It’s been the second week that the Supreme Court has a new President. This is 56-year-old Stanislav Kravchenko, who chaired the Criminal Court of Cassation within the Supreme Court (SC).
This would not change for at least several more years if it weren’t for the high-profile story of the detention by NABU officers of the then President of the Supreme Court Vsevolod Kniazev for a bribe in the amount of USD 2.7 million on the evening of 15 May. According to the investigation, money was intended for the adoption of the decision in the case of Ferrexpo company by the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court. The investigation is currently ascertaining the possible role of other judges in this scheme.
The SC’s response to the incident was immediate. The following day, at noon, the plenum was convened and voted for the motion of no confidence to Kniazev and the termination of his mandate. In ten days – on 26 May – the plenum to elect a new President was held, where Kravchenko received 108 votes out of 148 present judges.
In his interview with Ukrinform, the new President shared his plans to resolve the trust problem after the “black day for the Supreme Court.” He also talked about the conditions under which the court might reconsider the decision, for which, according to law-enforcement officers, the bribe was given, and whether he was going to cooperate with the so-called “youth wing” of the court – former scientists, layers, and judges of first instances.
During the conversation, Mr Kravchenko shared facts about the cases of the Russian military and insisted that Georgiy Gongadze’s killer Pukach had not escaped anywhere after his decision.
THE ISSUE OF PRESIDENCY OVER THE SUPREME COURT IS CLOSED FOR KNIAZEV FOR GOOD
- Mr Stanislav, after you were elected a President of the Supreme Court on 26 May, you did not move to the President’s office in the Klov Palace. Is it sealed off by law enforcement? Are there still any investigative activities there?
- To my knowledge, investigative activities there have finished. I did not move there because I am very busy under the current conditions. However, I will have to move, as the elections for the President of the Criminal Court of Cassation are scheduled for 12 June (S. Kravchenko used to chair the Criminal Court of Cassation – ed.).
And what concerns the office of the ex-President of the Supreme Court, I have some moral barriers. I am uncertain if I will move to this very office. Perhaps, I will find myself another officer nearby.
- The level of trust in the Supreme Court has fallen to a deplorable level following the discovery of the Russian passport in the Vice-President of the Supreme Court, Lvov, and the subsequent arrest of the then-incumbent Court President Kniazev for accepting a bribe. How are you planning to address this issue?
- Unfortunately, I cannot object to this. The hard 5-year work of the entire team was brought to nought in one day. No matter what I say about our achievements over these years, the blow is so strong that it is, perhaps, impossible to withstand it. Every judge of the Supreme Court bears personal responsibility for the level of trust in the court. Based on this story, we can see how the deed of just one judge may destroy the reputation and trust in all judges.
I understand the emotions of my colleagues who said that everyone should just get up and leave. However, this will paralyse the work of the cassation instance and lead to irreparable consequences for human rights protection.
We have to take multiple crucial steps to rectify the situation now.
The first operative step has already been taken on the day when the NABU and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office’s (SACO) information appeared alleging “the receipt of illegal benefits by the Supreme Court management,” which shocked the judges. We immediately convened an extraordinary meeting of the SC plenum. Already on the following day, 16 May, the plenum expressed the vote of no confidence to Vsevolod Kniazev and prematurely terminated his mandate as the Court President.
The Supreme Court’s actions were intended to convey the message that the court will clean itself and do everything possible to achieve this. At the same time, the Supreme Court not only claims but also demonstrates zero tolerance for corruption.
The second step was to elect the Court President. In such a complicated situation, the court may be left without a President. Certainly, there was an acting President of the Supreme Court during the “transition period”, yet his powers were largely restricted: he could not participate in the operation of the High Council of Justice or adopt decisions as part of the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court.
- Several judges of the Grand Chamber were reported to have been found in possession of marked bills from the amount of the bribe. What will the Supreme Court do when NABU announces to these judges additional suspicions in this case?
- Meetings of judges or the plenum cannot remove judges from their positions. This is the mandate of the High Council of Judges.
