KIEV (Reuters) - A judge ordered Ukraine’s top tax official on Tuesday to be jailed or pay a hefty bail pending his trial for suspected embezzlement, in a landmark ruling hailed by protesters as a blow for transparency in one of Europe’s most corrupt countries.
Pro-reform activists and lawmakers had kept up a noisy, two-day vigil outside the Kiev court house, worried that Roman Nasirov might otherwise try to escape justice as other senior officials have done in the past.
Since investigators first tried to detain Nasirov last week, the case has almost been derailed several times - by legal wrangling, bomb threats and a mysterious illness that saw him hospitalised on Thursday complaining of high blood pressure.
The judge’s verdict, which came in the early hours of Tuesday morning, said Nasirov, 38, must be jailed for 60 days or pay bail of $3.7 million while state agencies prepare a case against him over the alleged embezzlement of $75 million.
Nasirov, who heads Ukraine’s tax and customs service, denies all charges against him.
“In the history of our country, this is the first court decision on the jailing of an official of this level. It is the highest bail ever set,” reformist lawmaker Mustafa Nayyem said in a post on Facebook.
“Thanks to our action, Roman Nasirov did not hide, did not escape, did not get sick, but took full part in the court session,” Nayyem said.
Ukraine has so far made patchy progress in rooting out endemic official corruption, despite repeated promises from the Western-backed government that took power in 2014 after a popular uprising driven partly by public anger over sleaze.
Ukraine’s top anti-graft prosecutor was scathing about Nasirov’s sudden hospitalisation shortly after prosecutors ordered his detention, saying it was in keeping with a “historic tradition” among the country’s officials to fall sick at convenient moments.
Video footage showed detectives reading the charges to Nasirov as he lay sprawled, apparently unconscious, in a hospital bed.
Photos of his subsequent appearances in court, where he was still comatose and strapped to a gurney, were widely shared online, fuelling speculation that he was seeking to delay his bail hearing beyond the 72-hour deadline in order to give himself a chance to leave the country.
On Saturday, a judge ruled that Nasirov was healthy enough for the bail hearing to commence, but a late night bomb threat delayed proceedings until the next day.
The anti-graft protesters lost patience on Sunday when a request from Nasirov’s legal team for a new judge threatened to push the hearing beyond its deadline.
Shouting “Roman, wake up!” the protesters converged on the court house and blocked its three exits to prevent Nasirov leaving and force the hearing to continue.
After the verdict, which came at 3 am (0100 GMT) on Tuesday, Nasirov made no comment and his legal team said they would appeal, but the protesters waved red flares and flags with Ukrainian symbols in celebration.
In a joint statement, the U.S. embassy and the European Union’s delegation to Ukraine welcomed the ruling, “while noting the last several days underscore the need to establish a specialised anti-corruption court”.
(The story was refiled to correct the final paragraph after U.S. embassy/EU delegation amended statement)
Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Gareth Jones