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Ukraine: Parliament, Judge Order Probes Into Allegations Against Kuchma

Pressure is increasing on Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma after parliament voted to create a commission to investigate allegations by the United States that the country may have breached UN sanctions by selling sophisticated radar equipment to Iraq. A Ukrainian judge also took the unprecedented step of ordering an investigation into charges that Kuchma may have been involved in election fraud and the murder of an opposition journalist.

Prague, 18 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A joint British-American inspection team is currently in Ukraine at the invitation of President Leonid Kuchma to visit the factory where the country's sophisticated Kolchuha radar system is manufactured.

The U.S. State Department accuses Kuchma of approving the sale of the radar system to Iraq for a reported $100 million -- in breach of UN sanctions against Baghdad. Kuchma vigorously denies the charges.

Yesterday, the Ukrainian parliament voted to create a commission to investigate the allegations, although the resolution does not specifically mention Kuchma. Earlier in the week, a Ukrainian judge also ordered a criminal investigation against Kuchma.

The actions by parliament and appeals court judge Yury Vasylenko have increased pressure on Kuchma, whom opposition politicians and activists accuse of corruption, election fraud, and involvement in the death of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

Vasylenko ordered an investigation into 11 matters, including the U.S. radar-sale charges and Kuchma's alleged complicity in Gongadze's murder two years ago. Vasylenko said his decision was made in the interest of Ukraine and the presidency.

Vasylenko said the president has been under suspicion of committing crimes for several years now, and that it must be known whether he is guilty or innocent. The judge said no one in Ukraine, including the president, is above the law:

"All citizens of Ukraine are equal before the law. Therefore, there is no basis for any government officials to have special immunity from the law."

However, Ukrainian Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych says the judge exceeded his powers in ordering the investigation. He says Kuchma has the same protection before excesses of the law as any other Ukrainian. He also suggested that Vasylenko is acting from political motives:

"Any Ukrainian citizen is protected by its laws, and no judge in our country has the right, at his own discretion, to take just any complaint and make it the basis of a charge. I say that this position [of Vasylenko's] has nothing to do with the correct procedure of law. This is a step taken for other motives."

Vasylenko announced the criminal investigation on 15 October at a press conference organized by some of the opposition parties involved in demonstrations against Kuchma. Vasylenko said that in light of statements made to him by opposition party leaders, in which they implicated Kuchma in the alleged crimes, he had no choice but to open a criminal investigation.

A fierce legal wrangle is now going on between Vasylenko's supporters and senior lawyers, who hold that it is not within Vasylenko's competency to order such an investigation.

Valery Yevdokimov, head of Ukraine's association of lawyers, says the president can only face criminal investigation after he has been impeached by parliament and after that procedure is upheld by the Ukrainian Supreme Court.

He accuses Vasylenko of overstepping his authority and abusing his position and says he will press for the judge's dismissal and punishment:

"This precedent for a court procedure, in my opinion, does not fall within the existing parameters of Ukrainian law, and therefore, I believe, there are problems with it."

But Vasylenko, who was previously the most senior investigator in the Prosecutor-General's Office, maintains he is within his rights to order the investigation against the president: "The prosecutor, an investigator, or a judge are obliged to consider statements and information given to them about the perpetration of a crime or conspiracy to perpetrate a crime, including in those areas that do not fall directly within their responsibility. A judge has the right to act on any statement about a crime or preparation to commit a crime."

The actions by parliament and Vasylenko may give a boost to anti-Kuchma demonstrations, which have been attended by decreasing numbers of people since the first protest last month (16 September), when around 50,000 demonstrated.

On 19 September, some 3,000 protesters in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, called for Kuchma to be tried. The demonstrators held a mock trial of Kuchma by a so-called "people's tribunal."

"We propose to the people's tribunal to empanel a jury with the aim of an objective and unprejudiced examination by the Ukrainian people of the guilt of Kuchma. I ask all of us as Ukrainian citizens on this square and as representatives of the entire Ukrainian people to agree to become members of this jury."

The mock trial found Kuchma guilty, one more incident in what has been a bad week for the Ukrainian leader.

On 16 October, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said that although they do not completely rule out EU entry for Ukraine, the country stands no chance of becoming a member until it respects common values of democracy, press freedom, and arms control.

Solana said the Kolchuha matter makes it too early to talk about the final shape of Ukraine's relationship with the EU.

Meanwhile, the leader of the 13-strong U.S.-British team of experts investigating whether Ukraine sold the Kolchuha system to Iraq, Alan van Egmond, said on 16 October that he is no longer sure of the Ukrainian government's willingness to stand by its promise of transparency in the investigation.