The case of ex-head of the Supreme Court Vsevolod Kniaziev is definitely one of the most high-profile investigations of the entire time of the NABU and SAPO activity. The briefing on May 16 has shown that the scale of this investigation is also understood by both the heads of anti-corruption bodies and other judges of the Supreme Court, who on the same day expressed no confidence in Kniaziev and deprived him of the post of the head.
But, in addition to its high-profile nature, this case has become a kind of scalpel that cut open the body of corruption in the courts. The Kniaziev case has presented various institutions of our country with either new or extremely old challenges that, despite the war and future reconstruction, need to be overcome now.
Challenge One: Prosecuting Senior Judges
Judges are the category of persons from whom we expect professionalism, impartiality, and integrity. But as we can see, not all judges have these crucial qualities.
Although we call the new high-profile investigation of the NABU the “Kniaziev Case,” we should remember that, according to available information, searches were carried out regarding as many as 18 people, many of them being the judges of the Supreme Court, and so far, only two defendants have been detained.
Of course, this is a strong blow for Ukraine. But this case should still be considered positively from the perspective of the activities of our anti-corruption system. On the night of May 15-16, we saw that, despite various circumstances and hostilities in the country, the SAPO and the NABU had been conducting the investigations we could only dream of 10 years ago. Nevertheless, such investigations are another indicator that it is imperative to continue the reform of the judicial branch of power in Ukraine.
The case of the judges of the Supreme Court can well illustrate that the system of checks and balances, which we have been talking about for years, does yield results. Anti-corruption agencies are doing their job. Detectives and anti-corruption prosecutors are not afraid to conduct an investigation against senior corrupt officials for several months, catch them “red-handed,” as well as proactively publicly communicate about such proceedings the very next day after the high-profile detention of the head of the Supreme Court himself. However, now the NABU and the SAPO have an extremely difficult task — to bring this investigation to trial and, ultimately, win such a high-profile case in court.
But this case will also be a challenge for the judicial self-governance. We have already seen how quickly the Supreme Court terminated Kniaziev’s powers as a result of expressing no confidence in him — a process that could have lasted more than 20 days took place in a few hours. And this is not a matter of proof or his guilt to me, it is a matter of the reputation of the judge, in such a high position, when his actions and reputation directly affect the attitude to the entire judicial system in Ukraine.
But, even after losing the position of the head, Kniaziev remains a judge of the Supreme Court. Many further steps in this case will depend, for example, on the decisions of the High Council of Justice. All because of judicial immunity.
To conduct further investigative actions against Kniaziev and assign him an interim measure, a decision of the High Council of Justice is required. And the speed of consideration and adoption of such a decision by the HCJ will also be a clear indicator of the readiness of the judicial self-government bodies for self-cleansing.
Then, depending on the total number of judges who will be involved in this case, the question of replacing them may potentially arise. If we are really talking about 18 judges — this is almost 10% of the total composition of the court. It is not yet known how effectively the Supreme Court will be able to carry out its activities after the loss of so many people from among its staff. The scale of the declared scheme is unknown because the case may relate not only to one decision regarding Zhevaho.
Of course, we would very much like to believe that both the HCJ and the HQCJ will be ready to work effectively with these challenges, but, unfortunately, there is no full confidence in this yet because we have not seen examples of such work. These bodies themselves are still in the process of reform, and the case with the judges of the Supreme Court could be evidence of their successful upgrading.
Detectives and anti-corruption prosecutors are not afraid to conduct an investigation against senior corrupt officials for several months, catch them “red-handed,” as well as proactively publicly communicate about such proceedings the very next day after the high-profile detention of the head of the Supreme Court himself.
Challenge Two: Maintaining Competitive Selection of Judges
In 2016-17, the competition for judges of the Supreme Court and its head was one of the first of its kind after the Revolution of Dignity, not only among the selections for judicial institutions, but also in general within the framework of public administration reform. And the Kniaziev case prompted discussions of whether such a selection was sufficiently effective.
It is important to understand that competitions are not a panacea for corruption. This is not about choosing idols, but about competitive and transparent selection of the best available candidates. And only time will tell how candidates will prove themselves in their positions.
That is why it is good that we already have effective bodies that are able to investigate and prosecute violations of the law, even if such violations are committed by judges. Especially if they are committed by judges.
Of course, according to the results of this case, it will be necessary to draw conclusions about the competitive procedure used to elect judges of the Supreme Court and find out why, after the selection, so many of them are involved in corruption cases. However, some warnings and risks in the selection to the Supreme Court were voiced before.
All these questions are another confirmation that the judicial reform should be continued. And the Kniaziev case should show everyone that as far as anti-corruption justice is concerned, judges are not unpunishable or protected, they will be brought to justice if their crimes are proven.
In general, when we talk about a new format for the selection of candidates for judges, there is something to improve in this process. At very least, it is necessary to set out the procedure so that the decision of the Public Council of Integrity and independent international experts during the selection, for example, was decisive or at least directly influenced the final result.
During the preliminary selection of judges to the Supreme Court, the conclusions of the Public Council should have been considered, but were not mandatory for consideration, did not have a final impact on the result of the decision of the HQCJ. And now we see that this definitely needs to change. By the way, it was with regard to some of the defendants in the case that the PIC presented negative conclusions or had reservations.
Competitions are not a panacea for corruption. This is not about choosing idols, but about competitive and transparent selection of the best available candidates. And only time will tell how candidates will prove themselves in their positions.
Challenge Three: Continuing Fight against Corruption at All Levels
If this case with the Supreme Court is not a point of no return, then what is? Reconstruction is already well underway in Ukraine, and professional and independent courts will play a crucial role in its transparency. That is why the Kniaziev case will undoubtedly be indicative of how Ukraine is ready to confront the challenge of corruption in the judicial system.
This is what society within countries expects, and what international partners want from us. Therefore, if we want to receive large international investments in reconstruction, we must show that our judicial system is capable and ready to work professionally and impartially.
All these things need to be carried out in parallel — changing the system and changing the staff. Because changing people without updating the rules will not yield any result.
That is why we need to continue implementing the best practices for judicial reform, which will work effectively in Ukraine, and hold accountable those who undermine all such efforts from the inside.
We need to continue implementing the best practices for judicial reform, which will work effectively in Ukraine, and hold accountable those who undermine all such efforts from the inside.
This publication was prepared with the financial support of the European Union. Its content is the sole responsibility of Transparency International Ukraine and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.