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Yanukovych verdict: Case recap

Nearly five years after ex-President Viktor Yanukovych fled from Ukraine, the court finally handed down a verdict in his high treason case. After eight hours of an almost continuous reading of the full text, the Obolonsky District Court of Kyiv sentenced Yanukovych in absentia to 13 years in prison for high treason and 12 years for complicity in war. But can Yanukovych be held accountable to the fullest?

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On the morning ot Thursday, January 24, the panel of judges of the Obolonsky District Court of Kyiv started voicing the verdict in the case of the fugitive ex-president Viktor Yanukovych.

Yanukovych was accused of treason and assisting Russian officials in committing deliberate acts aimed to alter the borders of Ukraine. Prosecution requested a 15-year term.

Before the verdict was read out, security measures were tightened around and inside the courthouse. In the presence of prosecutors and Yanukovych defense team, Judge Vladyslav Deviatko, the chair of the case, started announcing the verdict. As during previous hearings, Yanukovych was not personally present in the courtroom this time, either.

The verdict, which contained more than a hundred pages, said that the ex-president's guilt was considered proven in terms of treason and complicity in war. At the same time, charges of separatism were dropped due to the lack of evidence to prove corpus delicti. Yanukovych was also obliged by court to pay trial costs in the amount of UAH 98,561.

Transferring case to court

It is worth noting that the case against Viktor Yanukovych was opened back in 2014, almost immediately after it became known that he had escaped from the country, while claiming he was the only legitimate leader of Ukraine.

A few days after Yanukovych escaped from the Mezhyhirya residence, on February 21, 2014, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine (PGO) put Yanukovych on wanted list, and after "Mr Legitimate" held a press conference in Rostov-on-Don on February 27, which, in fact, confirmed his whereabouts in Russia, a procedure was launched for his extradition to Ukraine.

Despite the fact that the extradition procedure between Russia and Ukraine is stipulated by the European Convention on the Extradition of Offenders of 1957, Moscow did not rush to hand Yanukovych to Kyiv from the very start. In particular, in June 2014, when Yanukovych broke Russian law by staying in the country beyond the allowed 90-day term, the Russian Foreign Ministry could not explain why Viktor Yanukovych, unlike other citizens, was not deported to Ukraine.

 “It’s difficult to give any comments on Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych, since this person once asked to ensure his personal safety, and such guarantees and opportunities were provided,” Alexander Lukashevich, the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, said at the time. Since then, Ukrainian law enforcers have repeatedly appealed to the Russian authorities to put Yanukovych on the interstate CIS wanted list, but Russia has ignored all calls.

A similar situation was with Interpol – only in January 2015 was it revealed that Viktor Yanukovych had been put on the international wanted list. Two years later, in May 2017, Interpol confirmed that Viktor Yanukovych and his eldest son, Oleksandr Yanukovych, were no longer subject to the "red notice" [request for the search and temporary detention of a wanted person with the possibility of extradition], that is, in fact, the two were no longer wanted by Interpol.

As Deputy Prosecutor General Yevhen Yenin explained at the time, Interpol’s decision was primarily due to the imperfection of Ukrainian criminal procedures. “According to Interpol rules, a person, in respect of whom a preventive measure in the form of custody has not been selected, cannot be put on the international wanted list,” said Yenin.

And there were solid reasons to put him on the wanted list. According to the then-Acting Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnytsky, the PGO launched several criminal cases against Yanukovych at once – on charges of the abuse of power, which resulted in the Maidan massacres, of conspiring to take illegal possession of state property, legalizing corruption-related funds, seizing state power by introducing changes to the Constitution through the Constitutional Court, and also calls for the seizure of state power, voiced by Yanukovych at a press conference in Rostov-on-Don on February 27.

Trial delays

And although former head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, said the relevant evidence base had been gathered back in September 2014, that is, within a few months after the ex-president and his top officials had fled from Ukraine, the trial started almost three years later, on May 4, 2017. Since the first preparatory meeting, the Yanukovych defense had in every way possible been delaying the trial under various pretexts. For example, first, lawyers tried to get Yanukovych to be summoned to court and asked to adjourn the hearing, citing the preparation of a videoconference with the defendant. In turn, the prosecutor’s office managed to get the court green-light a trial in absentia, arguing that Yanukovych was deliberately evading justice in the territory of the Russian Federation, and therefore the trial could be conducted without his personal presence.

Further on, debates between the defense and the prosecution were conducted as to whether the jury should be allowed to join the trial, which also delayed the consideration of the case.