If judges are notified of suspicions, the standard procedure will be applied – the submission to the Supreme Council of Judges for approval of keeping judges in custody, imposing a pre-trial restriction by the High Anti-Corruption Court and suspending judges from the administration of justice by the Supreme Council of Justice.
If this happens, for my part, I will convene the plenum to determine how we can resolve this situation.
- Will the judgment in the Ferrexpo company’s case, for which, according to the investigation, Kniazev and lawyer Horetskyi received a bribe, be reconsidered in the Supreme Court?
- One of the reasons to reconsider court judgments due to exceptional circumstances is the establishment of the verdict that has taken effect of the judge’s guilt in the commission of the criminal offence leading to the adoption of the court judgment.
If such circumstances are established, the judgment may be reconsidered.
- Will this happen after the decision of the Appellate Chamber of the High Anti-Corruption Court of the Criminal Court of Cassation within the Supreme Court, which is the last instance for NABU cases?
- It depends on when the verdict takes legal force. In some cases, the verdict of the court of the first instance takes legal effect after the expiry of the deadline for submitting an appeal – within thirty days following the day of verdict proclamation if such an appeal was submitted.
If the appeal is submitted, the court judgment, if not overturned, takes legal effect after the adoption of the decision by the appellate court, i.e. the Appellate Chamber of the High Anti-Corruption Court.
- We have a presumption of innocence. Kniazev said at the meeting of the High Council of Justice that he had his own version of events that he would announce later. Let’s assume that the court acquits Kniazev. Will he be able to return to the Supreme Court?
- There are two aspects here – a legal and a moral one. The issue of the presidency over the Supreme Court is closed for Kniazev for good. The plenum expressed a vote of no confidence and prematurely terminated his mandate. What concerns the work as a judge, I believe there is a matter of integrity here, which will be acted upon by the competent authorities.
PUKACH DID NOT ESCAPE ANYWHERE AFTER CHANGING THE PRE-TRIAL RESTRICTION
- What was your motivation for applying for a Court President position?
- In 2021, before the plenum where Kniazev was elected the Court President, the team of the Criminal Court of Cassation asked me to run for the President of the Supreme Court. I refused, as I saw my task in the arrangement of the operation of the Criminal Court of Cassation. Considerable work has been done, and I wanted to finish it. It would have been so if not for this event.
On 24 May 2023, during the meeting of judges of the Criminal Court of Cassation, the team nominated my candidacy again, and I could not tell them, looking in their eyes, that I would not run under such conditions.
After the information about my candidacy for the position of SC President appeared, some media and social networks posted messages about my lack of integrity due to a negative conclusion of the Public Integrity Council, undeclared nine ares of land, and some other issues...
Certainly, the very presence of the conclusion of the Public Integrity Council concerning the candidate’s non-compliance with integrity and professional ethics criteria is already a negative factor.
However, this conclusion is also a sign for the relevant authorities to review it in detail. If this information is confirmed, the conclusion may be overcome by 11 votes of members of the High Qualification Commission of Judges.
Today, activists mention a negative conclusion of the Public Integrity Council against me, but, for some reason, they do not say that I have provided my explanations. Back in May 2017, I did not agree with the conclusion and used the opportunity to submit an appeal. I applied to the Public Integrity Council with respective explanations and requested to reconsider it. I have not received a response until now.
In addition, during the meeting of the High Qualification Commission of Judges, I provided a full explanation of the conclusion of the Public Integrity Council.
As a result, this conclusion was overcome by the HQCJ. The High Council of Judges also verified everything and recommended appointing me as the President of the Supreme Court. In November 2017, the President signed the decree about my appointment, and the team elected me a President of the Criminal Court of Cassation.
- Apart from the negative conclusion of the Public Integrity Council, you are also criticised for a decision as part of the panel of judges of the Appellate Court of Kyiv City, under which the pre-trial restriction for Georgiy Gongadze’s killer Pukach was replaced with the one that is not related to detention in custody. After this, he escaped and was hidden until 2009, when he was detained by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) officers. Was there any influence on the judges in this case? What can you say in this regard?
