March 26, 2018 / 2:14 PM / 4 months ago

Row over vetting Ukraine judges prompts US-backed body to quit

KIEV, March 26 (Reuters) - A Washington-backed body set up to vet judges in Ukraine as part of the battle against corruption quit its role on Monday, saying the process to screen a judge fit for office was a sham.

The row spotlights Ukraine’s troubled efforts to tackle corruption, including in the judiciary, which it needs to do to qualify for more aid from the International Monetary Fund which supports Kiev with a $17.5 billion bailout package.

According to mandatory public wealth declarations, many judges own property, luxury cars or cash which far exceeds their stated income.

The Public Integrity Council (PIC), set up in 2016 and supported by the USAID which provides technical expertise and support, has worked with the High Qualification Commission of Judges in ensuring around 6,000 judges are qualified and not involved in corrupt practices.

“All our attempts to set up cooperation with these bodies were a complete fiasco,” said Halyna Chyzhyk, a member of the Council, which is made up of lawyers, activists and journalists.

“The reasons for PIC’s decision to leave ... are the steps taken which only confirm their (the commission’s) real intentions not to clean up the judicial system but preserve the old order and rules,” she said at a news conference.

“PIC will not participate in this process,” Chyzhyk said.

The Council said the commission was simply going through the motions while vetting judges. Only 0.2 percent of judges have failed an exam which is meant to prove they are qualified, while interviews to determine their honesty lasted 3-6 minutes.

The Commission in a later press conference said the Council had not followed correct procedure, leaving the vetting process vulnerable to legal challenges further down the road.

“We will continue to ask for information from the PIC,” said Stanislav Shchotka, Secretary of the Qualification Chamber of the Commission. “We would like our colleagues to help us and not be things for the Commission to trip up on.”

Corruption has plagued Ukraine’s judicial system for years and deters investment the country needs to grow an economy scarred by a separatist insurgency in the Donbass region and a prolonged standoff with Russia.

The U.S. embassy did not immediately reply to a request for comment. (Writing by Matthias Williams Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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