June 10, 2021



EU court annuls decision on Yanukovych
The General Court of the European Union has annulled the bloc’s 2019 decision to extend asset freezes imposed on former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his son Oleksandr over the alleged embezzlement of Ukrainian state funds and assets. The Luxembourg-based court ruled on June 9 that the European Council “failed to demonstrate that the rights of the defense and the right to effective judicial protection were respected in the criminal proceedings” by the Ukrainian authorities. Despite the court ruling, a spokesman for the bloc said that Mr. Yanukovych and his son “remain subject to EU restrictive measures based on legal acts adopted in 2021 and an amended statement of reasons that are not part of the challenge initiated in 2019.” Brussels imposed the measures against Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin former president, family members and close political allies shortly after the collapse of his government in late February 2014. Some of the people listed have challenged, and sometimes won, court cases against the measure. The council has renewed every year their designations against Viktor and Oleksandr Yanukovych. The two have challenged the measures in EU courts, which had annulled the listing decisions in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018. In March 2019, the restrictive measures against the Yanukovychs were once again extended by one year. The General Court’s June 9 ruling concerns the legality of that specific decision. “It cannot be established that, prior to the adoption of the contested acts, the [European] Council satisfied itself that the Ukrainian judicial authorities complied with the rights of defense and the right to effective judicial protection of the individuals in question in the context of the criminal proceedings at issue,” the court said in its ruling. “Therefore, in deciding to maintain the names of both men on the list of persons subject to restrictive measures, the council made an error of assessment. Consequently, the General Court annuls the contested acts in so far as they relate to Mr. Fedorovych Yanukovych and Mr. Viktorovych Yanukovych.” In a statement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s spokesman, Peter Stano, said the council “is making every effort to ensure that listings meet all legal requirements as defined by the EU courts, taking into account the evolving case law.” Mr. Stano added that the Yanukovychs remain on the sanctions list since the restrictive measures against them were extended by a year in March. (RFE/RL)

U.S., Germany working to mitigate NS2
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Washington is working with Germany to try to mitigate any adverse effects of the completion of the Russian Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline. Mr. Blinken also indicated that more penalties could be forthcoming on those involved with the project, telling the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 8 that the United States has opportunities “to deal with those who provide insurance or other permits for the pipeline to become operational.” In addition, the waivers granted to the company overseeing the pipeline and its CEO “can be rescinded at any time,” Mr. Blinken said. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea will bring Russian gas directly to Germany, bypassing land routes through Ukraine, Belarus and other countries. It will also deprive Ukraine and other countries of billions of dollars in transit fees. Critics said it will increase German dependence on Russian energy supplies and make Berlin more susceptible to Russian influence. The State Department last month announced it would not sanction the pipeline’s Russian-owned operator, Nord Stream 2 AG, or its CEO, Matthias Warnig, who is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Blinken said the main question for the State Department now is what would be most effective to support the interests of Ukraine and other affected countries. He said the worst possible thing in his judgment would be to “poison the well” with Germany through sanctions and to remove any incentives for Germany to work with the United States to try to mitigate any damage done by the pipeline going into operation. Mr. Blinken told the committee that working with Germany, which has refused to halt the project, arguing that it is a commercial venture and a sovereign issue, was a productive approach. “We want to make sure that Europeans take the necessary steps to protect, to mitigate, to deal with any of the adverse consequences of gas going through this pipeline,” he said. The United States is also working with Germany to make sure that “we are making Ukraine whole” for the loss of transit fees and to make sure “Russia cannot use gas as a coercive tool when it comes to Ukraine or anyone else.” He said the Biden administration continues to believe that the pipeline is “a bad idea” but has to deal with the reality that the pipeline is now about 95 percent complete. He also noted that last month the administration sanctioned 13 Russian ships and four companies involved in the construction of the pipeline and said there is a difference between “the physical completion of the pipeline and it becoming operational.” (RFE/RL, with reporting by Reuters)

Germany in talks to make Ukraine ‘whole’
Germany is discussing ways to compensate Ukraine for the financial loss it will suffer from the completion of a controversial Russian natural-gas pipeline backed by Berlin, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told Congress. Nord Stream 2 will carry gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, and is expected to deprive Kyiv of billions of dollars in annual transit fees if it is completed. The United States – as well as many countries in Eastern Europe – opposed the project on the grounds that it will make Europe more dependent on Russian energy and undermine Ukraine’s economy and security. Nonetheless, the Biden administration last month agreed to waive some sanctions on Nord Stream 2, all but ensuring its completion, in an attempt to mend strained relations with ally Germany, which continues to support the project. In a hearing on June 7 at the House of Representa­tives’ Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Blinken partially justified the waiver, saying Germany “has come to the table” to discuss how it can help Ukraine deal with the economic fallout. “We are actively engaged with [Berlin] to look at what can and should, and I believe must be done to…make sure that the transit fees that Ukraine at some point in the future may lose as a result of this pipeline…[is] made whole,” Mr. Blinken told the committee. He did not give details on what form the compensation could take. Some have suggested Germany could invest in Ukraine’s alternative-energy industry. Mr. Blinken also said it was important to have upfront agreements in place with Germany that would allow the United States to impose sanctions on the pipeline at a later date should Russia seek to use it as a coercive tool against its neighbors in Eastern Europe. U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelens­kyy discussed the pipeline in a phone call between the two leaders. (RFE/RL)

