Ukrainian law enforcement has detained the head of the country’s Supreme Court in a $2.7m bribery inquiry, as Kyiv pursues anti-graft measures required for closer integration with the European Union.
“The head of the Supreme Court has been detained,” Oleksandr Omelchenko, a prosecutor with Ukraine’s Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO), told reporters in Kyiv.
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Omelchenko said two people, including the court’s chief Vsevolod Kniaziev, had been held as part of the investigation. He declined to identify the second individual.
“This is the biggest-ever case” implicating the judiciary, said the head of Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), Semen Kryvonos.
Kryvonos likened a group of judges within the Supreme Court who were implicated in the probe to a “criminal group”.
Late on Monday, the NABU and SAPO press services shared a photograph of piles of dollars neatly lined up on a sofa – reportedly money found by detectives.
Omelchenko said a “formal notice of suspension” had not yet been served against the unnamed individual.
“You see that we are showing through real cases, real deeds, what our priority is: it’s top corruption, it’s criminal organisation at the highest levels of power,” NABU’s Kryvonos told reporters.
Anti-corruption officials say Ukrainian billionaire Kostiantyn Zhevago had offered the bribe to court officials, with a law firm acting as an intermediary.
Zhevago allegedly transferred $2.7m to the lawyers, of which $1.8m was to be paid to Supreme Court justices, and $900,000 to lawyers for their “services as intermediaries”, Reuters reported.
The anti-corruption officials said Zhevago had hoped to bribe the court to issue a ruling allowing him to keep control of the shares of a mining company that is at the centre of a dispute with former shareholders.
Zhevago, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament and one of the country’s richest men, is currently in France, and Kyiv is attempting to secure his extradition.
He was detained in France in December on suspicion of money laundering and embezzling funds linked to his banking business at home.
Late Monday, the Supreme Court announced an emergency meeting.
Corruption has long blighted Ukraine.
Earlier this year, Ukrainian authorities raided the home of the former interior minister and sacked several senior government officials accused of bribery.
Oleksii Reznikov, defence minister, was also recently accused of buying food for soldiers at vastly inflated prices.
Back then, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has been keen to tackle corruption in the country since he became president, had said, “I want this to be clear: there will be no return to what used to be in the past.”
For the Ukrainian leader, ensuring corruption is rooted out is key for Kyiv to meaningfully apply for EU and NATO membership.
In an earlier interview, Lukas Andriukaitis, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Al Jazeera that Kyiv’s anti-corruption crackdown topped Zelenskyy’s agenda regarding Ukraine’s future EU membership.
“As the EU talks are gaining speed together with financial support from the West, Ukraine needs to show that corruption will not be tolerated, even if the individuals are high-ranking officials in Ukraine,” he said.