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Russian businessman's partner sues Slidstvo.Info for investigating him (updated)

05.10.2023, 17:24
Photo by Slidstvo.Info
Photo by Slidstvo.Info

Serhiy Semenyuk, who figured in the joint investigation by "Slidstvo.Info" and the OCCRP as a business partner and friend of a Russian businessman, is sueing the journalists for investigating the cleaning companies which are affiliated with the Russian businessman and have been providing cleaning services to Ukrainian strategic objects for years on end. However, "Slidstvo.Info" found out that Semeniuk's lawyers attempted to bypass the electronic auto-selection of judges so that the case would be tried by a "convenient" judge.

This is reported on the "Slidstvo.Info" website.

Moreover, a person with a residence permit to live nearby the Zhovtnevy district court (Dnipro) was also involved in the case.

The investigation in question is titled "From the Kremlin Palace to Ukrenergo: who cleans Ukraine's strategic objects".

The journalists learned that cleaning companies affiliated with a Russian businessman have been cleaning Ukrainian strategic facilities, such as Ukrzaliznytsia, Ukrenergo, the State Tax Service, etc., for years on end. The companies providing services to these facilities have ties to the Russian businessman of Belarusian origin, Eduard Apsit. His business partner and close friend, Serhiy Semeniuk, owns the "Chysto" group companies in Ukraine.

According to the OCCRP, the cleaning companies affiliated with the Apsit family have cleaned the Kremlin Palace in Russia.

Furthermore, the journalists found that a "Chisto" company has worked in occupied Crimea and cleaned the barracks of the Russian MoD's Black Sea Fleet.

After the investigation was released, Serhiy Semeniuk sued the editors of "Slidstvo.Info" and the author of the material, Yanina Korniyenko, for slander. However, his lawyers tried to manipulate the procedure of electronic selection of judges, which automatically determines who will try the case. For this, the lawyer submitted an application to the court and withdrew it multiple times until the system assigned the judge they needed.

Serhiy Semeniuk initially approached the court on 17 July 2023. At that time, the system randomly selected judge Oleksandr Antoniuk. Yet, Semeniuk’s lawyer, Anna Haponets, promptly withdrew the lawsuit.

On 8 August 2023, Semeniuk filed the lawsuit once again. Evidently, this time he was also discontented with the composition of the panel and the outcome of the automated allocation. This time, judge Viktoriya Batmanova was the random choice. So, the very next day, Semeniuk’s lawyer withdrew the lawsuit again.

However, just hours later on the same day, Semeniuk’s representatives submitted yet another lawsuit to the same court. This time, the system automatically assigned judge Dina Pokoptseva. It seems this was the judge they had been angling for through all those manipulations, as, notably, Semeniuk’s team did not withdraw the lawsuit this time around. The following month, this judge opened proceedings in a case for the protection of honour, dignity, and business reputation.

Nika Kreidenkova, Advocacy Manager at DEJURE Foundation, comments that such tactics are frequently employed in court proceedings.

“This bears all the characteristics of a classic ‘rolling lawsuits’ strategy. Such tactics are frequently utilised by plaintiffs and their legal counsels, occasionally in agreement with certain judges. You file a lawsuit, sometimes with intentional errors to prevent the judge immediately accepting it. Then you observe if the lawsuit has been sent to the ‘right’ judge. If not, you withdraw it and submit a new lawsuit, identical to the previous one. The cycle continues until the lawsuit gets to the ‘intended’ judge,” says Nina Kreidenkova.

Further evidence suggests that Semeniuk was keen on having this specific judge. Semeniuk introduced an obscure individual, Vladyslav Hrindak, as the third defendant in the case, because he shared the post about the investigation on his Instagram page. The page looks empty and inactive, with its first post dated 14 June, a month following the release of the investigation. A mere week later, on 22 June, Vladyslav shared Slidstvo.Info’s investigative report. This post remains the only subsequent activity on Hrindak’s page, which has only 33 followers.

By a strange coincidence, Hrindak is registered in Dnipro, within the same district where the Zhovtnevyi District Court of Dnipropetrovsk City is located. It is primarily due to Hrindak’s inclusion as a defendant that the case will be heard in this specific court. Semeniuk is also registered in Dnipro, which means that two of the parties involved in the case have connections to the Zhovtnevyi Court of Dnipropetrovsk City.

“It is highly probable that this man was used to ensure that the lawsuit was directed to the ‘preferred court.’ In civil proceedings, a lawsuit can be filed at the defendant’s registration or residential address. Sometimes, you do not want the case to land in the courts associated with the ‘original’ defendants. So, if you want to manipulate, you look for a defendant who is registered within the territorial jurisdiction of the ‘desired’ court. The motive, it seems, is also to place the case with a specific judge,” says Nika Kreidenkova, Advocacy Manager at DEJURE Foundation.

Interestingly, the plaintiff holds no claims against Vladyslav Hrindak. He merely serves as a defendant in the case, with no claims of moral damages against him. Conversely, the plaintiffs are seeking UAH 200,000 from Slidstvo.Info. Attempts to contact the man have been futile, as the phone calls remain unanswered.

The judge opted for a simplified procedure to hear the case. This entails an in-absentia trial, conducted solely through correspondence with the court, without the need to summon the parties involved. Although, it is customary for such cases to undergo the standard procedural route.

“Opting for a case to be heard through a simplified procedure (i. e. in writing) without summoning the parties facilitates a swift resolution, avoiding the typical delays of postponing or deferring court hearings. This can play to the advantage of the plaintiff, especially if there is an urgency to secure a court decision. Another ‘benefit’ of this approach is that such decisions are not subject to cassation appeals, effectively eliminating another possibility to challenge the decision,” says Oksana Maksymeniuk, a defence lawyer, and a media lawyer at the Regional Press Development Institute.

Belarusian journalist, previously Belarusian Investigative Centre investigative reporter Aleksandr Yarashevich expresses concerns over the nature of the trial. He finds it dubious, especially given the involvement of an unrelated party.

“Regarding the trial, it seems suspicious that a guy who shared the investigation on his Instagram page with just over 30 followers was added as a party to the case. What is even more concerning is the endeavour to hear the case in absentia, without any court appearance, effectively making it a closed-door proceeding,” says Aleksandr Yarashevich.

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