Meet Mykola Chaus, Ukraine’s disappearing judge
The intrigue over a former district judge could be the start of a much seedier story - and one that may involve heavyweights in the Ukrainian elite
At the end of July this year, two groups of cars sped through the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
“You’re interfering with the lawful operations of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau [NABU]!” one of the cars blared through its megaphone, trying to force a grey minivan to stop.
Officers from NABU believed that Mykola Chaus, a former Kyiv district judge now on the run from a bribery charge, was inside the minivan. The minivan, however, belonged to the Security Service of Ukraine, the SBU.
It’s unclear how long exactly this chase lasted. But in a three-minute video of the events that emerged later, the chase ended when SBU officers drove into the state security headquarters in downtown Kyiv – and the NABU officers were escorted off the premises.
A weekly summary of our latest stories about the post-Soviet world.
This high-speed chase between two of Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies is just one part of the story of Mykola Chaus, whose disappearing act – which includes being abducted in neighbouring Moldova earlier this year – has come to symbolise the fight for justice in Ukraine. Indeed, work by investigative journalists has suggested that Chaus could have protection from the very top of the Ukrainian elite – but there remains little in the way of confirmation in the murky world of Ukraine’s anti-corruption battle.
In 2016, Chaus shot to fame after law enforcement found thousands of dollars hidden in glass jars buried under a fence at his home. But his public profile began several years before that, during the street protests that led to the toppling of then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocratic regime.
During what became the Euromaidan revolution in 2013-14, the ‘Automaidan’ movement began organising car rallies outside the palatial homes of government officials allied with Yanukovych. In response, the Yanukovych regime targeted the Automaidan activists, jailing and disappearing them. Then an acting judge, Chaus fined an activist in the Automaidan movement, removing the man’s driving license.
Then, in 2016 – already after the revolution – Chaus oversaw a case against an ally of powerful oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi, a rival of the country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko. At that time, relations between Poroshenko and Kolomoiskyi had become strained, and Kolomoiskyi’s ally, businessman Hennady Korban, was charged with kidnapping, leading an organised crime group and embezzlement.
As it turned out, it fell to Chaus to place Korban under arrest. The court hearings over Korban’s case came to feature the use of fire extinguishers inside the courtroom, emergency medical assistance and organised groups of young men trying to disrupt the proceedings. The Korban case’s defence team included lawyers Andriy Smirnov, now a deputy in the office of incumbent president Volodymyr Zelenskyi, and Andriy Bohdan, the now ex-head of Zelenskyi’s office. Smirnov, as we will find out, will come to feature again in the smokescreen around Chaus’ fate.
It was around this time that clouds began to gather around Chaus: anti-corruption officials found $150,000 in cash – including that buried in glass jars – at his home in the summer of 2016. At that time, Ukrainian judges still had immunity from prosecution, and Parliament needed to vote in order to arrest him. But with parliamentarians’ summer holidays in full swing, the vote was set for early September – by which time Chaus had already fled to Moldova, where he would spend several years.
New video footage released by the NABU this month allegedly shows Chaus discussing bribes in exchange for court decisions in 2016. In response to the video, Chaus’ lawyer, Rostyslav Kravets, called the actions of Ukrainian law enforcement a “provocation” – a criminal offence under the country’s criminal code.
Kravets noted that the footage did not show money being handed over – which is accurate. According to Kravets, during the search of Chaus’ home, police officers did not use gloves while handling the glass jars.
This intrigue over a former district judge could be the start of a much seedier story - and one that may involve heavyweights in the Ukrainian elite
But questions remain over how exactly Chaus managed to leave the country in 2016. Journalists at investigative outlet Slidstvo.info later published what appears to be a document by Ukraine’s High Anti-Corruption Court, which revealed who, according to NABU, might have been involved in Chaus’s disappearance.
The decision, apparently from February 2020, sanctioned an investigation into the disappearance of Chaus. And according to this document, those involved in the ex-judge’s disappearance include a former parliamentarian from Poroshenko’s political party, Oleksandr Hranovskyi – often named as an informal “overseer” of Ukraine’s law enforcement and judicial sector under the former president – as well as the former head of Poroshenko’s personal security team, military intelligence and border guards.
The apparent court order also mentioned Andriy Smirnov and his former legal partner, Kim Veremiichuk, who previously represented Chaus. Smirnov denied any involvement in these events, calling them “complete drivel”.
In any case, until April 2021, Chaus remained in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova – with no public information on what he was doing, aside from unconfirmed rumours of his apparent death. But in March this year, Chaus lost his political asylum claim, and faced extradition back to Ukraine. On 4 April, he disappeared once again – this time, kidnapped outside a gym.
According to the Moldovan interior ministry, Chaus’ kidnappers spoke Ukrainian, and the ex-judge was moved to Ukraine. Investigative outlets Slidstvo.info and RISE Moldova later published an investigation which shows that Ukrainian intelligence could have been involved in the kidnapping – GPS trackers on hire cars in the Moldovan capital showed undercover Ukrainian military intelligence officers driving to Chaus’ residence prior to the judge’s kidnapping. The investigation also showed these officers also used a vehicle registered to the Ukrainian consulate in Chișinău. The Ukrainian authorities denied their involvement in the affair.
For the next four months, nothing was heard about Chaus. Though he would occasionally post videos in his social media accounts, the former judge said nothing about where he was – or what he was doing. But on 30 July, Chaus reappeared, in a small village in central Ukraine, where he was found wearing only a pair of shorts. He was promptly detained by the SBU, and turned up in a sanatorium hospital south of Kyiv a few days later.
On 5 August, in a closed court, Ukraine’s Supreme Anti-Corruption Court placed Chaus under arrest. There is still no confirmed information about how Chaus wound up in Moldova, aside from the NABU investigation – but he is yet to comment publicly on these events.
In court this week, however, he claimed that the April kidnapping was part of a plan to kill him – though he claims he managed to escape, walking 50 kilometres before handing himself over to the SBU.
This intrigue over a former district judge could be the start of a much seedier story – and one that may involve heavyweights in the Ukrainian elite.
Get our weekly email