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Deep concerns in Brussels about the fight against corruption in Ukraine

By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers

EU Political Report (08.09.2020) – https://bit.ly/32fsKMJ – Brussels observers of the fight against corruption in Ukraine have expressed deep concerns about the efficiency of policies put in place in the last five years, during an online dialogue organised by the Brussels Press Club on 2 September, writes Willy Fautré.

 

On 28 August 2020, the Constitutional Court declared a decree by President Petro Poroshenko in April 2015 appointing Artem Sytnyk as the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) unconstitutional.

 

In May 2020, the Constitutional Court received a motion from 51 MPs challenging the constitutionality of the presidential appointment of Sytnyk as NABU director five years earlier. Some anti-corruption watchdogs consider Sytnyk to be the victim of a cabal organized behind the scenes by billionaire businessmen such as Igor Kolomoisky and Oleg Bakhmatyuk, along with Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov. NABU has investigated controversial activities of their companies as well as of Avakov’s family.

 

This latest incident on the bumpy road of reform for the judiciary demonstrates that anti-corruption policies are still undermined by very powerful stakeholders in Ukraine. There are also too many anti-corruption institutions that can be manipulated by prosecutors, judges and MPs who are on the payroll of extremely rich businessmen.

National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU)

 

NABU was created in 2015. It currently has 653 employees, including 245 detectives, who are paid high salaries to mitigate the temptations of corruption.

 

NABU boasts of having opened 406 criminal proceedings and served 125 individuals with charges during the first half of 2020. However, only 33 cases have been sent to court and, in total, only five convictions have been handed down against six people.

 

One of the reproaches of Ukrainian human rights organizations is that since 2015, no prominent corrupt official has been convicted. In its issue published on 21 February 2020, Kyiv Post reported that as of 1 January 2020, only 32 guilty verdicts had been issued in five years and that of these only lower level bureaucrats had been sentenced and smaller schemes had been dismantled. Two emblematic cases, among many others, remain unresolved as of today.

 

The first case concerns the Privatbank owned by Igor Kolomoisky and Gennadiy Bogolyubov. It was subject to large scale coordinated fraud which resulted in losses amounting to at least USD 5.5 billion before nationalisation in 2016. As a last resort, Ukrainian tax-payers had to bail this bank out.

 

In the case of the Rotterdam+ scheme, the fraudulent overpricing of energy is estimated at over USD 710 million. The main beneficiary is said to be businessman Rinat Akhmetov, who controls 90% of the coal in Ukraine.

The High Council of Justice

 

One highly controversial institution is the High Council of Justice, which is tasked with determining the outcome of the new judicial reform bill that was submitted by President Volodymyr Zelensky to the Ukrainian Parliament on 22 June 2020. Many of its members have a toxic reputation and have been accused of corruption and ethics violations, which they deny.

 

One of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) criteria for the payment of USD 5 billion for a reform program was that Ukraine must create a commission tasked with monitoring and firing tainted members of the High Council of Justice. This commission was to include foreign experts to provide impartiality. However, the new bill does not envisage the creation of such a commission and the firing of controversial members of the High Council of Justice would exclusively be decided by a majority of its own members without any involvement of foreign experts.

 

Furthermore, according to Ukraine’s agreement with the IMF, Kyiv was obliged to create a High Commission of Qualification of Judges by 7 February. This would be the competent body for hiring and firing judges, and would also include foreign experts. These foreign experts should have been appointed by the High Council before mid-January, but they weren’t.

 

Instead, in December 2019, the High Council of Justice swiftly published rules depriving international experts of any major role in decision making processes, which was in direct contradiction of the IMF deal.

 

Now, Zelensky’s new bill stipulates that a selection panel comprised of three members of the Ukrainian Council of Judges and three foreign experts would choose new members of the High Commission of Qualification of Judges. It also states that the international experts may be nominated by foreign organizations, but that the High Council of Justice will have the final say regarding the hiring of nominees. This opens the door to manipulation of this process and will likely prevent any real reform, according to some anti-corruption watchdogs.

 

In conclusion, the June draft law fails to respect the judicial reform criteria of the IMF memorandum which Ukraine must comply with by October 2020 to receive the next tranche of USD 5 billion. The bill even goes in the opposite direction as it strengthens the High Council, which is actively sabotaging the IMF’s reform program.

 

It is thus unsurprising that 76% of the general public distrust the judiciary according to a Razumkov Centre poll published in February, as it is apparent that even the reform process is fraught with corruption.





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COVID-19: Twelve NGOs call upon UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion to address the scapegoating of a church in South Korea

 

By Willy Fautré

 

EU Political Report (10.06.2020) – https://bit.ly/3cRbPlD – As UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, solicits submissions from NGOs for the upcoming Report on the Elimination of Religious Intolerance and Discrimination and the Achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16), 12 European civil society organisations have co-signed a document denouncing the scapegoating of the Shincheonji Church in South Korea.

