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Members of an emergency plenary session of the Supreme Court of Ukraine hold a no-confidence vote for Chief Justice Vsevolod Kniaziev, who has been detained by anti-corruption authorities for allegedly receiving a $2.7-million bribe, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv on May 16.ALINA SMUTKO/Reuters

When Vsevolod Kniaziev, the Chief Justice of Ukraine’s Supreme Court, visited Ottawa last October for a conference on judicial training, he spoke about the difficulties administering justice during wartime and how Ukrainian judges ran the risk of becoming “a victim of manipulation.”

But now Justice Kniaziev has become the focus of a sweeping investigation of the Supreme Court that involves allegations of widespread corruption and bribery.

On Tuesday, officials from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutorʼs Office (SAP) announced they had detained Justice Kniaziev and another judge for allegedly taking a US$2.7-million bribe from a billionaire businessman in return for a favourable ruling. At the announcement in Kyiv, the officials displayed stacks of confiscated US$100 bills.

“We are showing through real cases, real deeds, what our priority is: It’s top corruption, it’s criminal organizations at the highest levels of power,” said NABU director Semyon Kryvonos. He added that the investigation was continuing, and officials indicated it could involve as many as a dozen judges as well as an unnamed law firm that allegedly acted as an intermediary for the bribes.

Justice Kniaziev was not available for comment. In a statement, the Supreme Court said it was shocked by the allegations and that judges were co-operating with the investigation. “This is a black day in the history of the court. We must be worthy and withstand the blow,” the statement said. “There should be an irreversible punishment for any corruption crime.”

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Money found by detectives of Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau during investigative actions in a corruption case involving judges of the Supreme Court.NATIONAL ANTI-CORRUPTION BUREAU/Reuters

This is one of the biggest cases for the NABU and the SAP since they were created in 2015 to tackle Ukraine’s chronic corruption problem. Ukraine ranks 116th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and the European Union has made cracking down on corruption a key condition for Ukraine’s membership in the bloc.

“I will not even overestimate if I say that it is a huge deal,” said Kateryna Ryzhenko, the deputy executive director for legal affairs in the Kyiv office of Transparency International, which has been working in the country for almost a decade.

Ms. Ryzhenko added that while the allegations represent a huge blow to Ukraine’s judiciary, the investigation shows that the NABU can carry out complex probes even during wartime. “It has basically proved that the anti-corruption ecosystem that has been building for years in Ukraine did its job,” she said.

The NABU and the SAP said their investigation began earlier this year when an undercover operation learned about contacts between a bank called Finance and Credit and lawyers at the law firm.

Finance and Credit is tied to Ukrainian oligarch Kostyantyn Zhevago, who was arrested in France last December. He is wanted in Ukraine on embezzlement charges stemming from the disappearance of US$113-million from the bank, which went bankrupt in 2015. Mr. Zhevago has denied the charges, and in March a French court ruled against his extradition to Ukraine.

On Tuesday, NABU and SAP officials alleged that Mr. Zhevago began transferring the money in late March to the lawyers, who put it in a vault. On April 19, the court issued a ruling in favour of Mr. Zhevago’s business interests. The investigators alleged that on May 1, Justice Kniaziev issued instructions for how the money should be divided among other judges “who participated in the adoption of the relevant decision.” The money was transferred a few days later in two instalments, the officials alleged.

Ukraine’s Supreme Court is structured differently than similar courts in Canada or the United States. While it is the final level of appeal for criminal, civil and commercial matters, it hears far more cases and has 178 judges.

Justice Kniaziev took over as Chief Justice a few months before Russia’s invasion in February, 2022. Last October he was a keynote speaker at the International Organization for Judicial Training conference in Ottawa, which was attended by Canada’s Chief Justice Richard Wagner. The IOJT promotes judicial education around the world.

Justice Kniaziev’s address was titled “Judging in Wartime: The Vulnerability of Judges.” He talked about keeping the court system functioning during the war and how the conflict had “expanded the list of vulnerabilities for civilians as well as for judges.”

“One of the problems is that a vulnerable person is often easily influenced by others, as a result of which it is much easier to become a victim of manipulation,” he said.

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