(Moscow, October 21, 2008) - Ukrainian leaders should respect the independence of the judiciary, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch said that President Viktor Yushchenko has improperly interfered with the judiciary as his political rivalry with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has grown increasingly acute. Members of Tymoshenko's political party have also taken steps that seem designed to intimidate the judiciary.
"Both groups are using the judiciary in a tug-of-war, and an independent judiciary will be the biggest loser," said Allison Gill, Moscow office director at Human Rights Watch. "Both sides should stop interfering immediately."
On October 9, 2008, after his coalition with Tymoshenko's bloc collapsed, Yushchenko dissolved parliament and issued a decree calling for early elections, on December 7. Tymoshenko appealed to the District Administrative Court of Kyiv to block election preparations. On October 10, the court ruled in her favor, and issued an injunction the next day staying Yushchenko's decree, effectively crippling the government.
On October 14, Yushchenko annulled his appointment of the administrative court judge and abolished the court. He then reorganized the court into two new courts, requiring new judicial appointments.
But then, on the morning of October 17, Yushchenko reversed his October 14 decree abolishing the court. An hour later, he reversed that decree, thus creating the two new courts - Central Administrative Court of Kyiv and Left Shore Court (Livoberezhny Sud). The newly created Central Administrative Court of Kyiv annulled the October 10 injunction by the District Administrative Court.
"As president of a democratic country, Yushchenko should observe and respect the independence of the judiciary, and not interfere with courts when they issue rulings he doesn't like," said Gill.
Yushchenko also appealed the District Administrative Court ruling to the Administrative Appeals Court. The chief of the appeals court requested protection from the Ukrainian security service. But the security service was present in the judge's chamber during the deliberations on the appeal, according to a report by a Kyiv-based nongovernmental organization, the Political and Legal Reforms Center.
"It's one thing for the security services to provide protection for judges," said Gill. "But it's quite another when they're actually in chambers during deliberations. At a minimum, this creates the appearance of potential intimidation or even interference with a pending decision."
The Political and Legal Reforms Center also reported that members of parliament from the Tymoshenko Bloc (ByuT) physically blocked the appeals court judges from leaving their chambers, making it impossible to hold the hearing.
BYuT said it had dispatched its members to the District Administrative Court of Kyiv and the Supreme Administrative Court to "protect" judges from "provocations."
Yushchenko's presidential secretariat said that the Administrative Appeals Court had to postpone the hearing on his appeal due to "unprecedented pressure from executive bodies and Ukrainian lawmakers." On October 13, the press service of the Supreme Administrative Court complained that BYuT deputies had been "hampering the work of the head of the court."
President Yushchenko and his opponents, including Prime Minister Tymoshenko, have recently engaged in a heated political struggle over various domestic and foreign policy issues ranging from the war in Georgia, relations with Russia, the financial crisis and new legislation limiting the president's powers.
This is the second time in two years that Yushchenko has interfered with the judiciary during a struggle with his political rivals. On April 2, 2007, Yushchenko dissolved parliament and called for new elections after dozens of politicians from pro-presidential parties defected to a coalition headed by Yushchenko's political rival, then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. Yanukovich and his supporters challenged Yushchenko's decision in the Constitutional Court.
Yushchenko subsequently dismissed three of 18 Constitutional Court judges, including the chief justice. The political crisis abated when Yushchenko and Yanukovich agreed on May 27 to hold parliamentary elections on September 30.