Lutsenko’s dismal record at odds with his boasts
Subjected to a political trial in 2012, then-opposition politician Yuriy Lutsenko would spit in the face of his prosecutors and tell jokes about them while sitting in the defendant’s cage in court.
Fast forward six years, one of which Lutsenko spent in prison, and the former defendant becomes the accuser.
Having now been Ukraine’s prosecutor general for 2.5 years, Lutsenko often claims he and his allies have managed to create a new, European-standard law enforcement system, return money stolen by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, and bring to justice thousands of corrupt officials.
“Let’s stop the empty talk that nothing is changing,” he said at the Yalta European Strategy or YES conference on Sept. 15 in Kyiv, slamming his critics for playing on the issue for political gain.
But the facts show that Lutsenko’s words are mostly empty.
Ukraine still ranks as the most corrupt country in Europe after Russia, according to the 2017 Corruption Perception Index, in which it scored a dismal 30 points out of 100.
In the four years since the EuroMaidan Revolution that ended Yanukovych's four-year reign, no top officials from either the old or new regimes have gone to jail for corruption. Out of hundreds of influential Yanukovych allies, only one is under arrest: ex-lawmaker Oleksandr Yefremov, who is now kept in a detention center awaiting trial for separatism.
Oleksandr Lemenov, an anti-corruption expert at the Reanimation Package of Reform non-government watchdog, called Lutsenko’s claims about his achievements a “public relations binge.”
“A politician has no right be prosecutor general,” he said.
Speaking from the parliament tribune, lawmaker Iegor Soboliev said on Sept. 18 that Lutsenko had been appointed to the top law enforcement post illegally ( Lutsenko has no degree in law as required to hold the post, but parliament voted to relax this condition in his case). Soboliev called on the parliament to dismiss Lutsenko for multiple violations and “covering for high-level corruption” and started collecting lawmakers’ signatures to initiate his resignation.
His grand achievement?
Lutsenko said at the YES conference that he had felt “uncomfortable” when parliament had to swiftly change the law to appoint him prosecutor general in May 2016. Before his appointment, Lutsenko headed the dominant 135seat pro-presidential Bloc of Petro Poroshenko faction in parliament.
Still, Lutsenko claims that by gaining the post he was able to return to Ukraine’s budget $1.5 billion in money stolen by Yanukovych from the nation.
But what was supposed to be the biggest achievement of the post-EuroMaidan prosecution ended up in scandal, when the Doha, Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera published in January a secret ruling of Kramatorsk City Court.
It revealed that money confiscated from offshore accounts likely belonging to Yanukovych’s ally, oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko, were laundered with the mediation of Ukrainian investment bank ICU, which also provides services to President Petro Poroshenko, who appointed Lutsenko.
Moreover, anti-corruption activists argue that the ruling on confiscation didn’t have the required evidence or legal grounds. So Ukraine may end up having to return the confiscated money to the offshore firms.
Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center and lawmaker Sergii Leshchenko called on Lutsenko to resign in the wake of the scandal.
Lutsenko said at the YES conference that another of his achievements was the “2,200 bribe-takers that were sentenced for corruption” after EuroMaidan.
He admitted, however, that under new laws regular prosecutors can investigate officials no higher than deputy governor. It’s up to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) to investigate top -ranking officials, he said.
But in fact NABU can only investigate officials, while it's still up to Prosecutor General's Office and the National Police to investigate the most powerful people in Ukraine -- the oligarchs and their cronies. Despite massive evidence of corruption and other wrongdoing, the country’s heavyweights are escaping charges.
One of them is oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who is based in Austria and faces U.S. bribery charges.
Firtash, who denies the accusations of wrongdoing, has been accused of siphoning massive amounts of the nation’s wealth by selling Russian and Turkmen gas in Ukraine through shady intermediaries. However, he has not been charged in any cases in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, last year lawmaker Leshchenko published the text of what he says is a draft parliament motion to strip Yuriy Boyko, the leader of the Opposition Bloc and close ally of Firtash, of his immunity from prosecution in a $700 million embezzlement case. Leshchenko said Lutsenko had blocked the case, although the prosecutor general denied it.
