Kharkiv Mayor Hennady Kernes had been on trial — for three years — on charges of kidnapping, torturing and threatening to murder EuroMaidan Revolution activists. But the court, in an unprecedented decision, suddenly closed the case on Aug. 10 without any kind of verdict or conclusion.

Kernes has also been investigated in a major corruption case involving the distribution of land plots in Kharkiv Oblast. But he faced no charges for the alleged theft of as much as $984 million from the allocation of state land plots to people close to the mayor.

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Moreover, Kernes co-organized a separatist congress on Feb. 22, 2014, in Kharkiv, the day that President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine amid the EuroMaidan Revolution. But here again, the mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city, with 1.4 million people located 480 kilometers east of Kyiv, faced no treason charges.

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Why is he so lucky?

Presidential politics is one possible answer.

“The closure of the Kernes case by the court is aimed at ensuring support” for President Petro Poroshenko’s re-election next year, David Sakvarelidze, an ex-deputy prosecutor general and a leader of the Movement of New Forces opposition party, wrote on Facebook on Aug. 11. “Poroshenko hopes that he’ll reach bargains with the elites of eastern cities, stuff ballot boxes in the war zone, and get into the second round. Kernes is a key player.”

Kernes has repeatedly denied accusations of wrongdoing. But his press office would not comment for this story and the Presidential Administration also did not respond to a request for comment.

Kidnapping and torture

Kernes, who has been mayor since 2010, was a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions from 2006 to 2014. Since 2015, he has backed Vidrodzhennya (Revival), a party linked to billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.

He’s not always been so lucky.

In April 2014, Kernes was the victim of an assassination attempt. He suffered serious injuries and now uses a wheelchair.

He accused Interior Minister Arsen Avakov of organizing the murder attempt, an accusation that Avakov denies.

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In 2015, Kernes and two of his security guards were charged with kidnapping two EuroMaidan Revolution activists, torturing them and threatening to kill them in January 2014, a month before Yanukovych fled power.

Kernes told the Kyiv Post in June he believed the kidnapping case had been fabricated by Avakov and his aide, lawmaker Anton Gerashchenko.

Poltava’s Kyevsky Court on Aug. 10 closed the case. The court said that none of the 19 prosecutors in the case bothered to show up for the last seven hearings. The judge took their absence as their refusal to prosecute Kernes.

However, Deputy Prosecutor General Anzhela Stryzhevska said that prosecutors had not refused to prosecute Kernes. Stryzhevska said that the prosecutors had not been notified of the Aug. 10 hearing and that they had informed the court that some were on sick leave, and asked it to delay the hearings.

The decision to close the Kernes case is unprecedented legal nonsense, Poltava-based whistleblower judge Larysa Golnyk and lawyer Vitaly Tytych, a member of the Public Integrity Council, told the Kyiv Post.

Kharkiv Mayor Hennady Kernes goes down an escalator in the metro in Kharkiv on Aug. 22 for the presentation of an upgraded train. His associates face accusations of profiteering from contracts with the metro. (UNIAN)

Moreover, since the court decided to close the case completely, instead of convicting or acquitting Kernes, the appeals court will have no right to convict him and may only order a re-trial, which could last a long time, Tetiana Zelkina, a lawyer for the kidnapped EuroMaidan activists, told the Kyiv Post.

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Zelkina said she had not been informed about the latest hearing or the previous one, and notifications about five other recent hearings had been sent to her less than three days in advance — in violation of procedure. The latest hearings were scheduled for each day, despite the fact that the judge had no right to hold them because he had failed to consider a motion on his recusal, Zelkina added.

“This is the first time in my years of practice that I’ve ever seen such a range of violations,” she said, adding that this could indicate political interference.

Poltava’s Kyevsky Court declined to comment on the accusations in a written response to the Kyiv Post.

From 2015 to 2018, the trial was deliberately being delayed, with gaps between hearings sometimes reaching two or three months, Zelkina said. By comparison, hearings in some other high-profile cases are held once or twice a week.

But starting from March, the trial was sped up drastically, with court hearings being held every week and then every day. Zelkina alleged that Kernes struck a deal with the nation’s leadership — to support Poroshenko politically in return for closing the case. At around the same time — in April — Kernes first said in an interview he would support Poroshenko’s presidential bid. He has repeated that several times since then.

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Zelkina also said that some of the witnesses against Kernes had changed their testimony due to alleged pressure, while another key witness had first said he was being pressured, and then disappeared.

Land scheme

But the kidnapping case wasn’t the only one Kernes has faced.

The Kharkiv mayor has also been investigated by the Prosecutor General’s Office over alleged embezzlement. Kernes and his long-time ally, lawmaker and former Kharkiv Oblast Governor Mykhailo Dobkin, are accused of embezzling funds by allocating land to fake cooperatives controlled by their allies for free, and later selling it at market prices.

In an April interview with the LB.ua news site, Kernes declined to comment on his alleged role in the scheme.

Kernes’ residence was searched in 2016 as part of the investigation. Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko said in 2017 that prosecutors were preparing to charge Kernes in the corruption case but has not charged him as of now.

