Imprisoned Azeri opposition blogger Mehman Huseynov started a hunger strike last month against bogus charges in the political case against him.

Huseinov was imprisoned in 2017 for two years on the charges of slander and now faces another seven years in jail for allegedly “resisting a representative of the authorities.”

There are 161 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, according to the Azeri Center for the Protection of Political Prisoners. Azerbaijan is an entrenched dictatorship without the rule of law and independent courts.

As Huseinov began his hunger strike, the Azeri regime’s representative, Ramin Gurbanov, was elected as head of the Council of Europe’s European Commission for Efficiency of Justice of the Council of Europe (CEPEJ) to replace Georg Stawa.

In November, Stawa himself lavished ample praise on Azerbaijan’s judiciary, saying it is one of Europe’s leaders in the development of courts.

In the same year when Huseinov went to jail, the Council of Europe officially lauded Azerbaijan’s judiciary, with Stawa present at the ceremony.

The panegyrics came despite the Council of Europe itself threatening to suspend Azerbaijan’s membership and initiating a lawsuit against the country in 2017. At the same time, the council started an investigation on suspicion that some members of its parliamentary assembly had been bribed by Azerbaijan.

The Council of Europe said in its response that its representatives had criticised the Huseinov case.

Azerbaijan is not the first dictatorship “reformed” by Stawa. In 2012, Stawa and Dovydas Vitkauskas, another European expert currently working in Ukraine participated in a judicial reform project in the sphere of appellate courts in another semi-totalitarian country, Russia.

Azeri justice for Ukraine

Given Stawa’s praise for the Azeri dictatorship, his whole-hearted support for Ukraine’s discredited High Qualification Commission of Judges, which has killed judicial reform in Ukraine, came as no surprise. Since High Qualification Commission Chairman Sergey Kozyakov, like Stawa, is also a member of the CEPEJ, this smells of a conflict of interest.

Stawa presented in November a report on Ukraine’s judicial reform, going out of his way to eulogise Kozyakov and his commission.

In the report, Stawa did not mention a single violation committed by the High Qualification Commission during the heavily rigged selection of the Supreme Court in 2017. The violations have been described in minute detail by numerous Ukrainian legal experts, and Stawa knew full well about them.

In his response, Stawa defended his assessment of judicial reform in Ukraine. He also argued that his aim was not to study individual cases but the general process.

To be fair, Stawa’s report includes two good recommendations – that the High Qualification Commission’s decisions should have clearly stated reasons and candidates for judicial jobs should not enjoy the presumption of innocence – a tool valid for criminal proceedings but completely unsuitable for the hiring of judges.

However, given Stawa’s fawning attitude towards Kozyakov, he and other European experts are unlikely to berate the commission when it ignores their own recommendations.

Again, it comes as no surprise that Austria’s Justice Ministry, at which Stawa works as the general secretary, has been accused of covering up for exiled Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash. Firtash’s spokesman Daniel Kapp has links to Austrian Justice Minister Josef Moser, although he has denied discussing Firtash with him.

This might explain the fact that Austria has failed to extradite Firtash, who has been charged by the US’ FBI with bribing Indian officials, since 2014. Other Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs and kleptocrats have found a safe haven in Vienna – apparently due to their cosy relations with Austrian authorities.

Rigged again

Stawa and other European officials are unlikely to notice the mounting evidence that the ongoing selection of Ukraine’s High Anti-Corruption Court and 78 extra Supreme Court judges could have been already rigged.

In December, the High Qualification Commission allowed some candidates who did not get the minimum score for the practical exams for the two courts to pass to the next stage, thus promoting candidates favoured by the commission.

Both the practical exams and the legal knowledge tests for the anti-corruption court and Supreme Court had more than one correct answer. The commission could easily promote some candidates by telling them which of the equally valid answers it deems to be correct, having very broad scope for falsifying the results.

Lawyer Vitaly Tytych, who ran for a Supreme Court job, did not pass the legal knowledge tests and requested his test results. The commission refused to give them, effectively proving that they were falsified: since there is no way to obtain the results, the commission could have done whatever it wants with them.

Moment of truth

Anti-corruption watchdogs on January 9 identified 55 candidates for the anti-corruption court as not meeting professional ethics and integrity standards. The Public Council of International Experts (PCIE), a foreign expert panel, has yet to decide this month whether to veto these candidates.

One of the controversial candidates, Judge Viktoria Zhovnovatyuk, may escape being vetoed despite her clear political connections.

Zhovnovatyuk is the former wife of Viktor Kytsyuk, a judge who has been charged with issuing unlawful rulings against EuroMaidan Revolution activists.  She is currently the wife of Alexey Zhovnovatyuk, an aide to Ruslan Solvar, a lawmaker from President Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc. Zhovnovatyuk has been investigated over fraud. The plaintiff who initiated the case has accused Viktoria of being her husband’s accomplice and of helping to block the case, which she denies.

The situation with candidates for the Supreme Court, which will have the authority to cancel the anti-corruption court’s decisions, is even worse: there are even more corrupt candidates, and the PCIE has no veto powers over them.

Four members of the High Council of Justice, including its head Igor Benedysyuk, are running for Supreme Court jobs despite a clear conflict of interest: the council appoints Supreme Court judges, and they have not been fired or suspended from the council. Even Stawa admitted they must step down from the council as soon as possible.

Benedysyuk has been investigated as part of a case into illegal interference at the High Commercial Court under ex-President Viktor Yanukovych as part of one of the largest graft schemes under his reign, although he has not been officially charged and denies the accusations.

According to his official biography, in 1994 Benedysyuk was simultaneously a judge of a Russian court-martial and a Ukrainian one. Russian citizenship was a necessary precondition of being a Russian judge, and his appointment as a judge of Ukraine was illegal if he had Russian citizenship or was not a Ukrainian citizen.

He said that he got his Ukrainian passport in 1996 but failed to clarify which citizenship he had in 1994.

Will the PCIE have the courage to call the High Qualification Commission’s bluff, react to its manipulations and veto all unprofessional candidates and those who lack integrity (including the 55 candidates identified by watchdogs, those with bad practical assignments, those with evidence of political links and those with a dubious career)?

Otherwise, the panel may stick to the symbiotic relationship between Ukrainian kleptocrats and European bureaucrats exemplified by Stawa.