Another lucky untouchable is tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, who also denies accusations of wrongdoing. In January a report by forensic auditor Kroll into PrivatBank uncovered a “large-scale and coordinated fraud” scheme that emptied $5.5 billion from the bank’s vaults when the bank was controlled by Kolomoisky. The bank was nationalized in 2016.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, one of the most powerful people in the country, has not been charged with anything either despite video footage in which his son and subordinates discuss a corrupt deal and implicate Avakov himself.
But even when he plays on what he says is his field, it seems that Lutsenko isn't too hard on the defendants suspected of corruption.
The Nashi Hroshi investigative website, which analyzed all sentences handed down for abuse of power, bribing or accepting bribes in 2015–2017, found out that the toughest punishment was one-and-a-half years in a detention center. It had been given to a former deputy head of the State Agrarian Inspection, Ihor Nemyrovsky.
Despite a court sentencing Nemyrovsky to 10 years in prison for taking a $30,000 bribe, an appeal court later cut the term to three years, and eventually released him early.
Nashi Hroshi found that over the three years, the most senior officials prosecuted for corruption were either acquitted, given a suspended sentence, concluded a plea bargain with investigators, or had their cases sent to the appeal courts. No official higher than a deputy minister or head of a district administration had been prosecuted.
However, in 2017 a doctor and two border guards were sentenced to between three and five years for taking bribes. Eight people were also sentenced to three to four years for bribing police officers, border guards or prison officers, according to Nashi Hroshi.
Lutsenko also said at the conference that he was appalled by a court decision in August to close a criminal case against the mayor of Kharkiv Hennadiy Kernes, who faced charges of kidnapping, torturing and threatening to murder EuroMaidan Revolution activists. Lutsenko said he had ordered the opening of a criminal investigation against the judge who made the ruling.
Lawmaker Soboliev, however, claimed that Lutsenko had actually helped to have the criminal case against Kernes closed. “His subordinates failed to attend the court hearings and the court had to close the case,” Soboliev said.
Lutsenko’s office is also making little progress in corruption investigations against top officials who served under Yanukovych. Some of the major corruption cases investigated by the Prosecutor General’s Office have been closed. These include cases against ex-lawmaker Yury Ivanyushchenko, Yanukovych’s ex-Deputy Chief of Staff Andriy Portnov and ex-Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky.
While Yanukovych is now on trial in a case on state treason, lawyers for the activists who were killed during the EuroMaidan Revolution say this trial has little to do with real justice. They say Yanukovych, who is hiding in Russia, will never be apprehended, and could later challenge his trial in the European courts, as prosecutors have failed to collect strong enough evidence to prove his guilt.
Lutsenko claimed at the YES conference that he can’t bring to justice top-level officials, as that is thejob of the NABU, which is overseen by the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office.
“I’m the only prosecutor general in Europe who has no influence on this part of anti-corruption work,” Lutsenko said, adding he hopes that in a year NABU will be able to bring at least 20 top officials to justice.
But in fact Lutsenko can still influence NABU investigations, because only he can authorize motions to strip lawmakers of immunity, and because Chief Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky, who oversees NABU investigations, is formally one of Lutsenko’s deputies.
And after NABU agents spent months investigating Dina Pimakhova, the deputy head of State Migration Service, who was suspected of taking bribes to help a foreigner obtain a Ukrainian passport, Lutsenko’s subordinates and officers of Ukraine’s SBU security service arrested in November NABU agents- involved in the case.
Lutsenko claimed one of the NABU agents, who was working undercover, had entrapped Pimakhova by offering her a bribe, which is illegal, while the NABU denied the accusations. With the breakdown of the NABU undercover operation, Pimakhova and other top officials from the migration service have not undergone any further investigation.
Lutsenko’s office is now investigating the head of the NABU, Artem Sytnyk, claiming he shared secret information with journalists during an off-the-record meeting.
Lutsenko said at the YES conference that the recent demands of prosecutors for 17 months of data from the cell phones of two investigative journalists, Natalie Sedletska and Kristina Berdynskykh, is related to this case. A court met the prosecutors’ demand, causing a scandal, and the ruling has been appealed against.
Lutsenko said he only needs to know the date of the information leak.
“Unfortunately, I have to go ahead with this minimal interference in the privacy of the journalists,” he said.
The European Court of Human Rights, however, found the intrusion excessive. On Sept. 18 it banned the Ukrainian government for a month from accessing any data from the phone of Sedletska, who hosts the Schemes investigative show, while the court reviews the case.