Whistle blowing in Ukraine: judge Larysa Holnyk from Poltava

On October 20th 2018, Judges for Judges spoke to Larysa Holnyk in Kiev. Larysa is a judge in Poltava, a Ukrainian provincial town. Currently all judges in Ukraine have to undergo a qualification-assessment. This is one of the steps in the fight against corruption which the country has committed itself to by signing the European Association Agreement. This assessment checks whether a judge meets the criteria of expertise and integrity. Larysa’s assessment coincides with the transition from her temporary appointment (5 years) into a life-long appointment. Normally this a mere formality. Assessing all judges will last many years. At least 7.000 judges are required to undergo an assessment consisting of 4 parts. Whilst Larysa is still paid a salary she is not allowed to be an active trial judge as long as she has not completed all parts of the assessment. Nevertheless she has to turn up at her office every day. Whilst there are other judges in a similar situation Larysa Holnyk’s case stands out for other reasons.

She told us the following story:
In 2014 the president of her court allocated Larysa a case concerning a potential conflict of interest. In a vote on land distribution, the Mayor of Poltava had not mentioned his family ties with the interested party. The law requires that a  suspect of such a crime must appear in court in person. It did not take long before the Mayor’s representative tried to contact Larysa in an effort to settle the matter ‘amicably’. Alas, this is very common practice in Ukraine. She managed to avoid him and instead set the dates for the hearing. The defendant kept finding excuses to have the hearings postponed e.g. work related travel or sudden illness, in apparent attempts to extend the procedure beyond the statute of limitations. Once again but more emphatically, Larysa received an offer on behalf of the Mayor to settle the case out of court. This time Larysa secretly recorded the conversation on her cell phone. Not only did Larysa refuse the offer in a light-hearted tone, she also reported the Mayor and his representative for attempted bribery.

From then on Larysa’s life changed radically. The president of her court was angered by her stubbornness and her insistence on trying the case which in his view was clearly statute barred. A string of reports against her and her husband were filed. Most reports led nowhere due to lack of evidence; some still await a decision by the prosecution. In November 2017 Larysa and her husband were beaten up on the street by two young men wielding sticks. Larysa suspects a connection between these men and the Mayor but has no proof. The suspects were never found.
Her case against the mayor was dismissed. Initially the Mayor’s representative was acquitted. Both Larysa and the public prosecutor have appealed.

The president of her court filed a complaint against Larysa on various grounds. This resulted in a formal reprimand by the High Council of Justice: her public statements on widespread corruption amongst judges were damaging the reputation of the judiciary. In her own court, where the president was recently re-elected by the judges, her position has become rather difficult. A transfer to another court requires a formal application but this is blocked by the reprimand. Her appeal against the reprimand is scheduled to be heard by the Administrative Cassation Court on 17 January 2019.

In October this year, Larysa applied for a position in the newly established High Anti Corruption Court, but because of the same reprimand her candidacy was not accepted by the High Qualification Commission of Judges.

This is – in short – the awe inspiring story of Larysa. In a country where even after the Maidan-Revolution and the subsequent “clean-up” of  the judiciary, corruption has still not been eradicated, a judge like Larysa should be an example for a ‘new style’ Ukraine.

Judges fot Judges will insist on a fair trial in the current cases and will point out that Larysa should be protected as whistle-blower. We will keep a close eye on her case.

Further reading:
• This article contains the video showing a.o. the recorded conversation with the mayor’s representative
• An open letter by Larysa Holnyk in Ukrainian language
• Translation of the open letter in English