A Christian group fighting corruption in Ukraine's border region with the European Union urged judges Thursday, December 11, not to celebrate their annual 'Court Workers Day', amid evidence that several Ukrainian courts received bribes or other favors in exchange for favorable rulings.
Last week, special police raided the headquarters of the regional Lviv Administrative Appeals Court where they found $1 million and 2-million hryvnia ($300,000) in the office and home of Chief Justice Igor Zvarych, BosNewsLife learned. He was reportedly under house arrest Thursday, December 11.
Investigators told local media they discovered for the first time lists showing what decision should be made, who ordered them, and how much was paid for the rulings. "There is no reason for a party on Court Workers Day, on December 15. Many judges and others involved in decision making have betrayed their calling to be impartial enforcers of the rule of law in Ukraine, after decades of Soviet domination," said the 'Concerned Citizens of Uzhhorod' in a statement.
The unregistered group, named after a key border town, has been supporting Svetlana Milchevich, 63, who made headlines by fighting corruption and launching a court case against a controversial business man and close friend of Uzhhorod's mayor Sergey Ratushnyak, whose name is also spelled as Serhiy Ratushniak, who has been linked to organized crime groups.
In 2005, inspired by the pro-democracy Orange Revolution against election fraud, Milchevich bought an old house with a plot of land to build a new home from the money she earned with her life-long work as a clothing designer.
Yet, businessman Josif Ivanovich Kostich, opposed the construction and allegedly used his friendship with the current major, authorities and judges to halt the project. Kostich has denied the charges, but BosNewsLife established that he used several false documents from local officials to make his case. "I had all the permissions, yet the court still ruled in his favor and even halted the already ongoing construction," said Milchevich, who has since appealed against the ruling.
Kostich also took part of the land of Milchevich and other neighbours, next to his property, to make it bigger. So far local judges have refused to return the lost territories.
Milchevich's case became a symbol of the daily struggle of ordinary citizens for justice in Ukraine's border area, where former Communists cooperating with organized crime groups made fortunes with for instance shaky privatization deals, and by placing allies in courts, police and customs.
Several people lost properties, such as businesses, lands and homes. Some Uzhhorod residents, including elderly women, are now forced to sleep in one of Uzhhorod's train stations or hospitals at night to keep warm as Ratushnyak and his allies apparently seized their homes, BosNewsLife learned.
"Much crime in Ukraine combines government officials’ access to information or goods with the use or threat of force by organized criminals," also known locally as the 'maffia', noted Louise I. Shelley, director of the Center for the Study of Transnational Organized Crime and Corruption at American University.
"The country’s privatization program, for example, was undermined by former [Communist] Party officials and a criminal elite, who appropriated state resources by stripping assets from banks and enterprises," Shelley added in the World Bank Group's influential newsletter, 'Beyond Transition'.
For the 'Concerned Citizens of Uzhhorod', who were no Party officials, that apparently means no access to impartial authorities and judges. "In many cases judges work for the maffia," a Ukrainian diplomat with close knowledge about the situation told BosNewsLife, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Judges have received their jobs from the maffia," he added.
Milchevich and her 'Concerned Citizens of Uzhhorod' say this leaves the system open for corruption. They showed BosNewsLife evidence that at least one judge, V. V. Domnitsky, is both chairing the local Court of Uzhhorod and the Council of Judges of Zakarpattia, the body that is supposed to control him and his colleagues.
Milchevich's public refusal not to accept this situation and the court ruling in favor of the influential businessman opposing her home, was seen as an unprecedented attempt to seek publicity for massive high level corruption in a region, seen as a crossroads towards the EU.
Uzhhorod, a town of over 100,000 people and the administrative center of the Zakarpattia region, is also one of the last outposts before Ukrainians can enter the European Union.
"Very soon over 100 people signed her open letter urging Ukraine's president and the prime minister to intervene and halt corruption here,” recalled her daughter, Agnes R. Bos, a journalist and co-founder of BosNewsLife News Agency. "My mother's case was just an example and people wanted the Orange Revolution would finally reach Uzhhorod."
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko made clear in a letter exchange with Bos that she closely monitors the case as part of efforts to crackdown on corruption among officials in this young and fragile democracy.
Soon after, police raided this year the building where Mayor Ratushnyak and staff members worked amid concerns he tried to destroy or confiscate documents that could prove his involvement in wrongdoing.
Besides taking over properties of locals, he owned over 50 companies, including alcohol and soft drink production plants, as well as insurance and banking firms, which he obtained either by giving bribes, falsifying documents, or by using violence, according to several investigations.
Critics claim that Ratushnyak came back to power in March 28, 2006, after being absent for four years, to reclaim companies and properties he lost during an investigation for economic crimes in Uzhhorod, a major gateway for exports to, and imports from, the European Union.
However political infighting within the ruling coalition and a related halt in reforms, have apparently delayed the arrest of the mayor and other suspects. Ratushnyak has denied wrongdoing and accuses police forces of political tricks.
The said he complained to "the president, prime minister, Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor’s General Office and the speaker" of parliament. "The regional and city police are involved in arbitrary actions that violate the Ukrainian laws - following direct orders from the deputy head of the Transcarpathia State Administration," the mayor added.
The fight against corruption in Uzhhorod, launched by the tender Milchevich, has been monitored by the government in neighboring Hungary, an EU member state with a consulate in the troubled town, where many ethnic Hungarians live.
However in Ukraine, where journalists have been killed for uncovering organized crime, challenging the stablishment can be risky. Milchevich and her daughter say they received death threats from Kostich who was overheard saying: "If you continue to write on the Internet, I will kill you and your daughter." In addition, leaflets were distributed falsely accusing them and BosNewsLife founder Stefan J. Bos of involvement in a prostitution ring.
Yet, Milchevich hasn't given up hope: "I still believe that one day I will win, and that Uzzhorod becomes a better place. However that can only be realized when the maffia is removed from power."