On the eve of the new year, Ukraine’s former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko was arrested by special forces as he walked his dog. Six months later he remains behind bars, facing corruption charges considered by many to be incoherent and politically-motivated. At openDemocracy’s request, journalist Iryna Solomko spoke to the one-time Orange revolutionary about his case, Ukrainian justice and the fortunes of President Victor Yanukovych.
As Minister of the Interior, Yuri Lutsenko never shied from powerful statements or initiating criminal cases against the top leadership of the opposing Party of the Regions. Shortly after coming to power in 2005, he had a hand in the cases brought against Boris Kolesnikov (the closest ally of the richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov), Evgenii Kushnaryov (former governor of the Kharkov region) and other high-ranking members of the circle round today’s president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Lutsenko remains one of the Orange revolution's most well-known personalities. For charisma and popularity possibly only Yulia Tymoshenko can compete with him. But this rivalry has not – or not yet anyway – driven Ukraine’s two most ardent Orange revolutionaries apart. In Lutsenko, Tymoshenko found, and continues to find, a reliable ally in the fight against Yanukovych. Today, they jointly bear the burden of criminal cases initiated against them. Tymoshenko is under investigation and has not been incarcerated; Lutsenko has spent the past six months been behind bars awaiting trial.
Neither protests nor hunger strikes have had any bearing on the prosecutor, or the court, who refuse to change the remand conditions. According to his wife, Irina, Lutsenko was transferred to a cell of 9 sq.m on July 11. The conditions are damp and mouldy and his health has started to deteriorate.
The Prosecutor General has accused the former minister of abuse of office on three counts: the award of a pension to his driver Leonid Pristuplyuk; in the organisation of events for the police; and sanctioning unlawful surveillance in the Yushchenko poisoning case. Most of these articles carry a sentence of 7 – 10 years. The next court session is on 14 July.
In an interview conducted from behind bars, Yuriy Lutsenko revealed what he thinks about the case against him and forecast what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Iryna Solomko: One of the cases against you has just been sent to court. The indictment is 320 pp long and contains details of alleged preferential treatment you arranged for your driver. What do you make of the evidence against you.
Yuri Lutsenko: The alleged “crimes” are, at worst, administrative errors. The main allegation is that, on some day in February 2005 — yet to be established by the investigating officer — I entered into a criminal agreement with my driver, to the effect that I would later sign a document with false information concerning the driver’s length of service.
What is there to explain? Decisions concerning records of length of civil service have been taken before and after I was Minister. In the case against me there are copies of about 100 absolutely identical applications to the Cabinet of Ministers. Like all other Ministers of the Interior, I signed draft orders prepared by specialists and stamped by my deputies. All the necessary procedures were observed, including positive assessments by the relevant committees. And the allegation that I gave an oral command to prepare this ruling is simply a lie, and I have the evidence to prove it.
I.S.: And the other charges?
Y.L.: Two of the other charges have been combined into one criminal case. Let us be clear, none of the charges allege personal enrichment, by even 1 hrivna. As indeed, is the case in charges brought against my colleagues.
The charge instead relates to an event that was held by my Ministry on the Day of the Police (an official state festival), which was attended by the President, the Prime Minister and other officials. The problem was that the event went ahead at the time of a credit-crunch related government ban on celebratory functions. As I explained to the investigating officers, the only budget funds used were spent on the hire of the venue for the official part of the ceremony. All other festivities were either cancelled or went ahead without recourse to public funds (for example, a concert). The Prosecutor's Office won’t hear these arguments and is now demanding a 10-year sentence for me.
Another charge, punishable by 10 years in prison, is to do with the fact that, on a day when I was officially not working, I supposedly signed a order extending investigative operations regarding a certain person involved in the Yushchenko poisoning case. My only explanation — and this is corroborated by an official investigation — is that the date under my signature was not written by my hand. That has also been ignored.
"Yanukovych wants to destroy the opposition, intimidate the human rights activists, take full control of the media and the legal system and stay in power by getting rid of his rivals and bribing the voters."
The fact that these absurd charges are all they have managed to bring against me in connection with the 4 years I was minister with 300,000 employees under me and a budget of many billions, should surely confirm that this has nothing to do with the fight against corruption.
I.S.: Have you any idea of what kind of sentence the prosecution will be looking for?
Y.L.: The Prosecutor General will have been ordered by those at the top to give me a long sentence as a means of setting an example. Sources in the President’s Administration are talking of eight years. I’m certain that they won’t get away with this. I am determined to prove my innocence, if not in a Ukrainian court then in the European Court of Human Rights.
I.S.: During a television broadcast, one of your old rivals, the deputy prime minister Boris Kolesnikov, against whom you brought a charges of extortion, said that your lawyers were not doing a good job of defending you. In his case he was saved from prison by a good team of lawyers who dug up the accounts of the Viktor Pinchuk family. What is your view on this and how do you estimate the work your lawyers are doing? What will be their line of defence in court?
Y.L. : This statement clearly points to our different outlooks on life. Boris Kolesnikov, unlike the rest of the civilized world, has not grasped the key principles of a modern democratic state, i.e. the presumption of innocence in a court of law. It is the onus of the prosecution to determine a defendant’s guilt. My actions have no criminal basis, there are no witness statements, nor is there proof of any intention to seek personal gain. On the contrary, there are many documents testifying to the legality of my orders and decisions. So my lawyers don’t need to seek anything except an independent and objective court which understands the principles of the presumption of innocence, even in a country which is run by the Party of the Regions.
I.S.: Do you think that the European Union is turning a blind eye to what the government is doing to the opposition? Even the President’s Administration is not denying the fact that the criminal cases against you are politically motivated.