Court to start hearing evidence in MH17 case
The trial in absentia of four suspects – three Russians and one Ukrainian – in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 has entered a decisive new phase during which judges in the Netherlands will be presented with witness testimony and evidence. Nearly seven years after the tragedy and more than a year of mostly procedural hearings, judges announced the start of the evidence phase at the court in The Hague on June 7. MH17 was shot down on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists in the east of Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew. The four suspects – Russians Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov, and Igor Girkin, as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko – are being tried in absentia by a court in The Hague for involvement in the act of terrorism. Only one of the suspects, Mr. Pulatov, is represented by lawyers at the trial. All four suspects are accused of being key figures among separatists battling Kyiv. A team of international investigators concluded in May 2018 that the missile launcher used to shoot down the aircraft belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. The trial formally began in March 2020 but has so far been dealing with motions, mostly covering the admissibility of evidence in the crash. The trial is being held in the Netherlands because the plane departed from Amsterdam and 196 of the victims were Dutch. “The court will open the MH17 criminal trial proper and, through examining and discussing the content of the prosecution file, elucidate the key questions which it has already begun to address,” the court said in a statement late last month. The court said the hearing will begin with general topics, including the investigation by the examining magistrate. That will be followed by three more days of discussion from June 8-10. The prosecution then will have the opportunity to discuss the case on June 17 and 18. The defense may subsequently be given the opportunity to discuss sections of the case it deems relevant. The prosecution and defense will then have the chance to raise issues during hearings lasting until July 9. Relatives of the victims will be able to address the court in September, the statement said. No date has yet been set for closing arguments. The Dutch government holds Moscow responsible. Moscow has denied any involvement in the conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine and has offered several possible theories about how MH17 was blown out of the sky, including that it was shot down by a Ukrainian Air Force jet or by Ukrainian ground forces using a Buk system. The targeted attack caused an international outcry and deepened tensions between Moscow and the West following Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for the militants in their fight against Kyiv’s forces after pro-European protests pushed Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from power. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by AFP, Reuters, and dpa)

Rights groups urge Ukraine to fix shortcomings
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and more than 20 other groups have encouraged Ukraine’s parliament to address shortcomings in a proposed law to reform the country’s security service before passing it. HRW is among 23 civil society groups that on June 3 sent a letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the co-authors of the draft legislation to change “problematic” parts of the proposal, which is being prepared for passage, possibly later this month. The reform is essential to help the security service, known as the SBU, transform into an effective agency that respects and upholds international human rights norms, HRW said in a news release. But the draft law contains provisions that could be damaging for human rights, the groups said, urging Ukrainian lawmakers to address problems stemming from the draft law’s lack of clarity and properly defined powers and roles, and its provisions maintaining, or in some cases strengthening, regulations that jeopardize human rights and fundamental freedoms. “The ongoing initiative to reform the security agency, which Ukraine’s partners and allies have long urged the government to undertake, is both needed and long overdue,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. “But for the reform to succeed, and to strengthen Ukraine’s rule of law, several key problematic aspects of the proposed law have first to be addressed.” The groups’ letter said that while the reform was supposed to streamline the SBU’s work as an intelligence agency and remove law enforcement functions from its mandate, the proposed draft law “extends the scope of the [SBU’s] activities beyond the protection of national security by providing the agency with a vast mandate to investigate a potentially wide variety of crimes.” The letter called this “deeply problematic in light of serious, credible allegations by Ukrainian anti-corruption and human rights groups of [SBU] involvement in corruption, corporate raiding and interfering with anti-corruption investigations undertaken by other state agencies.” The draft law also retains the SBU’s powers of arrest, seizure, detention, interrogation and surveillance, without clear oversight, the letter said. While the draft law reiterates the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment in detention, it does not provide sufficient protections to prevent abuses in detention or guarantee such due process measures as requiring the SBU to ensure a detainee has a lawyer, according to the groups that signed the letter. The groups also point out that a provision to phase out the SBU’s pretrial investigative functions gradually by 2024 and another to allow the agency to operate temporary detention facilities until January 2023 are not supported by a clear road map that would ensure that these deadlines are met. Noting that the reforms are “long overdue,” the letter encourages Ukraine’s leadership not to squander the opportunity to adopt a bill that “adheres to the stated vision of limiting the role and powers of the [SBU] and that upholds Ukraine’s international obligations and respects fundamental rights and freedoms.” (RFE/RL)