Yuriy Lutsenko went out on December 26 to walk his dog near his apartment in Kyiv.
Instead, the former Ukrainian interior minister found himself bundled into a car by Ukrainian Security Service officers and taken to jail. He faces charges of abuse of office and embezzling state funds and was today ordered held for two months.
In comments posted on his party website on December 26, Lutsenko called his detention further proof of “the policy of scaring Ukrainian society and political terror against opposition.”
Lutsenko is the latest in a growing list of high-level members of the previous government of Prime Minister-turned-opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko to find themselves in trouble with the law.
The current administration of President Viktor Yanukovych, which is to mark its first year in power in February, says every public servant should be accountable for his or her actions. But opposition and human rights activists say the law is being used randomly to punish or scare opponents of the government.
The highest-profile target of the probes is Tymoshenko herself, charged last week with abuse of office.
The list also includes former Environment Minister Heorhiy Filipchuk, who’s under arrest on charges related to the use of money from the carbon-emission fund, and former Economy Minister Bohdan Danylyshyn, under arrest and accused of squandering public funds.
Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko passes his wife Irina as he arrives for a court session in Kyiv on December 27. Last week they were joined by a former deputy justice minister, Yevhen Korniychuk, who was detained on charges of abuse of office.
‘All Are Equal Before The Law’
Yanukovych, in an interview with three Ukrainian television channels aired on December 24, characterized the probes as objective and said Tymoshenko had “every possibility to defend herself.”
“I cannot stop these processes and say: ‘You should investigate these cases and not these,'” the president added. “No way one should do it. And the head of state does not have such powers.”
As an example of judicial objectivity, prosecutors point to a criminal case against the deputy head of the customs office, Viktor Bondar, who was detained on December 24.
However, he has strong links to the old government as well. Bondar is a former transport minister and a former governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, who ahead of this year’s presidential election supported Tymoshenko.
Prosecutor-General Viktor Pshonka told a press briefing in Kyiv on December 24 that in the past year prosecutors have launched cases against 18 current and former high-level officials accused of causing damages to state coffers of 17 billion hryvnyas (around $2.1 billion) and 380 million euros ($500 million).
Pshonka said each public servant was equal before the law and, addressing the current government, said: “If you are going to treat budget funds as easily as your predecessors — you will be questioned by the same investigators in the same offices and will sit in the same detention centers as officials of the ex-government…. Do not touch the money of the state!”
Opposition Cries Foul
But critics say the investigations are politically motivated, and add that the timing of the crackdown has been chosen for maximum impact.
Last week Tymoshenko was questioned three times, arriving at the prosecutor’s office on occasion directly from the hospital where her husband had just undergone heart surgery.
President Viktor Yanukovych says he has no role in the charges. Korniychuk, the former deputy justice minister, was detained in Kyiv on the day his daughter was born. And former Interior Minister Lutsenko learned about the charges against him on December 13, one day before his birthday.
According to the influential Kyiv weekly “Dzerkalo tyzhnya,” this is not a coincidence, but a sign that the current authorities want to make it as painful as possible for their opponents.
Tymoshenko says she believes that the current authorities are trying to prevent her from running for office again. Coming out of the prosecutor’s office in Kyiv on December 24, she called the criminal investigations against her and her supporters “the revenge of the mafia.”
“They are tasked with terrorizing our team and our family, me personally every day,” Tymoshenko said. “I think that they understand that they have limited time. According to our information, they want to put all opposition into prison before the parliamentary elections.”
Political experts in Ukraine doubt Tymoshenko — who has been ordered not to leave Kyiv — will be arrested herself, since this could boost her popularity ahead of parliamentary elections due in 2012.
But even a possible suspended sentence could affect the opposition leader’s political career, since it would prevent her from running for office.
“If she gets, for instance, a five-year suspended sentence, then after this term she becomes a citizen with full rights,” says Oleksandr Chernenko, chairman of the Voters’ Committee of Ukraine. “Before the end of the term, if the court does not change the verdict, a person has limited rights, irrespective of whether one is imprisoned or not.”
Ukrainian analysts tell RFE/RL that the government is trying to boost its anticorruption credentials and divert attention away from unpopular initiatives, such as raising gas tariffs and an upcoming rise in the retirement age.
Ukraine ranks 134th out 178 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index this year, alongside Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
Human rights activists say they also doubt that current authorities are sincerely aiming to stop graft.
The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights and Kharkiv Human Rights Group issued a joint statement calling on the government to end “selective” criminal prosecutions. They say that due to recent legislative changes, judges have become more dependent on politicians.
In a statement, prominent Ukrainian human rights activists Volodymyr Yavorsky and Yevhen Zakharov said: “The prosecutor-general stated immediately after his appointment that he would implement any order of the president. A member of the [ruling] Party of the Regions has been appointed head of the High Court on Civil and Criminal Cases, while his deputy is the prosecutor-general’s brother.
“All of this gives rise to well-founded doubts that the court proceedings in these political cases will be run in keeping with the standards of the right to a fair trial.”
Other critics in Ukraine suggest that the recent campaign against former officials is diverting attention away from recent cases where allies of the president have been installed in prominent positions.