Tag Archives: trial

Ukraine – Ex-president Viktor Yanukovych on Trial

On May 4, Ukraine began a high treason trial of its former president Viktor Yanukovych. According to the Ukrainian state prosecutor’s website, Yanukovych is accused of committing “treason by helping the Russian Federation and its representatives to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

The so-called “trial of the century” has already held two sessions. The prosecution’s main evidence are copies of letters written by Yanukovych asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to send troops to Ukraine. In addition, the prosecutor says that it has witness testimonies, documents, and photo materials to support the case. The punishment for treason in Ukraine carries a sentence of 10 to 15 years.

However, in addition to the treason trial, Yanukovuch is also under criminal investigation in three other cases. First, the former president is accused of ordering the use of disproportionate force against the demonstrators during the so-called Europmaidan protests between November 2013 and February 2014. Second, Yunukovych is accused of having formed criminal groups. And finally, the Mezhyhirya case of illegal acquisition of property. The Mezhyhirya residence of the former president became famous when it was confiscated in 2014 after he fled the country. Later authorities discovered fleet of luxury cars and other luxury items that have stored in the the now infamous estate.

Currently leaving in exile in Russia, the president is being tried in absentia. To enable this, Ukrainian legislature had to pass a number of amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code. This, however, generated a number of controversies. Some argued that the bill is a case of selective justice and is politically motivated, drafted with a sole purpose of putting the former president on trial. Furthermore, the defence has argued that there is no legal basis for the treason trial as Yanukovych has not been presented with an official notification of the charges against him. Most importantly, however, the bill has been criticised for the potential impact it may have on regular citizens. Many argue that the amendment can lead to the dangerous abuse of power allowing the possibility of convicting a person in absentia, without them even knowing about being on trial.

In the last year alone, a number of other countries put their presidents on trail. The most high profile recent case is the impeachment and the corruption trial of the president of South Korea Park Geun-hye. Burkina Faso has also recently started a trial of its former president Blaise Compaore. He is also tried in absentia and is accused of using force against unarmed protesters in 2014, during the uprising that took him out of power. The presidents of Brazil and Argentina are also currently on trial for corruption. Thus, a quick look around the world shows that Ukraine is not the only country to have one of its former presidents on trial. However, it is one of the few countries to have a president tried for treason, in addition to corruption and excessive use of force.

The trial is an important test for the Ukrainian judiciary. There are serious grounds for bringing charges against the former president. However, it is crucial for the trial to be conducted in a fair and independent manner in order not to only avoid the verdict being challenged in an international court but also continue to further build and strengthen the judicial system in Ukraine.

Germany – Ex-president Wulff goes on trial

On 17 February 2012, Christian Wulff announced his resignation as Germany’s 10th federal president. This unusual step had been preceded not only by a request of the prosecution of Hannover to lift Wulff’s immunity to be able to launch an investigation into the claims of corruption. It also followed almost two months of public discussion about the president’s private finances, the nature of his private gains in various political deals while being minister-president of Lower Saxony, and his attitude towards the press. This article offers a brief overview of the events leading to and following Wulff’s resignation and explains the subject and potential outcomes of the trial as well as its significance.

From private loan to state affair
Following revelations in 2009 that Christian Wulff (then still minister-president of Lower Saxony) and his wife had received free upgrades on flights to visit their friends Egon and Edith Geerkens in Florida (public officials must not accept gifts above the value of €10), the opposition asked Wulff whether he maintained business relations with Mr Geerkens. While Wulff denied the existence of such relations, the German tabloid BILD revealed in December 2011 (Wulff had then already been president for 18 months) that Wulff and his second wife had received a private loan of €500,000 from Geerkens to buy a house. His lawyers first argued that Wulff had not lied to the state parliament as the loan had come from Egon Geerken’s wife Edith. However, as soon emerged Edith Geerkens did not dispose of sufficient financial resources and had agreed on a separation of property within the marriage, so that the loan had actually been granted by her husband. Only a few days after facing questioning in parliament, Wulff furthermore arranged a new loan with a private bank seen by many observers as evidence that Wulff wanted to safeguard himself against further allegations.

In early January 2012 newspapers then revealed that president Wulff left an agitated message on the voicemail of the editor-in-chief of BILD before the scandal broke and threatened with consequences. Not having issued a public statement on the affair yet, Wulff appeared on public television and promised to provide answers to any open questions. Nevertheless, in the following weeks newspapers continued to uncover several additional cases in which Wulff allegedly received benefits in exchange for political favours, with the majority dating back to Wulff’s time as minister-president of Lower Saxony. A major part in this were holidays Wulff and his family had spent on invitation of and financed by influential German businessmen (incidentally, Wulff’s spokesperson was dismissed for accepting holidays during the course of the affair). At the same time, a number of public prosecutors in German federal states started tentative investigations yet most were dropped after a few weeks. Eventually, the prosecution of Hannover (the state capital of Lower Saxony) sent a request to the speaker of the German Bundestag to lift the president’s immunity – the basis being that film financier David Groenewold paid for Wulff’s holiday on several occasions.

Charges, trial, and potential outcomes
The prosecution continued to focus mainly on Wulff’s holidays yet also investigated other allegations. In early 2013, the prosecution then charged his former spokesperson Olaf Glaeseker with corruption and began to prepare similar charges against the former president and Groenewold. Nevertheless, already in March 2013 the prosecution offered Wullf to cease the investigation in exchange for paying a €20,000 fine (a relatively common procedure if the sum in dispute is below a certain threshold). Wulff rejected the offer and the prosecution applied for opening a trial on charges of corruption against Wulff and Groenewold in April 2013. While the court agreed to open the trial, it only did so under charges of ‘unlawful acceptance of benefits’ and not the more serious charges of corruption. A verdict can be expected for April 2014.

The concrete cases for which Wulff and Groenewold are tried might appear trivial and even far-fetched to outside observers – Wulff is accused of accepting €510 for a night at a hotel (including costs for childcare during his stay), €209 for a dinner, and €3,209 for a trip to the Oktoberfest in Munich (including costs for 4-5 people travelling with Wulff and his wife) from Groenewold. In exchange, Wulff is thought to have asked others to help with the promotion of one of Groenewold’s films and appears to have been instrumental in securing state funding for a production of Groenewolds company a few years earlier. All this happened before Wulff became president. Nevertheless, the trial has great significance for several reasons. First, close personal relationships between politicians and businesspeople (including holidays spent together) are far from unusual. The trial will thus help to shed light on such networks and help to define which behaviour is still considered legal and which is not. Second, the trial has already raised questions about the tightening of anti-corruption legislation in Germany. Third, it is the first time in German history that a former or current head of state had to answer charges. Due to its ceremonial character, the German presidency depends on officeholders’ integrity and ability to act as a ‘moral authority’. Irrespective of its outcome, the trial will thus affect the selection of candidates for office in the future.

Should Wulff be found guilty, the sentence is likely entail at least a hefty fine, theoretically even a jail sentence of up to three years. However, due to the relatively small sum in question and because Wulff has no previous convictions the latter seems unlikely (although Wulff might be placed on probation for a limited amount of time). Due to the lack of precedents, it is not yet clear in how far the court will take Wulff’s high political position at the time into consideration. Nevertheless, as a former lawyer Wulff will be considered to possess an ‘increased sense of justice’ and might thus receive a higher sentence than Groenewold.