What triggered resolution of stalemate with odious Kyiv judge?

15 December 2022, 05:23 PM
Pavlo Vovk, Chairman of the District Administrative Court of Kyiv (OASK) (Photo:Павло Вовк via Facebook)

Pavlo Vovk, Chairman of the District Administrative Court of Kyiv (OASK) (Photo:Павло Вовк via Facebook)

What emboldened Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, to take a decisive step with regard to the scandalous Judge Pavlo Vovk?

The Ukrainian Parliament finally adopted on Dec. 13 a law on the liquidation of the District Administrative Court of Kyiv (OASK), which was headed by the infamous Judge Pavlo Vovk. All its cases were temporarily transferred to the Kyiv District (Oblast) Administrative Court (OKOAS).

By the same law, the Verkhovna Rada created a new authority — Kyiv City District Administrative Court. And Vovk and his colleagues who want to return to work will now have to pass the test for the right to wear judicial robes in front of the new composition of the High Council of Justice (HCJ) and the High Qualification Commission of Judges (HQCJ) — the chief and collective judicial arbitrators of Ukraine.

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For the time being, the ex-head of OASK and his colleagues will remain judges, but without a place of work.

Over the next few months, no hearings of judges' cases are expected in the HCJ, as it is currently not functioning due to judicial reform. This, in fact, entails the selection of new and honest representatives of the judiciary to the Council.

A total of 310 MPs voted for the abolition of the scandalous court. This is even more than is required to amend the Constitution.

But the real attack against the OASK was launched not by the Verkhovna Rada, but by the U.S. State Department: On Dec. 9, it imposed personal sanctions against Vovk and two members of his family with the wording "for soliciting bribes in return for interfering in judicial and other public processes."

As early as 20 months ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy submitted a bill on the abolition of the court to the parliament, and all this time it has been gathering dust in the Rada. But a few days after the White House designated Vovk a bribe-taker, the Ukrainian legislature liquidated the OASK, passing the law in two readings at once. On the very same day, it was signed by Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk and Zelenskyy.

One of the influential interlocutors in the presidential faction Servant of the People (SOTP) assured NV that the sudden decisiveness of Ukraine’s lawmakers is not related to the push from Washington. They claim that this law got the green light rather as a gesture of goodwill: the Ukrainian authorities decided to demonstrate that they are "on the same wavelength with the Americans."

Denys Maslov, a “Servant” MP and chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Legal Policy, told NV the motives for this vote were as follows: Ukrainian legislators "could not ignore such (developments), among other things", referring to the harsh comments from the State Department. The vote of the parliament came as the result of manifest political will.

"There were 310 votes in favor,” said the committee chairman.

“Therefore, we cannot say that this is exclusively the position of international partners. This is the position of the Ukrainian parliament and the Ukrainian people.”

According to Maslov, all courts will make an inventory by the end of the year. After the law enters into force, the judicial administration must adopt the relevant acts with a list of material assets of the OASK, including the building on the capital's Lesia Ukrainka Boulevard, and its equipment. If a new court is formed, these assets will be transferred to its balance sheet.

The OASK itself issued an extremely bizarre statement that "the decision of the Verkhovna Rada does not comply with the provisions of the Constitution of Ukraine, the provisions of procedural legislation, and the requirements of wartime."

Maslov called the opinion of Vovk's colleagues an "interpretation of the law." He stresses that the legislature does have the authority to liquidate a court during martial law. The parliamentarian agrees that it is necessary to form the composition of the HCJ as soon as possible so that it can recruit the staff of the new court.

On condition of anonymity, the ruling party shared with NV another reason for the liquidation of the OASK: the President’s Office decided to remove this symbol of public distrust in the judiciary.

Why did Vovk become such a symbol?

Leading Ukrainian anti-corruption NGOs — Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC) and DEJURE Foundation — have called Vovk the main villain of the country's judicial system.

The OASK considered disputes between state bodies, ministries, police, national regulators and thus became one of the key elements of power in the country. This court could cancel any decision of the Cabinet of Ministers, and remove or reinstate any official.

Vovk himself had headed the OASK since 2007. During this time, there have been four presidents in Ukraine. Using judicial immunity and a lifetime appointment, he extended his influence even to the HCJ and the HQCJ, which could potentially deprive him of his position because of a plethora of reprimands.

In 2019, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) accused the Head of the OASK of interfering in the work of the HQCJ. According to investigators, Vovk and his colleagues "organized a scheme to create artificial obstacles in the work of the Commission of Judges to avoid mandatory qualification assessment."

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The judge himself called the case against him "interference by the NABU and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO) in the administration of justice" and personal revenge of the then director of the antigraft agency Artem Sytnyk.

A year later, NABU put Vovk on the wanted list as a suspect in a criminal organization that "aimed to seize state power by establishing control over the judiciary." As proof of Vovk's guilt, the agency released a 45-minute video in which he discussed the "seizure of power" with his deputy. The recording also showed that the OASK head appreciated his own power and was ready to guide important state processes in the right direction.

At the end of 2020, Vovk had to flee from NABU detectives, ignoring the summons for questioning. The High Anti-Corruption Court is currently considering a case of seizure of power, in which Vovk faces up to 12 years in prison. Another case against the judge will soon be sent to court on influence on the HQCJ, but the AntAC is skeptical about its prospects.

Scandalous and sometimes absurd decisions have become the hallmark of Vovk and his court.

For example, the OASK initiated legal proceedings in favor of fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych, who in 2021 decided to appeal against the deprivation of his powers, although according to the law he could do so only within six months from the moment of the "deprivation" itself. In addition, this court made dubious decisions on the payment of UAH 1 billion ($27.2 million) by the nationalized Privatbank to businessmen the Surkis brothers.

DEJURE has analyzed the cases handled by 50 OASK judges and concluded that some of them are openly "pro-Russian in nature, endangering national security." In 2013, Judge Viktor Danylyshyn was the first to ban the erection of tents on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, and a week later his colleague Bohdan Sanin announced a ban on peaceful protests on Maidan at midnight. In 2019, a representative of the OASK Olena Mazur suspended the decision of the Ministry of Defense to switch to a new catering system according to NATO standards. And last year, the Vovk court canceled the new Ukrainian spelling approved by the government.

The AntAC pointed out that the OASK also intended to disrupt the competition for the position of the head of the SAPO.

Now Vovk and his employees will lose the authority to judge others, although they will retain the mantle for some time.

The AntAC explained: the future composition of the HQCJ will carry out a qualification assessment of judges, based on the results of which it will recommend either appointing judges to other institutions or dismissing them.

Transfer to other courts can be carried out only at the initiative of the HCJ. Eight of its members must be elected by the Congress of Judges, which, according to Maslov, is scheduled for early 2023. As soon as the Council is formed, it will be able to deal with the OASK issue.

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