- Twenty years ago, when Pukach’s case was under investigation, I worked my first year at the Appellate Court of Kyiv City. I was part of the panel but did not vote and was not a rapporteur in this case. The panel reconsidered the pre-trial restriction decision for Pukach, who was kept in custody.
I want to note that at the time, Pukach was not charged with the murder, as reported by the media, but rather with the order to destroy certain documents that may have confirmed or indicated that Gongadze was under the surveillance of MIA officers.
The court analysed all the presented evidence and changed the pre-trial restriction to a restriction of travel order considering the case law of the ECtHR, which repeatedly noted that applying such pre-trial restriction as remand in custody was unjustified.
There was no influence on the judges; the judgment was passed in compliance with the then-applicable 1960 Criminal Procedure Code.
Pukach did not escape anywhere after the pre-trial restriction was changed. Quite the opposite. He referred to the court and appealed the resolution on initiating the criminal case, and his complaint was satisfied. The case against him was closed based on this decision, which had passed the appellate and cassation instances.
A few months later, Pukach was charged with murder. And this is when he was declared wanted.
I did not consider this case, and therefore some media present somewhat distorted information in this regard.
- How will you work with the so-called “youth wing” of the Supreme Court, who used to be scientists, lawyers, and judges before, and who became judges following the 2016 reforms and competitive selection? In particular, these are Olena Kibenko, Ivan Mishchenko, one of the candidates for the SC President. Do you consider it feasible to implement their ideas regarding the development of the court?
- There is a sufficient number of scientists and lawyers in the Criminal Court of Cassation, but I have never divided judges into any “wings.”
Ivan Mishchenko and Olena Kibenko work in the economic jurisdiction, and our paths have hardly crossed before. Ivan Mishchenko asked for help in organising the work on legislation in the military sphere not long ago, and I did not refuse him. I will not refuse him in the future either.
Regarding the cooperation between judges, I would like to note that, under the law “On the Judiciary and the Status of Judges,” all organisational issues shall be developed and adopted through the meetings of the courts of cassation. Then, the Supreme Court shall implement the will enshrined during these meetings.
Therefore, if all teams of cassation courts work positively for the Supreme Court, then there will be no opposition.
In general, judges are very busy people who don’t always want to do anything besides court consideration. Hence, I think it is important to protect and help people who are trying to improve the operation of the Supreme Court.
- A question concerning judges’ flats. You answered it partially after the plenum where you were elected the President. But some judges have been talking about getting flats for over a year. This question was raised at the plenum when Kniazev was elected President. Reportedly, the matter was discussed at the meeting of the Criminal Court of Cassation, which nominated you for the Supreme Court President position. What is wrong with our judges when they talk about this issue during wartime when they get paid 300,000 hryvnias?
- One of the judges in the Criminal Court of Cassation asked a general question about social benefits for judges, but there was no separate discussion about flats.
This matter was raised during the meeting at the Administrative Court of Cassation. One of the judges asked about the provision of flats. I answered that the law provides for the provision of departmental housing for judges, the norms of the law must be followed, and we cannot ignore them.
However, it is imperative to consider the realities of life, including but not limited to martial law, financial and economic prospects.
We are not in a position to provide judges with flats, so I cannot promise something that does not exist in nature.
- Do you plan any innovations while you are in office?
- First, we need to look at the situation in general and conduct an audit to see the overall picture of the Supreme Court activities. Before that, I only saw the focus of the work of the Criminal Court of Cassation.
It was my initiative to appoint a Chief of Staff to commence this task, as the previous Chief of Staff’s tenure had expired in March 2023. The first Deputy Chief of Staff was also appointed, who had not been part of the Supreme Court before.
I hope that the uncertainty in the administration of the court, which has been present for three months, will finally end and that the court will continue to operate as efficiently as before.
Elections for the President of the Criminal Court of Cassation should also be held.
