Former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, now a lawmaker, has been called in for “urgent questioning” by the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) in a case involving the smuggling of 43 valuable paintings out of Ukraine, the state’s investigation service agency said on Friday (22 May).
The news comes days after the country’s prosecutor general’s office, invoking high treason, reportedly opened a criminal investigation into the former president based on tape recordings leaked earlier this week, Ukrayinska Pravda reported relying on its own sources.
On Tuesday, (19 May) independent parliamentarian Andriy Derkach released recordings supposedly obtained from investigative journalists, which purportedly show Poroshenko and then-US Vice President Joe Biden making American aid to Ukraine conditional on the dismissal of Viktor Shokin, the former Soviet country’s prosecutor general at the time.
Shokin was removed in early 2016, under international pressure from the US, EU and international financial organisations, amid accusations of blocking investigations into top officials who had served under Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, and after several of Shokin’s prosecutors were indicted on corruption charges. The latter case is still in court. All deny any wrong doing.
Derkach claims that the heavily edited tapes support his accusations of illegal pressure on Poroshenko to fire Shokin because of an investigation into Ukrainian gas company Burisma, on whose board Biden’s son Hunter sat at the time.
The voices on the recording contain no mention of the company or Hunter Biden.
Poroshenko called the tapes “fabricated” and accused pro-Kremlin forces of trying to undercut bipartisan support for Ukraine in the US, by “drawing the country into the electoral campaign of America”.
During a marathon press conference on Wednesday (20 May), the new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who took over in May 2019, said he thought that “they [Poroshenko] had run the state in such a way that there are so many different adventures and different sentences waiting for them”.
He later said the matter should be dealt with law enforcement agencies.
The move is the latest in a series of investigations into Poroshenko, whose pro-Western opposition party and lawyers previously called the probes selective justice ‘at the orders of Zelenskiy.’
The previous prosecutor-general Ruslan Riaboshapka, whose reluctance to authorise a preliminary investigation against Poroshenko was cited as the last straw that led to his dismissal, described the criminal investigations against the former president as “legal trash.”
“The document was all crossed out. Not only that, but there was, in fact, no evidence to prove the crimes of which the fifth president is suspected,” Riaboshapka told LB.ua last week.
The former prosecutor-general added that “proceedings for crimes in the economic sphere, in which serious convincing evidence would be collected, would be more promising.”
Riaboshapka enjoyed widespread support from Ukrainian civil society and anti-corruption organisations but was sacked by the new Ukrainian parliament in March, raising concerns from international observers and anti-corruption watchdogs.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Benjamin Fox]