Ukraine said Tuesday, May 16, that law enforcement had detained the head of the country's supreme court in a $2.7 million bribery inquiry, as Kyiv seeks to ramp up an anti-corruption drive required for closer EU integration.
Following Vsevolod Kniaziev's detention, 140 out of 142 justices backed a decision to remove him from office at a plenum of the Supreme Court.
Since Ukraine was officially granted candidate status to join the European Union last year it has taken steps to clear up endemic corruption, including dismissing several suspected officials.
"The head of the supreme court has been detained," Oleksandr Omelchenko, a prosecutor with Ukraine's anti-corruption prosecutor's office, told reporters in Kyiv.
Omelchenko said two people, including the court's chief Kniaziev, had been detained as part of the investigation.
Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) said the second person detained was a lawyer.
"This is the biggest-ever case" implicating the judiciary, said NABU's head Semen Kryvonos.
Kryvonos likened a group of judges within the supreme court who were implicated in the probe to a "criminal group", with the anti-corruption bureau releasing a picture of stacks of $100 bills laid out on a couch.
Anti-corruption officials say Ukrainian billionaire Kostiantyn Zhevago had offered the bribe to court officials, with a law firm acting as intermediary.
They said Zhevago had transferred $2.7 million to the lawyers, of which $1.8 million was to be paid to Supreme Court justices and $900,000 to lawyers for their "services as intermediaries".
Zhevago is suspected of hoping to bribe the court to issue a ruling allowing him to keep control of the shares of a mining company that is at the centre of a dispute with former shareholders.
In a statement to reporters, Zhevago's representatives denied his involvement in the case.
Zhevago, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament and one of the country's richest people, is currently in France, and Kyiv is attempting to secure his extradition.
He was detained in France in December on suspicion of money laundering and embezzling funds linked to his banking business at home.
Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin praised the joint work of prosecutors and investigators.
"Anyone who has broken the law will stand trial," he said on Twitter. "No wealth or position will cover up the crime or stand in the way of justice."
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