Judges under fire: Defending rule of law with a pen and a gun in Ukraine

Two of Ukraine's top supreme court justices have delivered starkly personal messages to an international conference of top legal minds in Ottawa. With their country under fire, they say the rule of law is not just words for them.

'It's an honour and privilege to protect my country by any means I can,' said Ivan Mishchenko

Ivan Mishchenko, a justice of Ukraine's supreme court. In addition to sitting on the country's high court, he also serves an infantry officer in the Ukrainian military. (Twitter/Ivan Mishchenko)

It has been a little more than eight months since Ivan Mishchenko swapped his refined black robe and white scarf for camouflage and Kevlar.

As a judge on Ukraine's supreme court, the full onset of hostilities with Russia also forced him to exchange the sword of justice for an assault rifle.

Judges, he will readily admit to you, don't usually go to war. But he described the choice facing him and his country as an "existential" one. 

"It's the choice that I had to take," Mishchenko told CBC News in an interview Monday, on the margins of an international justice conference in Ottawa. "It's an honour and privilege to protect my country by any means I can."

Initially he was a reservist volunteer with the army's territorial battalions, but then became a full-time member of the regular force. Mishchenko, a married father of three, serves as an infantry officer; a lieutenant, with a combat platoon.

Where once he weighed both sides of an argument, Mishchenko, 40, said he now has a finer appreciation for the notion of justice given the sacrifices he'd witnessed — both among soldiers and civilians. 

"The rule of law is not just words for us. It has some meaning," Mishchenko said. "So, we put something into these words." 

'They're totally destroyed'

His unit saw action outside of Kyiv, as Russian forces were pushed back last spring, and in the country's northeast where Ukrainian forces liberated vast swaths of territory this summer, including the city of Izium, where there was heavy fighting. 

"A lot of villages, small towns, they exist [only] on the map now," he said. "They're totally destroyed. So … it's just an empty land, with holes from from the bombs, and everything is destroyed and you can see them only on the map."

As he meets people amid the ruins of formerly occupied territory, he said he tries to assure them that they will rebuild, recognizing that the loved ones they have lost can never be replaced.

Mishchenko is among four supreme court justices and 15 high court staff who've volunteered for frontline duty.  At the lower court level, there have been 60 judges and 311 staff who have enlisted.

Ukrainian chief justice Vsevolod Kniaziev addresses the International Organization for Judicial Training conference in Ottawa, on Monday. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

The country's chief justice, Vsevolod Kniaziev, spoke about the Ukrainian judges in the occupied territories who have faced persecution, arrest and threats if they do not join the ranks of Russian judges. At least three judges — all of them women — have been killed since last winter — two in a missile attack in Odesa last July, the other was shot by Russian troops as she tried to flee the city of Chernihiv in March.

There was, Kniaziev said, a brief glimmer of hope two weeks ago when a judge from the occupied city of Mariupol, who was kidnapped from the roadside last March by Russian-backed paramilitary forces, was set free in a prisoner exchange.

Yulia Matveyeva — a district court judge — was targeted because of her position, he added.

"I am so proud of my colleague, and thankful to her for her courage, endurance and faithfulness to [her] judge's oath, [which] she demonstrated," Kniaziev said. 

Courts continue to function

Kniaziev told Canada's National Judicial Institute (NJI) conference that the wheels of justice continue to turn in Ukraine, despite heavy fighting in the south and east of the country and in defiance of daily missile rocket attacks, saying more than three million court decisions have been rendered since the onset of major hostilities last February. 

Eighty-five courthouses (11 per cent of the country's total) have been damaged or destroyed in the fighting and 95 appeal courts and local courts are unable to administer justice because of the conditions.

"Some of them — 75 [of the] premises or judicial institutions suffered damage — broken windows, damaged facades — or buildings, damaged courtrooms," Kniaziev said, adding that some buildings have "no drainage, no electricity, etcetera." 

And then the buildings in the recently liberated area have shown signs of being "looted by Russian troops — stolen computers, servers, video conferencing systems, furniture."

Watch: Ukraine Supreme Court justice is on the front line fighting against Russia:

Ukraine Supreme Court justice is on the front line fighting against Russia

3 months ago
Duration 3:38
Ivan Mishchenko, a Ukrainian Supreme Court judge, has taken up arms in the country’s military defense against Russia.

Ukraine has compensated for the chaos — somewhat — by redrawing the jurisdictional boundaries. It also has to contend with courts and judges trapped on the other side of Russian lines, said Kniaziev.

Speaking before the conference, alongside Canada's chief justice Richard Wager, Kniaziev delivered a political message, asking Canada to ensure that the money from seized Russian assets is used to help rebuild his country. 

"Ukraine is fighting for democracy, and [has become] an outpost of democratic values, an outpost for protecting the rule of law in Europe and also for Western civilization. Ukraine is fighting for its Euro Atlantic choice and we are paying a high price," Kniaziev said.

"What I would like to ask from Canada and from Canadians is to … adopt a mechanism … like arresting Russian Federation assets and property and make it possible to recover losses in Ukraine, using the assets and the property, which is outside Russia, because we know Russia will not pay anything to restore and to rebuild in Ukraine."

Canada has frozen approximately $122 million in Russian assets. Despite giving itself the power to "seize and sell off assets" owned by individuals and entities on Canada's sanctions list, the federal government has yet to do so.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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