The flight of Petro Melnyk, a notorious rector of the National Tax Service University arrested while taking a bribe, from under house arrest exposes the severe degradation of Ukrainian law enforcement
“It’ll be funny if he escapes,” journalists joked among themselves as they were leaving the 1 August session of the Pechersk District Court in Kyiv. The court sentenced Petro Melnyk, rector of the National Tax Service University, to house arrest as a preventative measure. Just one week later, the joke became reality.
Official reports by the police, journalist searches and an investigation headed by opposition MP Hennadiy Moskal suggest the following picture: Melnyk was last seen around 10p.m. on 8 August on the premises of his sister’s country house, where he was ordered to stay by the court. The rector somehow managed to get rid of the electronic bracelet used to track his movements, and walking through a forest reached a highway, where a car was clearly waiting for him. The police launched a search for the VIP escapee the next day. A lack of official information immediately gave rise a plethora of versions, but the main question — how Melnyk removed the bracelet without being noticed and without even damaging the device — remains unanswered. The hypothesis that the battery went dead and the bracelet became unlocked does not seem to hold water.
The Ukrainian Week has studied a detailed technical description of the bracelet on the official site of the American patent office and learnt that when the battery charge is critically low, it automatically sends a warning signal to the monitoring station. Moreover, the description says that the device is designed to withstand external interference, so it is impossible to get rid of it without attracting attention. However, the cunning know no bounds: instructions can be found in the Russian segment of the Internet (Russia has been using these bracelets for quite a while) describing how they can be removed with the help of hot water or motor oil. In order to trick the electronic system and prevent it from sending out a warning signal, only a few paper clips need to be used.
There is no doubt that the escape was possible with the help of the police and judges. Melnyk scored his first victory — house arrest instead of placement in the Lukianivka Pre-Trial Detention Unit — on 1 August in the Pechersk District Court. House arrest as a preventive measure (introduced in late 2012 subsequent to the new Criminal Procedure Code) has already been applied to nearly 500 people, but bracelets were put on just some 40 suspects, while the police personally ensured monitoring in other cases. In Kyiv Oblast, bracelets, i.e., electronic devices for tracking the arrested, were never used before the “Melnyk incident”. And then the authorities suddenly decided to experiment with the gadget by putting it on none other than Melnyk. It is hard to believe that this was purely a coincidence. And now it appears that the second part of the plan – organizing an escape – was successfully executed. Over the years, Melnyk, known locally as the “prince of Irpin”, built good contacts and acquired clout with the same local police who were supposed to keep track of him after the arrest. So why not wait until the next day with a search for the runaway? It is highly likely that the odious Party of Regions member will soon surface in Russia, Belarus or Transnistria, according to a source that spoke to The Ukrainian Week. Tellingly, just a few kilometres from where Melnyk was put under house arrest is the Hostomel Airport, from which unsanctioned air flights have been made, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
The Melnyk story once again exposes how badly Ukraine’s law enforcement system and judiciary have degraded. According to Moskal, Ukrainian policemen handle electronic bracelets like “monkeys handling grenades”: the bracelet that was put on Melnyk was smuggled into Ukraine, while other devices like it were for some reason purchased through a dubious intermediary firm instead of directly from the Israeli manufacturer. Moreover, the mobile retransmitters, stationary monitoring devices and other equipment needed to efficiently monitor suspects were not purchased at all. Moskal also says: “No-one in the police knew how to replace a dead battery in the bracelet.” So, the entire system of monitoring a suspect in Ukraine came down to mere imitation. Remarkable for its cynicism and nonchalance is the answer given by Prime Minister Mykola Azarov to a question about whether Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko should be held responsible for Melnyk’s escape. During a weekly interaction with Facebook users, Azarov noted: “I instructed him (Zakharchenko) to take all necessary measures that the interior bodies use in such situations.” One would think that without these “instructions” Zakharchenko would not know what to do. “I believe that this kind of conduct on the part of Melnyk is unacceptable,” Azarov summed up as if his ill-famous fellow party member, who is also rumored to be his close relative, cursed in the presence of a woman rather than fled while under arrest.
The Melnyk story is unlikely to cause any personnel reshuffles at the highest level. Tellingly, nothing of the kind has until now happened at the low level. None of the ordinary policemen who let the corrupt VIP official slip out of custody have been punished or even suspended from their duties. The impression is that the Interior Ministry is just unwilling to pay any special attention to the escape of the university rector. In any case, this piece of news is lost among victorious communications from the Interior Ministry’s press service on its official website: uncovering an underground casino in Odesa, a meeting between the Interior Minister and the Austrian ambassador to Ukraine and so on. And so the powers that be have apparently started the long-awaited process of ousting the weaker – when there is an increasing number of those willing to grab some assets in the establishment and the stock of assets is dwindling, an internal war is inevitable.
The corrupt system, which Melnyk nurtured together with other Party of Regions members for more than 10 years, also demands a rotation of sorts. In this connection, it is not quite clear why Melnyk needed to run. Having very extensive connections in the ruling camp (the change of the preventive measure confirms that he has not lost them completely), he and his attorneys could have worked to have his act qualified under a different article. Finally, they could have obtained comfortable prison conditions for him, and after some two or three years he would be released on parole. An escape is an alternative that leaves no chances for the future. Oleksiy Pukach and Viktor Lozynsky grasped as much at some point. Why Melnyk then opted to run remains a mystery.
To Ukrainian society, this story, regardless of how it ends, is likely to lead to a situation in which Ukrainian courts will ignore a universally useful innovation introduced in the Criminal Procedure Code (house arrest and electronic bracelets) without even starting to actually apply it. Not only are the courts able to block the application of this preventive measure, parliament may also refuse to allocate funds to buy more of the bracelets. The Interior Ministry claims today that it needs UAH 216mn for this purpose. So, instead of isolating suspects who are not socially dangerous at home, courts will continue to send them to pre-trial detention units.
The Ukrainian Week talked with French cybersecurity expert Christine Dugoin-Clément about mechanisms for fighting fake news, the prospects for certifying true information, and the likelihood of separating propaganda from journalism once and for all.