President Zelenskyy shakes hands with Iryna Venediktova, newly appointed Prosecutor General. Photo: president.gov.ua
The Ukrainian Parliament has appointed Iryna Venediktova, the acting head of the State Bureau of Investigation (DBR), as Prosecutor General. She became the first woman to hold the position. Activists have already voiced their discontent with the appointment. Moreover, as Venediktova leaves the position of the DBR head, her duties will be taken over by her first deputy Oleksandr Babikov, a lawyer who previously defended the runaway president Viktor Yanukovych in court.
On 17 March 2020, the Ukrainian Parliament gathered for an extraordinary meeting devoted to the coronavirus pandemic. While the government had restricted public gatherings the previous evening, a protest took place near the parliament calling for the MPs to go into quarantine together with the rest of the country. The aim of the protest was to prevent passing treasonous laws depriving society of the right to oppose them. Eventually, after passing legislation on the additional measures of protection against the virus, including fines and criminal responsibility, the Parliament announced it was going into quarantine, to last until 3 April. However, prior to this the Parliament also considered President’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s submission on appointing Venediktova as Prosecutor General. The president himself was present at the meeting.
Rumors on Venediktova’s appointment had started to appear a few days before.
Representatives of anti-corruption NGOs described her as more loyal than professional. Her predecessor, Ruslan Riaboshapka, was dismissed by the Parliament on 5 March. Civil society was not fully satisfied with his work either. However, his dismissal was perceived as a political step towards appointing a more loyal person. As with the government of Oleksiy Honcharuk, the main catalysts of Riaboshapka’s dismissal were MPs from the orbit of oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. On 30 October 2019, Riaboshapka announced there were new suspects in the case of Privatbank, the nationalized bank formerly belonging to Kolomoiskyi who was accused of large-scale money laundering. The next day, signatures for the dismissal of Riaboshapka started to be gathered in the Rada. Before the vote, the head of the Servant of the People faction David Arakhamia declared that the last drop leading to the signature-gathering was Riaboshapka’s supposed refusal to authorize the required notice of suspicion against ex-President Petro Poroshenko.
Before the appointment, Oleksandr Dubinsky, the Servant of the People MP, asked Venediktova whether she was going to sign a letter of suspicion to Poroshenko. She answered that everything which can be done fast will be done fast.
269 MPs voted for Venediktova’s appointment. The President’s Servant of the People party delivered 226 votes for it. Additional votes were received from the groups For the Future, Trust, and from MPs who do not belong to any faction.
While Sviatoslav Vakarchuk’s The Voice, and Poroshenko’s European Solidarity voted against it, Poroshenko’s party warned that political persecutions should be expected from the appointment. The Voice’s argument against her was also her failing an exam for the position of Supreme Court judge. Venediktova refuted the accusation.
Oleksandr Lemienov, the leading expert of the StateWatch NGO, predicts that Venediktova will implement any aims set by the President’s Office; he also accused her of incompetence in criminal justice.
Venediktova was appointed as an acting head of the DBR with the President’s decree at the end of 2019. Her management there was controversial from the very beginning due to the ambivalent appointments.
At first, new DBR chief Venediktova appointed Oleksandr Buriak as head of the department for investigating Maidan cases. According to Oleksandra Matviychuk, Chairwoman of NGO Center for Civil Liberties it happened without any consultations with the lawyers of the victims. Previously, Buriak served as an acting head of the Kyiv Prosecutor’s Office. Activists say that during that time, there was zero progress in the Maidan cases under the jurisdiction of Buriak’s office.
More challenges for the probe emerged at the beginning of 2020 with further appointments in the DBR. In particular, when Oleksandr Babikov became the deputy head in the agency.
The appointment sparked outrage among civil society because Babikov used to defend Yanukovych in court as a lawyer.
Rumors of his upcoming appointment began to circulate earlier. Based on them, civil society organizations came up with a statement calling not to appoint Babikov. The main reason for that was Babikov’s obvious conflict of interests.
“We believe that it is the non-compliance with the appointment procedure and competition, and the opacity of the process that allows for the possibility of such results of the competition,” reads the statement that concludes that the appointment would lead to a total loss of trust in the DBR as a law enforcement institution.
Nevertheless, Babikov was still appointed. Iryna Venediktova, in turn, labelled the protests against her decision a manipulation aimed to discredit the DBR.
According to the legislation on the DBR, in the event of the institution having no director, the duties shall be implemented by the first deputy head. This means that as of now the DBR will be headed by the Yanukovych ex-lawyer.
The news raises worries about the good faith of the investigation into the Euromaidan massacre of February 2014 as the DBR now deals with it after the public prosecutor office reform.
Previously, Venediktova as acting head of the DBR made a controversial statement suggesting the cancelation of the legislation protecting the activists of the Revolution of Dignity from prosecution.
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