The Misrule of Law

MADRID – Once upon a time, despots simply acted like despots. Nowadays, they dress up their dictatorships in the trappings of the rule of law.

Consider Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Less than a year after his narrow victory over opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential elections, Tymoshenko was arrested on trumped-up contempt charges. She is now serving a seven-year prison sentence for supposedly abusing her position as Prime Minister by signing a gas deal with Russia – and awaits the completion of two more trials.

Unlike most politically motivated trials, Tymoshenko’s case benefits from the oversight of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which recently ruled that her pre-trial detention violated the European Convention on Human Rights. But Yanukovych continues to feign respect for the rule of law, insisting that he cannot consider granting her a presidential pardon until the legal proceedings have been concluded.

This type of “misrule of law” is not unique to Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently used the courts to neutralize his opponents. Currently, the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of Putin’s regime, is being prosecuted for allegedly conspiring to embezzle from a state-owned timber firm, while Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison after accusing several Russian officials of large-scale embezzlement, is being tried posthumously on conspiracy charges.