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Ukrainian MPs endanger independence of key anti-corruption body

– With 239 votes, Ukrainian MPs appointed scandalous and much-criticized members to the commission that will select the head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, a key anti-corruption institution.
Article by: Olena Makarenko

Euromaidan Press (18.09.2020) – https://bit.ly/2ElIGE0 – On 17 September, Ukrainian MPs voted for a decision that puts international financial support for the country under risk and threatens the independence of a key anti-corruption institution.

In particular, the Parliament voted for the members of the commission which selects the head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. Previously, NGOs fighting against corruption, Ukraine’s international partners, as well as pro-democratic politicians pointed at the lack of qualification and integrity among the candidates to the commission suggested by the corresponding parliamentary committee. Still, the majority of the MPs ignored these issues and supported the candidates. European representatives responded by hinting that Ukraine’s visa-free regime with the EU and a EUR 1.5 bn tranche now be up in the air.

Why is the Specialized Anti-Corruption Office so important?

The Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO) is a new institution created in 2015 to fight top corruption, together with the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU). While the NABU investigates cases on top-corruption, the SAPO provides procedural supervision for such cases. Afterward, the two direct such cases to the High Anti-Corruption Court, created in 2019. Previously, the top-corruption cases were directed to ordinary courts.
Over the five years of their work, NABU and SAPO directed over 260 cases to courts.

Previously in Ukraine, government top-officials, MPs, and other influencers were considered untouchable. Therefore, before the NABU and the SAPO existence, Ukrainians have never seen investigations on top corruption.

The procedure for selecting the head of the SAPO

The head of the SAPO is selected for five years. The terms of powers of the previous one, Nazar Kholodnytskyi, would have expired in November 2020. However, he resigned two months earlier.

In the process of creation of the SAPO, Ukrainian civil society and politicians together with Ukraine’s international partners focused on how to make the procedure of selection of its head transparent and fair. Otherwise, there was a high chance that those potential corrupts investigated by the NABU and the SAPO would influence the institution through its head.

They arrived at a solution when the head of the SAPO is selected by a Commission consisting of 11 persons. Four out of them are nominated by the Prosecutor’s Council. Seven are nominated by the Parliament.

What is the scandal around the members of the Commission about?

Earlier this year already, the prosecutors nominated their representatives. Society had no questions regarding them – unlike the candidates suggested by the Parliament’s Committee on Law Enforcement.

Previously, the candidates supported by the committee did not find the needed support in the Parliament.
On 17 September, from the third attempt, the MPs finally supported them with 239 votes, despite all the criticisms.

In particular,
• President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party gave 172 votes,
• pro-Russian Opposition Platform for Life – 30,
• For the Future (associated with oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi) – 18,
• the group Dovira – 11,
• and independent candidates – 8.

Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity, Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna, and Voice did not give a single voice.

The core of the scandal around the candidates voted in by the parliament concerns their inconsistencies with provisions of the Ukrainian legislation. In particular, the Law on the Prosecutor’s Office says that the members of the commission which select the head of the SAPO have to have “significant experience of activities in the field of preventing and or combating corruption.” Instead, the majority of the members elected from the Parliament don’t have such experience at all. Neither do the members have an impeccable business reputation, high professional and moral qualities, and public credibility, as prescribed by the law.

Also, among the members supported by the Parliament, nobody corresponds to the requirements of being appointed as the head of the commission. According to the law, the commission should be headed by a person from the Parliament’s quota.

Due to all of these inconsistencies with the Ukrainian legislation, Ukraine’s western partners started warning Ukraine on the consequences of the support of the Parliament’s candidates before and after the voting.

What was the reaction of Ukraine’s international partners?

A transparent procedure corresponding to the necessary criteria for selection of the new head of SAPO was one of the conditions for providing a new EUR 600 mn of EU macro-financial support. As well, its violation can launch the process of suspending and canceling the EU visa-free regime.

And the reaction was swift. (See https://bit.ly/2ElIGE0)

Earlier this month, Ambassadors of the G7 published a statement underscoring the importance of merit-based selection processes for heads of anti-corruption institutions:

Also, Gerry Rice, the director of the IMF Communications Department, informed that the development of the IMF’s programs on the financial support of Ukraine will depend on whether the anti-corruption bodies (the NABU, the SAPO, and the Anti-Corruption Court) will manage to preserve their independence.

