Mon, Dec 06, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Ukrainian court confirms massive electoral fraud

AFP , KIEV

Thinly-disguised exasperation in her voice, the Ukrainian supreme court judge leaned over and asked a top electoral official: "Did you actually keep any tabs on the counting of the votes?"

"Not me," the deputy head of the central electoral commission, Yaroslav Davydovich, replied with a shrug of his shoulders.

Presiding solemnly in their burgundy robes over possibly the most important hearing of their lives, 21 senior Ukrainian judges this week struck a decisive blow for the ex-Soviet republic's young democracy.

After five days of packed court proceedings, the panel backed the opposition's allegations of massive ballot fraud in the disputed Nov. 21 presidential polls and ordered a new run-off election by the end of the month.

Why was the turnout 127 percent in one district? Where did the false documents brandished by a lawyer for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko allowing a voter to cast multiple ballots come from?

Why did the central electoral commission proclaim Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich the winner although many complaints had not been examined and some vote tallies from certain polling stations had not arrived yet?

There were many questions asked by the judges and lawyers for Yushchenko, who accused the authorities of stealing from 3 million to 4 million votes, but few answers. No one seemed responsible.

The crucial supreme court hearing, televised live, began Monday after the biggest political crisis in the history of independent Ukraine erupted following the bitterly contested presidential election.

Even members of the electoral commission appointed by the winning side handed ammunition to the claims of fraud, one conceding that voting records could be modified or simply erased if "the balance of votes moved in favor of the other candidate," Yushchenko.

Another calmly announced that about a million ballots may have been fraudulent in the pro-government bastions in eastern Ukraine, where in one key region Donetsk, the official turnout was recorded as 96 percent.

"In my view, a million votes were stuffed into the boxes" after the polls had closed, commission member Ruslan Kniazevic said.

"The central electoral commission bears chief responsibility," Kniazevic added, criticizing an "organized system" of fraud.

The time came for the court to question witnesses but Yanukovich's representatives objected, saying they had followed the court proceedings on television and would not provide impartial testimony.

The prime minister's lawyer, Olena Lukash, lodged a series of motions, asking the court to interrupt its session to allow Yanukovich's side to study evidence of fraud submitted by the other camp or to quash the hearing.

A red-haired woman with a loud voice, she took her time in putting forward her arguments. The judges were obliged every time to leave the courtroom and retire to a separate chamber to consider the requests.

The supreme court rejected each and every one, but the government lawyer persisted.

"Has the person who you are representing tasked you especially with dragging out the proceedings?" a judge finally asked in a flash of anger.

Then suddenly half-way through the week, the prime minister seemed to give up his attempt to convince the increasingly hostile judges, asking himself for the annulment of the election because of fraud in the pro-opposition west.

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