 

On 7 February 2020, a female member of Shincheonji from Daegu, South Korea, was hospitalised after a car accident. While in the hospital, she presented with symptoms of what was identified as a common cold. She insisted that no one mentioned coronavirus as a possibility at that point in time, nor suggested she test for it. Only on 18 February, after her symptoms worsened, was she diagnosed with pneumonia, then tested for COVID-19. She tested positive and was designated as Patient 31. However, before she had been diagnosed, she had attended several functions of Shincheonji. As a result, she became the origin of hundreds of new infections, most of them involving fellow members of Shincheonji.

 

Consequently, throughout this health crisis, fundamentalist Protestant Churches, media and politicians in South Korea have demonised the Shincheonji Church for allegedly being responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

 

A 30-page White Paper published by human rights activists, a lawyer, a journalist and a scholar in religious studies in April 2020 debunked a wide range of myths and biased and false stories about Shincheonji, but that has not stopped the stigmatisation campaign.

 

The first reason for this scapegoating is religious tensions. With its 250,000 members, Shincheonji has been a fast-growing religious movement at the expense of the mainstream Protestant Churches. Under the guise of fighting against “heresies”, they are desperately trying to recover and maintain their followers.

 

The second reason is political. The fundamentalist Protestant Churches are politically conservative, aligning closely with the parties opposed to President Moon. The weight of Protestant voters during elections in South Korea is significant. While campaigning for the legislative elections in spring, fundamentalist Protestant groups instrumentalised the COVID-19 crisis by accusing Shincheonji of deliberately spreading the virus in South Korea.  Consequently, they asked for the ban of Shincheonji Church and pressed local prosecutors to charge the 89-year-old leader of the Church, Lee Man-hee, with homicide by ‘willful negligence.’

 

Neutral observers of discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief have denounced this hostile campaign of fundamentalist Presbyterian Churches attempting to get rid of a competitor in the free market of religions and beliefs.

 

In their submission, the civil society coalition refers to an assessment of the situation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan body whose members are appointed by the President of the United States and the congressional leaders of both political parties.

 

USCIRF confirmed that: “Shincheonji was suffering harassment from the South Korean government and society. Although some government measures appeared to be driven by legitimate public health concerns, others appeared to exaggerate the church’s role in the outbreak.”

 

USCIRF also received reports of individuals encountering discrimination at work and spousal abuse because of their affiliation with the Shincheonji Church.

 

The submission of the coalition of NGOs to the UN Special Rapporteur documents in detail the stigmatising dynamic triggered by various societal actors, their hidden agenda, and the negative impact this all has on the daily lives of members of the Shincheonji Church.

 

The Author, Willy Fautré is the Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers





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Serbs’ continued fight for property rights in Croatia

By Willy Fautré

EU Political Report (19.05.2020) – https://bit.ly/2X8iHFn – Twenty-five years after the end of Croatia’s war for independence from Serbia, thousands of Serbs are still fighting for their property rights in that Western Balkan country which became a member state of the European Union (EU) in 2013 and is now chairing the EU.

Dalibor Močević, a Croatian citizen of Serbian descent, is one of thousands of Serbs who were deprived by Croatian laws of their houses, apartments or other property in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars, which led to the breakup of the Former Yugoslav Republic.

In 1993, Močević, who was employed by a merchant shipping company, returned from a one-year trip working abroad. He discovered that his house in Dalmatia, a region along the Mediterranean Sea, had been confiscated by the authorities and handed over to Croatian refugees who had been displaced by the Yugoslav Wars.

Močević’s house had belonged to his father who had received it in 1972 from his former employer, the Customs Office of Zadar, during the Communist period.  This flat in Zadar had been Močević’s permanent residence since his birth in 1972. When his father died in 1992, Močević and his mother automatically became the co-owners of the flat under the administrative/legal status of “specially protected tenancy”.

In 1993, the Ministry of Finance, the Customs Administration and the Customs Office of Zadar brought a civil action against Močević and his mother in the Zadar Municipal Court to legalise their de facto eviction from the flat.

Since then, Močević has been fighting an endless battle against the Croatian administrations. In 2010, after ten years of ‘ping pong’ between the Municipal Court and the County Court of Zadar, he appealed the final local decision at the Supreme Court and then at the Constitutional Court, but to no avail.

The controversial Law on the “Temporary Takeover and Administration of Specified Property” that was passed at the end of summer 1995 is the legal instrument used by the state to justify the confiscation of homes and other property temporarily abandoned by their owners. Under this law, temporary possession and usage of such property could be given to Croats, including displaced persons and refugees as well as the families of killed or missing Croatian soldiers. There is no precise data on how many houses and apartments were placed under compulsory administration. Some say tens of thousands.

This law prohibited the sale or other use of the property by the original (Serb) owner once it had been transferred to the government. It granted the owners ninety days to “return to Croatia” and file a claim on their property to retain possession. For nearly all Serbs displaced by the war to whom the law applied, a safe return to Croatia for filing this claim under such a short deadline was impossible. In fact, even ten years later, there were still reports of violence against Serb returnees according to a press release from the OSCE.