What did the Servant of the People, the party which gave most of the votes, say?

David Arakhmamia, the head of the Servant of the People faction, told journalists he is not going to react to Viola von Cramon-Taubadel’s statement regarding the possible cancellation of Ukraine’s visa-free regime with the EU and the EUR 1.5 bn tranche.

He said that the EU Association Agreement documents do not mention the SAPO, and that the MEP’s words were rumors: “[The Association Agreement] does not mention the SAPO; it mentions the independence of the anti-corruption structures. This we support and will follow,” Arakhamia said.

Previously, Dmytro Kuleba, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine stated that there are no threats to visa-free travel between Ukraine and the EU.

What did the President’s Office answer?

Following the voting for the Commission members, the President’s Office also reacted, saying that it took the Parliament’s decision, as well as societal criticism which followed it, into consideration. In a statement, it said that even a strict competition process does not automatically guarantee the independence of the future head of the institution.

“Therefore, we urge all participants of the public debate on the activities of the anti-corruption infrastructure of the state to refrain from excessive emotions, as well as from speculative assessments of the work of specific individuals in administrative positions in anti-corruption bodies. The path on overcoming corruption is also a mandatory component for the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of our country.”

But actually, there are no legal instruments for the President’s Office to influence the Parliament’s decision.

How can this influence the SAPO?

The members of the commission which will select the SAPO head from the Parliament’s quota can promote candidates loyal to some particular political forces.

The head of the SAPO can sabotage cases which means their chances to be considered properly in the court decrease.

SAPO’s previous head, Nazar Kholodnytskyi, was noticed sabotaging cases himself.

Still, in general, the very existence and the work of the SAPO is evaluated positively by Ukrainian anti-corruption NGOs.

“Still, Kholodnytskyi himself is not the SAPO; prosecutors make up the SAPO. I think the majority of prosecutors are ethical,” Vadym Valko, Automaidan NGO lawyer and Secretariat of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau’s Public Control Council analyst says, pointing at the particular investigations into the most corrupt, including MPs, being directed to courts.

Therefore, even in the worst-case scenario, the SAPO will be able to independently work on the cases no matter who is the head for some time.

The competition for the position of the head of the SAPO should be completed by 30 November.





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North Korean soldier defects across DMZ

By Eugene Whong

 

Radio Free Asia (01.08.2019) – https://bit.ly/2ZkyfJ8 – A North Korean active-duty soldier crossed the military demarcation line (MDL) Wednesday night in the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) into South Korea in an apparent defection.

 

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs (JSC) of Staff Thursday said in a press briefing that the soldier was detected by thermal imaging at 11:38 p.m. near the Imjin river, which flows from the North to the South in the central and western part of the Korean peninsula.

 

At first, South Korean security forces were unable to identify what they had detected, but confirmed it was a person at 11:56 p.m. and troops stationed nearby took the soldier into custody.

 

“The person that we took into custody is an active-duty soldier, and he expressed his desire to defect to South Korea,” said JCS Chief Kim Joon-rak during the briefing.

 

“Currently, identification and other related procedures are underway, so we will provide detailed information separately,“ he said.

 

South Korea’s KBS News quoted a JSC official as saying “it was the first time since 2010 that a defector came by way of the Imjin.”

 

It was the second time a North Korean crossed the DMZ with the intention to defect in eight months. On December 1, 2018 a North Korean soldier crossed over the armed land border in the eastern part of the peninsula.

 

One year prior to that event, a North Korean solider ran south through the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, getting shot by other North Korean soldiers. Despite being wounded, he successfully made it to the South, where South Korean guards found him. He was later taken to the hospital for gunshot wounds to an elbow and shoulder.

 

While defections by soldiers are rare, more than 30,000 North Koreans have made their way to South Korea in recent decades, and women make up the overwhelming majority. According to statistics kept by the South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, in 2017 71% of all registered defectors living in the South were women.





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European companies get rich in China’s ‘open air prison’

Volkswagen, Siemens and more are making money in Xinjiang, where minorities are being herded into detention camps.

By Benjamin Haas

The New York Times (21.08.2019) – https://nyti.ms/33Sh7d5 – Many people around the world may just now be learning that around a million Uighur Muslims and other minorities have been locked up in extrajudicial internment camps in the region of Xinjiang, in western China. There is a reason for that: Xinjiang is remote and the Chinese government has expended considerable effort to keep the news hidden, from harassing foreign journalists to seizing family members of activists to censoring information within its own borders.

