Rubber Stamp Courts

Ukraine’s leaders have seldom demonstrated much understanding or respect for the presumption of innocence. That fundamental element of any justice system is in fact, widely ignored in Ukraine with the rot beginning in police press reports and all too often circulated in copy paste mode through the media.

Within hours of a bloody attack on a VIP branch of PrivatBank in Donetsk on 29 December, during which 5 members of staff were killed, President Yanukovych had issued an Instruction demanding maximum efforts to catch the criminals and setting a date for reporting on progress.  Within a day two men had been arrested, and first on 31 December, then on 3 January (the President’s deadline), the Internal Affairs Minister Zakharchenko gave briefings stating categorically that the case was solved and the perpetrators in custody. 

Such police confidence did not negate the need for a court trial with judges there to provide objective examination of all evidence.  That, at least, is the theory.  It is difficult to imagine what objectivity could be expected when the police had stated that all was solved, and headlines could be found in media outlets like “The men who shot dead PrivatBank employees have been charged

Some of the coverage reached absurd depths, like the headline: “Was force used against the men who shot dead PrivatBank employees”.  Those who prefer their news in succinct, headline portions might be left with the idea that the men had been set upon by people enraged by their (apparently undisputed) heinous crime.  Those who read further could understand that it was not that simple.

The mother of one of the men accused claims that the police beat a confession out of her son, that there are witnesses who can confirm that he had no traces of beating before being arrested, and that her son was long denied access to a lawyer. She also asserts that he has a verifiable alibi. The fact that the police do not appear to be denying signs of beating but claim that he got them earlier is worryingly predictable. There is no video footage of the attack itself and video surveillance shots from neighbouring buildings have been mentioned, but not shown.

Questions are also warranted regarding the videoed fragment of an investigative experiment in which the same suspect is apparently visiting the scene of the crime and explaining how he shot the employees.  The experiment with the other suspect is not shown. The video was first played for journalists at one of the Minister’s briefings, and can now be viewed on the Internet.  This is unquestionably in breach of procedure and at very least curious, given the consistent refusals to show evidence against the two men citing professional confidentiality and the need to protect witnesses. Why resort to such primitive means of setting the public against one suspect if, as they claim, they have irrefutable evidence of the men’s guilt?

Where the truth lies is not for me to determine, but nor did I come up with such a vital component of fair court proceedings as the presumption of innocence.  That is quite simply nowhere to be seen, and any arguments that it is redundant because the men have “confessed” should be weighed up against reports from both Ukrainian and international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, regarding means frequently used to extract confessions.

The police are not the only ones publically patting themselves on the back for their supposedly record-breaking success in fulfilling the President’s instructions and ensuring that Ukrainians can feel safe again.  The allegations made by the family of one of the suspects as well as questions regarding, among other things, the videoed investigative experiment do not seem to have bothered the Prosecutor General. On 16 January his deputy awarded prizes to the regional prosecutors involved in the case.

There have been a number of cases over the last six months where Deputy Prosecutor Generals have made submissions to the High Council of Justice to get judges dismissed for alleged “breach of oath”. In each case the judges had handed down rulings not to the Prosecutor’s liking.

It would be nice to believe that there are judges whose integrity demands scrupulous examination of the charges against two men over the 29 December armed robbery and an acquittal if this were required.  Their ruling would certainly be appealed, and a submission seeking their dismissal might well be lodged with the High Council of Justice.

Which leaves the police and Prosecutor effectively convicting two men before the criminal investigation is concluded, and the court left to rubber-stamp the conviction and pass sentence. If the two men now in custody really committed the crime they stand accused of, they must be punished. If they did not, then two innocent men face life sentences and the real culprits are still at large.  Overt pressure on the enforcement bodies and increasing encroachments on the independence of the judiciary are a danger to everybody.  Journalists would be well-advised to think hard about who they are serving through uncritical reporting.

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