FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian judge Artur Yemelianov attends an interview with Reuters in Kiev, Ukraine, December 29, 2016. Picture taken December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Natalia Zinets/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Natalia Zinets
KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine is looking into new allegations against a prominent judge who recently returned from suspension imposed under a government drive to root out corruption.
Judge Artur Yemelianov was suspended for three months from January until April this year after state prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against him related to how commercial law cases were allocated to judges.
He is now back at work. But the investigation continues and prosecutors told Reuters they have launched an additional preliminary investigation into a previously unreported case in which Yemelianov awarded a property lease to a real estate company called Dreamwood.
At issue is whether his then wife, Svitlana Yemelianova, co-owned the company at the time Yemelianov made his ruling on Oct. 9, 2008, which would have created an impermissible conflict of interests.
State registry documents issued just over a month later -- on Nov. 19, 2008 -- show she was by that date an owner of Dreamwood. But Yemelianov says Yemelianova had no stake in the company when he made the ruling and denies any wrongdoing.
Reuters has not been able to independently establish whether Yemelianov or Yemelianova had any relationship with Dreamwood or its owners at the time of the ruling.
Ukraine is trying to clean up its court system. Entrenched corruption deters investment in an economy dragged down by a separatist rebellion in the east, and new aid from the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere depends partly on Kiev enforcing reforms in the justice system.
The new preliminary investigation, confirmed in a written statement to Reuters by the General Prosecutor's office, is into Yemelianov's ruling in a dispute over a piece land owned by the municipality in Svyatogirsk, a community about 160 km (100 miles) from the city of Donetsk.
BATTLE OVER PIECE OF LAND
Dreamwood applied for a lease on Dec. 18, 2007, wanting to build a health spa with sports fields and watersport facilities. Court documents show the municipality declined to grant the lease, saying it could be acquired only in an auction -- a procedure set out in a law approved by parliament at the end of 2007.
Dreamwood challenged the decision at the Donetsk commercial court, and Yemelianov presided over the case. He concluded there was no legal requirement for the lease to be awarded via auction in this case and ruled that Svyatogirsk municipality must grant a lease of 49 years and nine months to Dreamwood, the court records show.
In its statement to Reuters, the General Prosecutor's office called the ruling a "patently unjust decision."
It did not say what aspect of the ruling it took issue with but said a "legal assessment of Judge A. Yemelianov's actions" would be made when the preliminary investigation was completed.
In Ukraine, a judge is required to recuse him or herself from a case in which a relative is involved, or if there are other circumstances which cast doubt on the judge's impartiality.
Yemelianov denied there was a conflict of interest.
"It's true that I was the judge (in the case), but it's not true that she was the founder of the company. If that were the case, I would have recused myself," Yemelianov told Reuters in an interview.
"It's necessary to look at the period of time. If she became (an owner) much later than it (the court case) took place, then what's the problem?" he said.
Yemelianova and the judge are now divorced, and Yemelianova now lives in Austria. She did not respond to questions delivered
to the address of a firm in Austria where she is listed as a limited partner.
The Ukrainian High Council of Justice, which rules in disciplinary cases involving judges, did not immediately respond to questions about the case submitted by Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Lina Kushch in KIEV and Shadia Nasralla in VIENNA, writing by Matthias Williams, Editing by Timothy Heritage)