Herbert Diess, however, should have no excuse.

Mr. Diess is the chief executive of Volkswagen, which opened a plant in Xinjiang in 2013 that employs almost 700 local workers and can make up to 50,000 cars a year. In an interview with the BBC in April, Mr. Diess said he was not aware of the system of camps or the Muslim minorities subject to mass detention, even though his company’s factory is within a 90-minute drive from four such detention centers. (The company issued a new statement saying it did, in fact, know about the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and was committed to human rights.)

What excuse do the other chief executives and board presidents use?

I have found that about half of the largest 150 European companies had some presence in Xinjiang, an area that Amnesty International has described as “an open-air prison.” Their investments merit far more scrutiny from both regulators and the public, and European governments need to form standards for companies dealing with Xinjiang.

At the top of the list of companies that deserve a thorough review is Siemens. This large German conglomerate collaborates on advanced technologies in automation, digitization and networking with China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, a state-owned military contractor that has developed a policing app used in Xinjiang that, according to Human Rights Watch, has led some people to be sent to the camps.

The Spanish telecommunications firm Telefónica has a joint venture with China Unicom that appears to use big data for tracking people. The company markets the software as a way to deliver location-based ads or monitor public transportation use, and while it says the data is anonymous, I reviewed an internal presentation that appears to have shown ID numbers unique to each cellphone user. It is easy to see how such software could be used by the authorities in Xinjiang to track minorities in real time, and it has already been deployed in the region, according to a presentation.

Other investments are less immediately tied to abuses of the Uighur population. KfW, a German state-owned bank, provided 100 million euros ($111 million) in funding for the construction of a subway line that opened in 2018 in the regional capital, Urumqi, built with components from ABB, a Swiss engineering firm, and Airbus Defense and Space, the European aircraft manufacturer. Unilever and Nestlé both buy tomato products from a state-owned company in Xinjiang that could end up in the ketchup in kitchens across Europe. Neither company responded to questions about how products from Xinjiang are used.

While this research did not uncover any direct relationship between European companies and the internment camps, conversations with executives in Germany showed that most headquarters have little understanding of how their businesses operate in Xinjiang.

The Chinese government has long pushed to develop its far-flung western regions, partly to shore up their links with the rest of the country and partly in the hopes that economic development will depress religious observance and quell the desire for basic freedoms. In some cases, European companies have been pressured to start operations in Xinjiang as conditions for expansion elsewhere in China. Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, is just one example. It opened stores in Xinjiang only after receiving “strong advice” from Chinese officials. Other European executives told me that they had received similar messages.

But China’s desire for investment gives foreign companies with ties in the region — and European governments — real power. Now they need to use it.

The European Union should enact laws that set standards for companies operating in Xinjiang and punish those that fail to live up to European ideals of human rights, with audits on whether camp labor was involved in any part of their supply chains, where profits end up in China and how products and technology are used.

If all European Union members fail to agree on regulations, the charge should be taken up by national parliaments, especially in countries like Germany with extensive business in Xinjiang. These standards should apply to any European company, not just the large multinationals, and would have powerful ramifications beyond just Xinjiang.

Companies found to be flouting these standards could be barred from bidding for government contracts as an initial measure, with fines and government-appointed monitors as additional punishments. The European Union also needs to immediately impose export bans on technology that could be used in the repression of dissidents and religious minorities.

Business leaders and politicians frequently bristle at the idea of directly confronting China on its human rights abuses, worried that a firm stance could jeopardize future deals. But while China may issue statements condemning such actions and threaten to stop buying products from critics, it’s unlikely that Beijing is ready for another economic fight amid a slowing economy and a trade war with the United States.

European exports could take a hit or Chinese regulators may begin investigations into European companies as a punitive measure. But such actions would only further isolate China, a country that knows it needs all the stable economic relationships it has. While plenty of diplomatic protests and bombastic editorials in state-run newspapers are sure to follow such a move, President Xi Jinping cannot afford to further destabilize the economy over a political spat with the European Union, which is China’s largest trading partner.

This confluence of circumstances is exactly why the European Union must act now to stand up for its values and leverage its economic relationship with China to pressure it to end one of the most egregious human rights violations in the world today. Feigning ignorance is no longer an option.


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