Protesters block courthouse after Ukrainian tax boss accused of embezzling millions

The first major legal test of the Ukrainian government's commitment to fight corruption is playing out in a courtroom in Kyiv, where the 38-year-old head of the country's tax and customs service has been accused of embezzling more than $99 million Cdn in public funds. 

So far, it's not going well.

Roman Nasirov was arrested on Friday by a new anti-corruption institution in Ukraine called the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU). Not long after the arrest, Nasirov's team issued a statement claiming the young official had suffered a heart attack. He was wheeled into the courthouse on a stretcher, surrounded by both lawyers and medical professionals.

But for some, the illness looked like a stalling tactic. As the clock ticked down on a 72-hour time limit on Nasirov's detention, it became increasingly clear to Ukrainians that no judge would hear the case over the weekend.

Ukrainian investigative journalist Kristina Berdynskykh said it was less than surprising to see the judicial system fail to act.

"Judicial reform has not worked," she said, "so courts may be the biggest obstacle to anti-corruption bodies. Not all the judges are corrupt, but there are fewer honest judges than dishonest ones."

Protesters block courthouse

Ukrainian civil society ultimately took matters into their own hands.

On Sunday night, they blockaded the courthouse, essentially sealing Nasirov inside, so that he had no chance to leave when the anti-corruption bureau's detention period expired at midnight.

Hundreds of protesters stood outside the courthouse well into Monday morning. Finally, a judge was found to hear the case. The hearing has been ongoing throughout the day, and a decision is expected tonight.

If the judge drops the charges and releases Nasirov, it's likely that protesters will once again block the courthouse and prevent the accused official from leaving.

It's not yet clear how the case will unfold.

But Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the anti-corruption action centre in Ukraine, said she understands from NABU and the prosecutors "that they want bail set at the estimated amount of losses, which stands around $2 billion Ukrainian hryvnias."

That converts to more than $99 million Cdn.

Rampant corruption

Throughout the period of independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians have faced years of broken promises, dysfunction, and a plague of government corruption. The corruption, especially, was everywhere. In every official office, every bureaucratic decision, every business transaction, there was the likelihood of graft.

Ukraine's battle with corruption took a monumental leap in 2013, when Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem wrote a Facebook post that sparked a small group of Ukrainian citizens to take to the streets. At that time, they were protesting against their government's backtracking on an association agreement with the EU. That long-promised agreement was scrapped in favor of closer ties with Russia by the government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

The 2013 protests soon became something much greater, drawing over a million people to Kyiv, and culminating in the ouster of the country's president in 2014.

It's been three years since the former president fled the country, and in that time, the anti-corruption ideals of the revolution have faced their fair share of tests. Civil society's attention and resources were drawn away when the country's southern region of Crimea was annexed by Russia, and then combined Russian-separatist forces waged war in the country's eastern regions. Since then, nearly 10,000 people have died according to the UN, and 1.8 million have been displaced.

Yet three years on from that historic event, perhaps the greatest test that the anti-corruption movement has faced is from its own government. The country still ranks 131st out of 176 countries in Transparency International's corruption index.

Citizens across the country feel that little, if any, progress has been made in cracking down on corrupt officials or reforming the government since the revolution. If the events of the past weekend gain traction, they could be seen as a watershed moment in Ukrainian civil society's fight against corruption.

Calls for change — again

Once again, Mustafa Nayyem, now a member of Ukraine's parliament, was instrumental in the call to action. A Facebook post from the young MP on Sunday inspired citizens to block access to and from the courthouse where Nasirov was being held.

"The arrest of Nasirov was the first arrest of a serving high-ranking official in Ukraine's 25-year history," said Kaleniuk, the executive director of the anti-corruption action center in Ukraine. "It finally shows Ukrainians that there's a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to getting rid of corruption."

In Ukraine, many people consider this case a line in the sand. Either it's used to build trust in the system, or possibly erode what little is left.

"If he's charged, it shows that those who are known to be untouchable also have to face justice," said Kaleniuk. "It shows that politicians and officials who are sitting at the top positions will be held responsible."