s based on European standards, according to Vitaly Kasko, a former deputy prosecutor who quit last year complaining there was no appetite for reform. Nevertheless, some law-enforcement officials fled the country upon release by the courts.

Ukraine created NABU at the behest of the International Monetary Fund, with disbursements from a $17.5 billion bailout linked to progress on tackling graft. But the system isn’t complete, with an Anti-Corruption Court due to start work in 2018. Without that, NABU’s cases will be handled by an unreformed judiciary that’s frequently criticized by international lenders and anti-graft bodies for lacking impartiality.

‘Ping-Pong Match’

The European Union and the U.S. have welcomed the recent corruption cases. But they stress importance of the anti-graft court in seeing prosecutions through.

“Timely creation of the court will ensure the full chain of criminal-justice system dedicated to fighting corruption in Ukraine is in place,” an EU spokesperson told Bloomberg by email. “This will be pivotal for the successful continuation of anti-corruption reforms.”

In the meantime, a “ping-pong match” between Ukrainian courts and NABU is likely persist, according to Joerg Forbrig, senior program director of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin.

Efforts to fight high-level graft are “ever-more openly thwarted by an unreformed judiciary that is itself mired in corruption,” Forbrig said by email. “Unless the courts themselves are fundamentally reformed, ideally with a special branch of courts to handle cases graft, Ukraine’s fight against corruption can’t be successful.”

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