U.S. authorities have detained a prominent representative of Ukraine’s old regime, former Sumy Region governor Volodymyr Shcherban, in Florida. Like disgraced former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko in New York six years ago, Shcherban was detained on an immigration violation. Lazarenko had applied for political asylum. His request was denied, but he was not deported to Ukraine, as he faced fraud charges in the United States. The Ukrainian authorities hope that the U.S. decision will be different with Shcherban, whose deportation Kyiv requested several months ago, according to Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko.
The United States has no extradition treaty with Ukraine, so Kyiv can expect Shcherban’s deportation to Ukraine only if he committed no crime in the United States, is not granted asylum, and is not deported to a different country. If he is sent back home, Shcherban will face charges on at least four counts, one of which can be qualified as political — Shcherban is believed to have ordered Sumy officials to vote for Viktor Yanukovych in last year’s presidential election. Another three criminal cases opened against Shcherban feature the extortion of shares in several Sumy companies from their legal holders, tax evasion (Shcherban failed to pay some $130,000 in taxes in 2003, according to tax police), and illegal possession of firearms (searching his mansion in April, police found an arsenal of some 50 guns).
Shcherban may also be held responsible for ordering police last year to attack Sumy students who staged a peaceful protest against plans to merge several local colleges into one university. The protest was backed by the opposition, which was then headed by Sumy Region native Viktor Yushchenko, and police reportedly applied excessive force, beating and dragging students to the ground.
Shcherban figures in the notorious tape recordings implicating several former Ukrainian officials in crimes, which ex-president Leonid Kuchma’s former bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko claims to have made in Kuchma’s office. When the transcript of a conversation between Kuchma and Shcherban was released on the Internet during the anti-Kuchma protests in 2000-2001, the opposition accused Shcherban of illegal privatization of Sumykhimprom, a chemical producer. Shcherban denied any wrongdoing. Yushchenko trusted Shcherban, and included him in Our Ukraine’s list for the 2002 parliamentary election, despite protests from many of Yushchenko’s allies. Shcherban defected from Yushchenko’s camp the same year, and he actively backed his rival Yanukovych in the 2004 presidential election campaign. He was stripped of his parliamentary seat in 2003, as he could not legally combine it with the gubernatorial post.
Shcherban disappeared soon after Yushchenko fired him from the governor’s post in February. It was widely believed that he was hiding in Russia, along with several other former top officials who fled Ukraine after Yushchenko’s victory, and who Russia did not want to extradite — Kuchma’s office manager Ihor Bakay, former Interior Minister Mykola Bilokon, and Odessa’s former mayor Ruslan Bodelan. In May, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry put Shcherban on an international wanted list and asked Russia for assistance in locating him. But it turned out that Shcherban had left for the United States in April. His business visa expired on October 8, and on October 12 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained him in Tampa. On learning the news of Shcherban’s detention, Lutsenko expressed hope that the U.S. courts would soon rule to send him home, and pledged that he would personally meet Shcherban at the airport. Getting hold of Shcherban is very important for the Yushchenko government, as “Prisons for bandits” was one of the main slogans of the Orange Revolution, but no single top official of the corrupt former regime has so far received prison sentences. Many of them have fled Ukraine, and it has turned out to be far from easy to prove the guilt of others in courts. Shcherban should not be a hard nut to crack for prosecutors technically, as he faces numerous charges. But they may be impeded by one problem — as a deputy of the Sumy regional council Shcherban enjoys immunity from prosecution, according to a law that parliament passed recently.
Lutsenko said that he, according to the law, may detain Shcherban for three days only, if the regional council fails to give its consent to a longer arrest. This consent may be hard to get, as the council is reportedly full of people handpicked by Shcherban. Yushchenko has appealed to the Constitutional Court against the law granting immunity from prosecution to local deputies. But if Washington sends Shcherban home and his immunity is still valid, Shcherban will be effectively at large, free to either try and flee again, or to run in next year’s parliamentary polls on the list of one of the opposition parties. Once in parliament, Shcherban will be granted immunity from prosecution again, as a national deputy.
It should be noted, however, that parliamentary immunity from prosecution did not save Lazarenko in 1999. He fled to the United States after parliament voted to lift his immunity.
(UNIAN, May 6; Interfax-Ukraine, AP, October 13; Ukrayinska pravda, October 13, 14; Segodnya, October 14)