Additionally, this law called for municipalities and towns to create commissions that would implement it and handle property claims. However, according to the U.N. Centre for Human Rights, as of early March 1997, not a single case brought before these property commissions resulted in Serb owners regaining possession of their property.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which as of 1997 had lodged more than 160 complaints with Croatian courts on behalf of Serbian homeowners described its success rate as ”zero,” and stopped taking new cases.

Furthermore, Croatia enacted over 20 discriminatory laws and regulations that formalised the confiscation of social housing inhabited by Serbs. Often, this was done in fast-paced lawsuits during which users were convicted “for hostile activity” or arbitrarily declared to have no right to occupy the flat, as in Mocevic’s case.

The estimate of the damage these policies incurred on Serbs who were not involved in the war, like Močević,  is incalculable.

Serbs were also excluded from the process of buying social housing. When that process began in Croatia, a large number of Serbs had already fled and, until today, Croatia has explicitly refused to grant them equal conditions for purchasing these apartments.

It was only in 2003 that there was a change in the Croatian attitude. Resolving the conflict around tenancy rights in Croatia was set as one of the conditions in the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. Despite this, most Serbs who lived or had property in Croatia in the 90’s did not regain their property rights.

In the midst of talks about the integration of other Western Balkans countries, property rights remain high on the agenda of the victims of the Yugoslav Wars. This issue is still a source of deep resentment that could easily be instrumentalised by extremist political forces.

The Author, Willy Fautré, is the Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers.





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Spanish authorities harass Kokorev despite his worsening health

By Martin Banks

 

EU Political Report (19.02.2020) – https://bit.ly/2SVZwfQ – Respected businessman Vladimir Kokorev has been kept in “abusively” long pretrial detention and, though finally released, is still summoned to court every week despite repeated emergency hospitalization.

 

Since his release in 2018 from nearly 2.5 years of pretrial detention in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Canary Islands), the health of the retired 65-year old Spanish businessman of Jewish and Russian heritage has continued to worsen.

 

During his detention from September 2015 until mid January 2018, Vladimir Kokorev struggled in prison with his health, but failed to get appropriate medical treatment, according to the Brussels based Human Rights NGO, Human Rights Without Frontiers.

 

The one time he was taken to a hospital, he remained handcuffed and the armed guards accompanying him refused to remove his manacles, even when it was requested by a nurse. His lawyer was unsuccessful in getting his release on medical grounds. Shortly after his release, he had to undergo a serious heart surgery.

 

Despite his worsening health, the investigating magistrate Ana Isabel de Vega Serrano, who ordered his arrest and pretrial imprisonment more than 5 years ago on vague charges of “money laundering”, insists that Mr. Kokorev appear weekly before the Court and personally attend formal hearings. His son, Igor, denounces that it is “unheard of that a person in his condition is forced to appear before a Court for mere formalities, that might as well be carried out at his home”.

 

Igor Kokorev explained to this website the impact the trauma is having on his family.

Speaking exclusively to EU Political Report, he said, “My father’s health is very bad and it’s getting worse. He has a heart condition, constant chest pains, sometimes even while resting, severe hypertension and diabetes. He can barely move around the one-bedroom apartment my parents are living at, he depends on my mother for everything.

 

“According to doctors he has 30% of not surviving until the end of the year, 80% of passing away within the next 10 years. That provided that his condition does not get worse, but they can’t help but acknowledge that it will, the only question is how fast and how worse it gets. A substantial risk factor is stress, and he is under a lot of stress from the pretrial proceeding, especially worrying about what is going to happen to his family.

 

And the Canarian judges are making a show of how they don’t care. Their position, which they make abundantly clear every chance they get, is that there is no health issue worthy of consideration. The same way they don’t want to acknowledge that they made a terrible mistake relying on shoddy and dishonest police work, when we have already shown that some of the evidence was outright fabricated by the two investigators in charge.”

 

The most recent example was an episode that took place just a few weeks ago when he was ordered to appear in court while clearly in very bad health.

 

His son said, “The Court required my father to appear before the judge though he was in no condition to go anywhere. We asked the Judge to just go with the clerk to his home and do whatever she has to do there. She told our lawyer that if my father doesn’t come right now, she will have him brought to the Court in handcuffs and thrown back into prison. It was no idle threat: a few days later our court agent received a court order issue by the judge to have my father arrested and brought into the Court. We had no choice but give my father an extra dose of medication to lower his blood pressure and take him to the Court.

 

“We went with him alone, because my mother could not take it. It was surreal. It was obvious that my father, sitting on that wheelchair, holding one hand on his chest and from time to time inhaling shots of nitroglycerine out of a spray, was not understanding anything of what was going on. Then they made him sign papers, and they actually made a point of putting there that he said he understood everything. I protested and the Judge literally told me “Ah, it’s OK, let’s take it out, it’s not going to help you anyway””.

 

He said, “After the hearing I took my father to the hospital because he had chest pains and his blood pressure shot up, despite all the extra medication he had taken. Once again, they had to do a scan to rule out a heart attack. But as he did not actually die, or have a stroke, or a heart attack, as far the Judge is concerned everything is fine. My father is now again at the hospital and he will be under observation for at least a week.”


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