Based on the results of the audit, it is certain that introduced innovations will affect the court activities. These innovations will be deliberated upon with the judges and will be aimed at enhancing the efficacy of the Supreme Court and restoring the public’s faith in the institution.
- Have you met the President or someone from the President’s Office?
- No, there were no meetings with the President, the Chair of the Verkhovna Rada, or anyone else. I did not initiate it, and neither did they.
- Have you contacted the ex-President of the Supreme Court, Valentyna Danishevska?
- We have talked over the phone, and she is very concerned about this too. It’s our shared pain.
I AM IN FAVOUR OF THE PARLIAMENT FINALLY RATIFYING THE ROME STATUTE
- As you have previously held the position of the President of the Criminal Court of Cassation, I would like to ask about the current state of proceedings related to verdicts to the Russian military for war crimes. How many such cases have Ukrainian courts considered, and how many verdicts are there?
- Although these crimes are generally referred to as war crimes, they are divided into the crime of aggression, genocide, unleashing and waging an aggressive war, and violating the laws and customs of war. This category of cases is massive, but currently, only the first cases come to cassation.
According to the Office of the Prosecutor General, more than 90,000 war crimes have been registered.
As for case consideration, 1,050 criminal proceedings involving crimes against peace, human security and international legal order have been received by the court as of 29 May.
Of them, 15 cases concerned the propaganda of war. As of now, 13 proceedings have already been considered.
The number of cases involving the justification and denial of the Russian Federation’s armed aggression against Ukraine reached 770. More than half – 582 cases – have already been considered by the courts.
A somewhat smaller dynamic is related to violating the laws and customs of war. One hundred fourteen such cases have been received, of which courts have considered 34 cases so far.
On the fact of planning, preparing, unleashing and waging an aggressive war, 3 cases were received. So far, no decision has been made on any of them. There are 5 cases of mercenary activities, 3 of which have been decided upon.
There is also one pending case in the courts regarding ecocide and genocide.
- In an interview with Ukrinform, Howard Morrison, former judge of the International Criminal Court, explained that 90 Ukrainian judges completed an internship in Great Britain, where they learned global guidelines for imposing war crimes. Actually, this process was overseen by Morrison. What is the result?
- About a year ago, we met with Howard Morrison. It is always easier for judges to communicate with each other. I am grateful to international organisations for supporting us and organising the training of Ukrainian judges. However, it was not in Great Britain but in Warsaw. Judges have returned to their courts and are working.
Currently, one of the important issues is ensuring that case law regarding criminal cases related to war crimes is the same at the national level and coordinated with international case law. Hence, during the training, we needed to check our clocks and ascertain whether we are accurately pursuing the implementation of international standards. We prioritise the issue of considering criminal proceedings regarding war crimes, which is one of the most important subjects during training. The work has been ongoing since the beginning of the war.
We need to have a common way of doing things in the conduct of pre-trial investigation and consideration of criminal proceedings in the cases of war crimes. This presupposes the need to train prosecutors, investigators, and judges according to the same standards to develop a common understanding of the norms of criminal procedural substantive and procedural law.
This is essential for the fairness of Ukrainian court judgments in war crimes cases to be recognised worldwide.
- Does the Supreme Court cooperate with the International Criminal Court in regard to Russian war crimes? Supposedly, they will take on cases involving the Russian elite; Ukrainian courts should consider the rest...
- In March 2023, the international conference United for Justice proclaimed the primary objectives for the Supreme Court’s international cooperation. Cooperation with the International Criminal Court was one of the points. As a forensic scientist, I wondered what that would look like. Undoubtedly, we are ready to cooperate and will do everything possible. But you must understand what the International Criminal Court is and what the Rome Statute is, which Ukraine has not yet ratified.
And if we support active cooperation with the International Criminal Court, then the question of ratifying the Rome Statute comes to the scene. I think the Parliament should ratify the Rome Statute.
Alla Shershen, Kyiv
Photo by Yevhen Kotenko