Y.L.: I don’t think that this is the case. The reaction of the EC commissioners and the European Parliament, diplomats and human rights activists is quite clear: they can see that the Ukrainian authorities are persecuting their political opponents by bring false criminal cases against them. I have no doubt that the Ukrainian government has received both official and unofficial warnings from the European Union about these illegal practices which stand in the way of Ukraine’s prospects of European integration.
"I support the EU’s balanced approach to Ukraine. It is important not to send Ukraine rushing into the open arms of the Kremlin. It’s much better to send a teenage delinquent back to school than to push him into the company of hardened criminals."
I would like to make it clear that I support the EU’s balanced approach to Ukraine. It is important so avoid sending Ukraine rushing into the open arms of the Kremlin. It’s much better to send a teenage delinquent back to school than to push him into the company of hardened criminals. Even from this prison cell where I have been for last six months without any legal justification, I publicly urge the government to sign the EU’s Agreement of Association. I do not think it should be compromised by Ukrainian internal affairs: nothing, not even this government's anti-democratic and anti-Ukrainian stance, should stand in the way of our integration into Europe. Of course, this Agreement will be ratified only after Ukraine delivers on its promises: such as improving its democratic processes which form the basis of modern Europe, i.e. having independent courts, free elections, and uncensored media and allowing peaceful demonstrations and protests.
I.S.: Do you believe that you will be able to prove your innocence in the European Court of Human Rights?
Y.L.: Yes, absolutely. It goes without saying that it should be illegal to arrest someone for exercising their constitutional right of refusing to plead guilty, or for not cooperating with an investigation, or for having contacts with the media.
Unfortunately, The European Court of the Human Rights is fast becoming a last resort for tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens. The problem is not to do with the infringement of certain rights, but with the total lack of an independent judicial system for all 46 million citizens. Just recently, the General Prosecutor confirmed as much by declaring he was “a member of the team which carries out the President’s orders”. At the same time, it is the General Prosecutor’s brother who leads the organisation which supervises the criminal courts.
Then you have the absurdity of a judge who sits in cases where former ministers are brought to trial, while he himself has already had several indictments brought against him. According to estimates of human rights activists, more than 30,000 people are being unlawfully detained at any one time. Only 0.2% of them are acquitted by the courts. The list of abuses in the legal system is endless. Believe me, the situation is tragic. The government has taken control of the courts and turned them into an instrument of repression, instead of dealing with charges of corruption at the highest level. Any judge who contests this Stalinist approach is summarily dismissed. Those who remain embrace the new rules: in other words, to carry out orders from above in political cases and in minor cases to take bribes with impunity.
I.S.: Why didn’t you look to imprison corrupt government officials when you came to power after the Orange Revolution. After all, their crimes were far more serious than those of which you have been accused...
Y.L.: The answer is quite obvious: under Ukrainian law, the Ministry of Internal Affairs is only permitted to gather evidence. The act of bringing someone to trial on criminal charges can only ever be undertaken by the General Prosecutor’s office. Unfortunately, in 2005 the newly elected president, Yushchenko, agreed not to remove those in charge at the General Prosecutor’s administration, leaving in office all those who had worked under Kuchma and Yanukovych. Because of this, those responsible for the embezzlement of billions of state budget funds, the illegal privatization of state-owned businesses, resources and utilities and even cases of murder, went unpunished. And the General Prosecutor became a member of parliament for the Party of the Regions.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs did what it could do: it conducted investigations into the criminal activities of former and serving government officials, from former ministers to the relatives and family members of the President himself. We did not play political games. I think that this is probably why I am now answering your questions from a high security prison cell.
I.S.: What do think the government is trying to achieve by bringing criminal charges against people like yourself?
Y.L.: The government understands that it’s decision to condone the industrial-scale looting of state assets has led to a 50% drop in its ratings. Under these circumstances, they decided to hold on to power by the same means used so successfully in Russia, a so-called ‘controlled democracy’ where there is no room for the opposition.
I.S.: Another opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, is now facing trial. In your opinion, will the government carry out its plan to the end and imprison her?
Y.L.: The answer lies in your question. The imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko will mean the beginning of the end for this government.
I.S.: But if both you and Tymoshenko end up in prison, what will happen to the opposition?
Y.L.: Ukraine has always had a long history of struggle for its independence and freedom. Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, Oliver Cromwell, proposed an alliance with Hetman Bogdan Khmelnitskiy, the leader of the struggle for Ukrainian independence. Hundreds of years of foreign rule could not repress the spirit of independence of the Ukrainian people. That is why I am optimistic. The current post-Soviet and deeply colonial government can only postpone Ukraine’s regeneration – it will never stop it completely. The opposition to this current anti-democratic government is not only Tymoshenko and Lutsenko but millions of Ukrainians who value their dignity and freedom.
I.S.: Where do you think Yanukovych is taking the country?
Y.L.: Yanukovych’s political aims are already quite clear: he wants to destroy the opposition, intimidate the human rights activists, take full control of the media and the legal system and stay in power by getting rid of his rivals and bribing the voters.
"Ukraine has always had a long history of struggle for its independence and freedom. "
And his economic aims are also no secret. He has surrounded itself with oligarchs who are intent on snapping up any remaining resources that are not yet under their control. This present government’s main methods of control, in both the political and economic arenas, are monopolisation and the annihilation of its rivals. Nothing else matters. They are prepared to promise anything to both the West and to Russia.
What can be done about this? This is also obvious: we need to constantly think about getting rid of this slave mentality. If Ukrainians want to get their country back they have to have a sense of freedom from within. The way to do this is by ‘de-communisation’ and facing the skeletons in the cupboard which are holding us back. The way to do this is by ‘de-oligarchisation’ and creating competition in the market and free enterprise. The journey will be long but it is the only possible way to have a Ukraine that we can believe in.