Serhiy Semeniuk, who was featured in a joint investigation by Slidstvo.Info and OCCRP and is known as a business associate and a friend of a Russian businessman, has initiated legal proceedings against journalists following their investigative report on cleaning firms linked to a Russian businessman, which for many years have provided cleaning services to Ukrainian strategic facilities. Slidstvo.Info has uncovered attempts by Semeniuk’s legal team to circumvent the automated electronic case distribution mechanism, aiming to have the case presided over by a judge deemed “convenient” for their purposes. The lawyers have also introduced a person to the case who is registered in the same district of Dnipro where the Zhovtnevyi District Court is located.

We refer to the investigative report by Slidstvo.Info titled “From the Kremlin Palace to Ukrenergo: Who Cleans Ukraine’s Strategic Facilities.”

Journalists have uncovered that cleaning firms linked to a Russian businessman for many years have been providing cleaning services to Ukrainian strategic facilities like Ukrzaliznytsia, Ukrenergo, the tax office, and so forth. The firms responsible for cleaning these facilities are associated with Eduard Apsit, a Russian businessman of Belarusian descent. His business associate and close friend, Serhiy Semeniuk, owns companies from the Chisto group in Ukraine. According to colleagues from the OCCRP, cleaning firms linked to the Apsit family have serviced the Kremlin Palace in Russia.

Furthermore, journalists uncovered that a Chisto group company operated in the occupied Crimea, cleaning the barracks belonging to the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Ministry of Defence.

Following the release of this investigative report, Serhiy Semeniuk filed a lawsuit for the protection of honour, dignity, and business reputation against the editorial team of Slidstvo.Info and the story’s author, Yanina Korniienko. At the same time, his legal team attempted to manipulate the electronic judge distribution system, which automatically assigns a judge who will preside over the case. In order to achieve this, his lawyer repeatedly submitted and withdrew the lawsuit until the system allocated the desired judge.

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.

Essentially, a person registered in the exact district where the Zhovtnevyi Court of Dnipropetrovsk City is located was brought to the case. And after the venue for the trial had been determined, Semeniuk’s lawyers made multiple attempts to sidestep the automatic case distribution, aiming to land the case with the “right” judge.

By “coincidence,” 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.

Inga Springe, the co-founder of the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica, similarly questions the impartiality of this lawsuit against the journalists.

“The recent findings by Slidstvo.Info’s journalists regarding the maneuvers of Semeniuk’s legal team do not inspire confidence in the trial’s fairness. Ukraine faces significant corruption issues. I genuinely hope this trial does not exemplify that. As professional journalists, we stand firm by our writings and professional investigations. We seek a legal resolution, free from any ‘dirty’ tricks,” says the co-founder and investigative journalist of Re:Baltica Inga Springe.

The court proceedings are still ongoing.