“Kernes, (the city council’s secretary in 2006 to 2010), who initiated votes and signed the decisions (on the land allocation schemes), escaped any charges, surprisingly,” Dmytro Bulakh, head of the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center, told the Kyiv Post.

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In July 2017 the Verkhovna Rada approved stripping Dobkin of his immunity from prosecution in the same embezzlement case and arrested him. The Prosecutor General’s Office suspects Dobkin of abusing his powers during the allocation of land plots in Kharkiv when he was the city’s mayor in 2006 to 2010.

In total, the scheme involved the embezzlement of Hr 10 billion to Hr 15 billion ($984 million) through the allocation of 800 hectares of land in 2008 to 2016, according to the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center and the Nashi Groshi investigative journalism project.

Some of the cooperatives were owned by Igor Arikh, a city council member from the Revival party backed by Kernes, Oleksandr Korovkin, a business partner of Kernes’ son Daniil Privalov, and Andriy Chelobitnikov, a business partner of Kernes’ wife Oksana Haisinska.

Those who got the land also include Olga Kirillova and her husband Andriy Shaptala, who own the National Hotel, where Kernes lives. Dobkin’s mansion is also located on land allocated through the scheme.

Some of the land was also given to business partners of then-Kharkiv Oblast Governor Avakov — People’s Front lawmaker Ihor Kotvitsky and Marina Epishina. Avakov has denied the accusations of corruption.

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More schemes?

Meanwhile, during tenders for tramway tracks, the Kharkiv authorities required that contractors use a technology patented only by people close to Kernes, according to a Nashi Groshi investigation. These include companies co-owned by Yevheny Vodovozov, a deputy of Kernes, and his brother Oleksandr Vodovozov.

Kharkiv City Council has also sold municipal real estate to people close to Kernes at a price that is five to seven times cheaper than the market price, according to the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center, a non-governmental organization.

One of the premises was bought in June by TV journalist Inna Moskvina, who is in a relationship with Yuriy Sydorenko, the head of the city council’s department for public relations. She paid Hr 250,000 for a 103-square-meter space, which is at least five time less than the market price. Moskvina denied the accusations of wrongdoing, saying that the price had been set by an appraiser, and all taxes had been paid.

Others who bought real estate cheaply from the city were Roman Martynov, a top executive of utilities firm Zhilkomservis whose wife works at the city government’s legal department, and Gabriel Mikhailov, a city council member from the Revival party that Kernes backs. Zhilkomservis is controlled by the city government.

The Prosecutor General’s Office has opened a criminal case into the sales.

Meanwhile, firms owned by friends, assistants and relatives of Vyacheslav Stamatin, head of the Kharkiv metro, and Maksym Museyev, a city councilor from Kernes’ party and son of the late ex-head of the Kharkiv metro, get contracts worth millions of hryvnias with the metro, the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center said.

At the same time, firms owned by Kernes’ deputy Andriy Rudenko and Yulia Pletnyova, a lawyer for Kernes and Dobkin, have monopolized a major share of minibus routes in Kharkiv, Nashi Groshi reported.

Kharkiv’s major street markets have also been acquired by people linked to Kernes on favorable terms or for peanuts, according to Nashi Groshi.

Olga Solop, a business partner of Kernes’ son Daniil Privalov and Kernes’ ally Dobkin; Vladyslav Tkachenko, a business partner of Kharkiv’s municipal registration service chief Oleg Drobot, and Yuriy Medvedev, a candidate for Revival party and partner of Igor Koguta and Ladi Krimerman — partners of Privalov, have acquired control over the Kinny market, one of the city’s largest markets.

Meanwhile, Medvedev; Solop; Shaptala, who co-owns the hotel where Kernes lives; Vladyslav Tkachenko, a business partner of Solop and Drobot; Oleksandr Korovkin, a business partner of Privalov and Solop, and Vitaly Pechura have acquired control over the Central Market. Pechura is a business partner of Solop and Anatoly Chelobitchikov, who is in turn a partner of Kernes’ wife Oksana Haisynska.

Kernes’ more distant past is also mired in controversy — in 1992 he was sentenced by a Kharkiv court to three years in prison for robbery and fraud.

Separatism?

Kernes also faces accusations of being a pro-Russian separatist.

Kernes and Dobkin co-organized a separatist congress in Kharkiv on Feb. 22, 2014, and Kernes also attended a pro-Russian rally in Kharkiv on March 1, 2014.

Participants of the Feb. 22 congress said they did not recognize the legitimacy of the central authorities after the victory of the EuroMaidan Revolution, which the previous day had ousted Yanukovych, and announced plans to take over Ukraine’s southeastern regions.

In 2014 Dobkin was charged with endangering Ukraine’s territorial integrity. However, later the case against him was closed, with prosecutors claiming that no crime had been committed.
Kernes has denied that the congress was separatist.

Dobkin and Kernes have also been accused of leading Oplot, a group of pro-Yanukovych thugs that became a pro-Russian separatist organization in 2014, and promoting separatist unrest in Kharkiv in early 2014.

“Kernes was undoubtedly one of Oplot’s ideologues,” Bulakh said. “This was the armed militia (of Kernes and Dobkin) in 2010 through 2014.”

Kernes, however, has argued that he had helped to quell a Russian-backed uprising in Kharkiv in April 2014.

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