Ukraine’s corrupt judges targeted in constitutional reforms

President Petro Poroshenko addresses parliament before voting for changes to the constitution required for judicial reform. Kyiv, 2 June. [Reuters]

Ukraine’s parliament approved yesterday (2 June) judicial reforms that Western backers say are needed to fight corruption, in the first constitutional vote the ruling coalition has pushed through since an overhaul of the government in April.

Bribery in the court system is seen as a major obstacle to Ukraine’s broader reform effort under a $17.5 billion International Monetary Fund bailout program that political infighting has threatened to derail.

IMF threatens to cut Ukraine aid over corruption

The International Monetary Fund threatened to cut crucial financial aid to cash-strapped Ukraine yesterday (10 February) because of the country’s “slow progress” in fighting corruption.

The bill, which aims to curb political influence on the appointment of judges and limit their immunity in case of malpractice, was backed by 335 lawmakers, 35 more than the required votes needed for changes to the constitution.

The result was welcomed by Ukraine’s international backers, including the United States and the European Union, which along with the International Monetary Fund have urged Kyiv to step up its fight against corruption.

The IMF, which is in negotiations with Ukraine for disbursing more aid worth $1.7 billion, has threatened to suspend such assistance if matters do not improve.

“We will return to Ukrainians the right to truth, the right to justice, fight for a fair trial in Ukraine,” President Petro Poroshenko told parliament before the vote.

“In the last two weeks my desk has been littered with appeals from our partners, EU leaders, the United States and Canada, Australia and Japan, addressing me and you, members of parliament. Don’t stop the pace of decisive reforms and implement judicial reform.”

Senior EU officials Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn said they hoped the vote would pave the way for other changes to the constitution, including a law to give greater independence to regions that is required under the ‘Minsk’ peace deal with pro-Russian separatists (see background).

“We hope today’s vote will create momentum for the adoption in the final reading of the pending constitutional amendments related to decentralization and other important reforms,” they said in a joint statement.

The judicial legislation was opposed by some lawmakers, including the servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko, who returned home last week after spending nearly two years in a Russian jail and is viewed by many Ukrainians as a national heroine.

EU and Ukraine celebrate the release of Nadia Savchenko

Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko arrived home in Kyiv today (25 May) after nearly two years in a Russian jail, part of a prisoner swap in which two Russians held in Ukraine were returned to Moscow.

In an emotional appeal she asked the parliament to keep its hands off the constitution, “or else the country will blow up like a hand grenade”. She did not take part in the vote.

The reform is aimed at making judges more professional. It partly limits their immunity from prosecution, which used to be unconditional. From now on they will be appointed by a judicial council rather than parliament, which is intended to shield them from political meddling.

“Today we have a historic opportunity to carry out this judicial reform, to break the back of the current corrupt judicial system,” the head of the opposition Radical Party Oleh Lyashko said.

Speaking to when he was in opposition, Poroshenko said that Ukrainian judges were “independent from the law”.

Ukrainian ex-minister: ‘Our judges are independent from the law’

Petro Poroshenko, a former top government minister and an influential businessman, said yesterday (7 March) he regretted the “selective justice” that led to an opposition lawmaker to lose his parliamentary seat.

A deal to establish a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, called the Minsk Protocol, was signed on 5 September 2014. The agreement was drawn up by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, which consisted of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE.

In the two weeks after the Minsk Protocol was signed, there were frequent violations of the ceasefire by both parties to the conflict. Talks continued in Minsk, and a follow-up to the Minsk Protocol was agreed to on 19 September 2014.

A new package of measures meant to stop fighting in the Donbass, Minsk II, was agreed to on 12 February 2015 by the between the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine (the Normandy format), after 17 hour of negotiations.

The four leaders committed to respecting Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, according to a joint declaration.

On 2 March 2015, European leaders said that they agreed that the OSCE needed a broader role as observers of the ceasefire, and weapons removal.

On 2 October 2015, the leaders of the Normandy format admitted that it would take time to organise elections in Ukraine which respect international standards and as a result, the so-called Minsk peace process would run into next year.

The EU placed friendly pressure on Kyiv to deliver on the Minsk agreements. Ukraine’s position is that as long as numerous ceasefire violations by Moscow-supported separatists in eastern Ukraine continue to occur, it is impossible to talk about political decentralisation of  Donetsk and Lugansk, and local elections.

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