Larysa Holnyk is a judge from Ukraine who has been targeted for taking a stand against corruption. Her case shows the limitations of anti-corruption policies in protecting individual whistleblowers at risk, and the importance of a judiciary that is independent and incorruptible.
In most countries, those who tell truth to power face reprisals ranging from demotion to being fired, hauled into court, or even to jail over national security matters.
Some have been killed, others harassed and threatened. And some, like Ukrainian judge Holnyk, from the Poltava Oktryabrsky District Court, have been attacked and beaten, her assault coming as she was walking home from work not far from the court building.
Holnyk was allocated a case concerning a conflict of interest; the Mayor of Poltava Oleksandr Mamai had not declared his family ties with an interested party in a vote on land distribution, resulting in a significant financial benefit to his step-daughter.
It was not long after Holnyk was tasked with the case that she faced pressure from the mayor and his lawyer, the former deputy head of the city police, for her to resolve it in the mayor’s favour. The Chairman of the Court also made hints about what would be the preferred decision. Then Holnyk was approached by a colleague of the mayor seeking an ‘amicable‘ solution to the case involving a financial payment.
Holnyk resisted this approach and scheduled hearings which were postponed several times over the course of nine months due to the non-availability of the defendant. She reported the solicitation attempt to the prosecutor’s office and to the police. She also facilitated a video recording of her conversations with the mayor and his representative.
In May 2016, in response to the reluctance of the prosecutor’s office to advance charges against the major, she published the video featuring Mayor Mamai and his former deputy Dmytro Trykhna trying to bribe her. Instead of the mayor being prosecuted, Holnyk was suspended. She said the Chairman of the Court, Oleksandr Strukov, tried to pressure her to back off, which he denied. He was denounced by the Council of Judges but kept his position.
The response to Holnyk’s report was explosive and her working conditions became increasingly difficult. She was banned from hearing cases, though still obliged to come into work every day. Shortly afterwards, Holnyk received an official reprimand from Ukraine‘s High Council of Justice following a complaint from the Chairman of the Oktryabrysky District Court. This reprimand effectively prevents Holnyk transferring to another court in Ukraine, including the new High Anti-Corruption Court.
In November 2017, Holnyk and her husband were attacked as they were heading home, by two masked men in Poltava‘s city centre. With great physical courage, she and her husband fought back and chased off the attackers.
Holnyk suffered a head injury and had to be taken to hospital. She has said that if her husband hadn’t been there to defend her, she might have been killed. She believes the aim of the attack was to kill and silence her for whistleblowing.
“The attackers were hiding in the bushes,” she told the Kyiv Post. “They jumped out of the bushes and started to beat me with rubber canes.”
The police did not arrive until 30 minutes later, giving the attackers enough time to get away and avoid apprehension. A connection with Holnyk’s anticorruption work is suspected.
After the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, hopes were high for the introduction of the rule of law in Ukraine but, despite the efforts of honest officials such as Holynk, justice has largely gone by the wayside. Judges tied to corruption cases and influential politicians have been promoted while those known for integrity been demoted or fired.
The creation of the much vaunted High Anti-Corruption Court has lagged as potential members have been vetted. The panel is not due to come into operation until late 2019. Members of the Public Integrity Council, the judiciary’s civil society watchdog, said ruling officials with an interest in staying in power have the means and methods to block professional, independent candidates to the court who could present an obstacle to them.
Corruption remains rampant in Ukraine with Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index ranking the country 130 out of 180 surveyed. British newspaper The Guardian has called Ukraine “the most corrupt nation in Europe.” “If you dare to become a whistleblower, you can be punished,” Holnyk said. “I have the feeling that I’m being punished and that independent behavior is deemed unacceptable.”
“If you dare to become a whistleblower, you can be punished,” Holnyk said. “I have the feeling that I’m being punished and that independent behavior is deemed unacceptable.” Apart from press statements and the International Monetary Fund withholding $17.5 billion in aid because of faltering anti-corruption efforts – the agency later approved $3.5 billion in another program – the West has done relatively little to aid those such as Holnyk.
She said, “As a qualified lawyer and a judge, I cannot attain the truth. What can one expect for the ordinary citizens who do not enjoy any special status and do not have legal training? I had to encounter incredible indifference and sometimes hostility from many officials whose duty it is to guard the law.
“Mamay’s case, which eventually ended up in the Reshetylivsk district court, was closed in exactly same way that I was offered 5 thousand dollars for.
“And what is curious is that no-one asked the Head of that court, Mr. Leonid Berkuta, a question. This ‘legal professional’ was subjected to no ostracism. Because nobody expected anything else from him. His behaviour surprised no-one.”
Holnyk is appealing against the reprimand that prevents her transferring to another court. Her matter has been taken up by the Dutch integrity foundation Judges for Judges.
Larysa Holnyk is not alone among the Ukrainian judiciary in facing violence for performing her role with integrity. In Sept. 2018, Serhii Diachuk, a judge hearing the case of murders of the participants of the EuroMaidan Revolution which forced then-President Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014, was attacked in Kyiv, the Council of Judges of Ukraine said.
Independent lawyers and human rights activists have long argued that Ukrainian judges come under pressure to hand down favorable verdicts. Surveys show as few as 10 percent of Ukrainians trust the courts and only 30 percent believe trials are fair.
Unlike many other judges, Holnyk was not re-appointed as a judge for life after her initial five-year stint expired when President Petro Poroshenko didn’t sign her credentials.
The final blow against independence and integrity may have come when a court in Poltava acquitted the former deputy mayor – whom she had filmed offering her a bribe along with the mayor. The judge said he had not seen proof of guilt, even with video evidence, as cries of “Shame!” and “Corrupt court!” abounded.
Holynk has stood tall in the face of unrelenting pressure. Commenting on Facebook about the selection process for the new High Anti-Corruption Court, Holnyk wrote, “It’s trying to expel and neutralize me and people like me. I didn’t think our struggle would be so long.”
Blueprint for Free Speech is giving Larysa Holnyk a Special Recognition Award for her strength and integrity in demanding proper scrutiny of corruption among the judiciary.