Having studied the opinions and arguments of both parties, it was only June 26, 2017 that the court began to consider the Yanukovych case on merits. However, on the same day, the court had to postpone the meeting again due to the fact that the judges had to decide on launching a trial in absentia due to the defendant's actual absence in the courtroom.

In addition, the repeated reshuffles in the defense team could not contribute to speeding up hearings. For example, as soon as the court allowed the trial to be held in absentia, two lawyers – Viktor Serdiuk and Ihor Fedorenko – who had represented Yanukovych from the very start said they were dropping the case.

Subsequently, the court had to appoint a state lawyer. After the first replacement, at a meeting on August 10, 2017, the prosecution for the first time showed and read out a letter Yanukovych had sent to Putin with a request to deploy troops to Ukraine. Prosecutors stated they had evidence of the letter's authenticity.

After that, Yanukovych’s state attorney, Vitaly Meshechok, filed a motion to recuse himself, and another state attorney, Maksym Herasko, was appointed instead, only to be later removed by court for failing to fulfill his duties. In fact, Herasko also contributed to delaying the case in every possible way. Another state lawyer, Ihor Lyashenko, was appointed but he also recused himself shortly. That's when three private lawyers joined the case, among them Vitaly Serdiuk and Ihor Fedorenko, who had both previously participated in hearings.

On December 7, 2017, the prosecutor's office filed a motion to question more than 100 people, including a number of former and incumbent high-ranking officials, including President Petro Poroshenko.

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After that, the prosecution questioned ex-Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, Navy Commander Ihor Voronchenko, Head of the Belbek Airport Service Oleksandr Kustanovych, former Acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia, Head of the Crimean Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People Refat Chubarov, Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Andriy Parubiy, ex-SBU Head Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksandr Turchynov, and President Poroshenko, who said in their testimony that Yanukovych had been involved in preparing the Russian annexation of  Crimea;

In March last year, the court started interrogating witnesses of defense, and a month later, started the stage of debate, which was also delayed as a result of Yanukovych’s lawyers skipping hearings. Debates lasted with numerous interruptions up until November 19 last year, when Yanukovych was expected to deliver his final address in court. However, the ex-president complained of a “serious injury” and never got in touch with the court. So, the judges began drafting the verdict.

Verdict of political significance

Head of the Maidan of Foreign Affairs Foundation, diplomat Bohdan Yaremenko, believes that the decision to convict Yanukovych in absentia was rather of moral and political significance than of any practical use. “The implementation of a legal ruling, taking into account our situation with Russia, will depend solely on political circumstances, primarily on Russia's will to make any concessions to Ukraine. Today, it is obvious that this will be the case in the near future,” the expert is convinced.

According to him, the sentence could also be used as an additional argument in international courts in cases concerning Russia's operation on the annexation of Crimea.

Political analyst Dmytro Franchuk explains that, even though at the moment, Yanukovych is not on the international wanted lists, his future trips abroad may become quite problematic, since the verdict handed down in absentia allows the Prosecutor General's Office to re-apply to Interpol with a request to detain and hand Yanukovych over to Ukraine.

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"In European countries, trial in absentia is something that is treated cautiously – for example, in Austria and Germany, this option is allowed, while maximum punishment is insignificant – it could be two years in prison, as in Austria, or there could be no prison term whatsoever, as in Germany. The fact that the verdict has been handed down actually means that as soon as the ex-president is detained in Ukraine or in any other country with which we have extradition treaties, he will be arrested to do his time, that's if that country agrees," Franchuk says.

Nevertheless, to apply the sentence in practice remains a viable option.

“Definitely, Russia will defend their friend to the last, but to ensure the recovery of assets Yanukovych obtained through corruption, a court sentence is required because it would create more legal grounds for imposing additional sanctions, seizing accounts, and recovering funds, property, and assets of Yanukovych and his family both in Ukraine and beyond,” said Denys Moskalyk, a graduate student at the National Institute for Strategic Studies.

According to the State Financial Monitoring Service, in this case, at least $259 million worth of assets could be recovered from the so-called “Yanukovich Family” – funds that are now blocked in a number of foreign accounts.

Given the verdict, despite the crimes he committed, the disgraced ex-president still has the right to apply for pardon. But even if he succeeds in achieving this in the high treason case, his guilt has yet to be proved in a number of other cases, including on the violent dispersal of Maidan protesters.

Anastasia Zaremba

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