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Ukraine president tries to salvage corruption law as tough election looms

Ukraine president tries to salvage corruption law as tough election looms
FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addresses lawmakers during a session of parliament in Kiev, Ukraine February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo Copyright Valentyn Ogirenko(Reuters)
Copyright Valentyn Ogirenko(Reuters)
By Reuters
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By Natalia Zinets

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko proposed fresh legislation on Thursday aimed at fighting corruption, after the constitutional court threw out a previous anti-graft law, raising concerns that the country was backtracking on the issue.

Poroshenko's record on tackling corruption is a central topic of debate ahead of his bid for a second term in a presidential election on March 31. He trails in the polls and critics accuse him of not doing enough to root out entrenched corruption.

Opposition lawmakers called him to be impeached earlier this week over allegations involving a close ally.

Ukraine passed a law criminalising illicit enrichment in 2015 as a condition of it receiving bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund that kept the country afloat during a steep recession. It was also a precondition for the European Union to grant visa-free travel to Ukrainians.

But the constitutional court overturned the law this week on the grounds that it contravened the presumption of innocence, sparking concern in the EU and among anti-corruption campaigners and the anti-corruption bureau.

"This morning I have signed, and now I am commissioning to register, a presidential bill which takes into account the remarks but preserves the key position - the inevitability of criminal punishment for illicit enrichment," said Poroshenko, who came to power after the Maidan protests in 2014.

Valdis Dombrovskis, Vice-President of the European Commission, highlighted the court's decision in a speech during a visit to Kiev on Thursday.

"I must say that we have certain concerns concerning yesterday's constitutional court ruling concerning the illicit enrichment and the burden of proof concerning this illicit enrichment," he said.

"So we must see what exactly the concerns of the constitutional court were, and how it will affect the effectiveness of the fight against corruption."

The National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) said it had to stop 65 criminal investigations of alleged illicit enrichment of top officials due to the court ruling.

Even if parliament approved a new bill, NABU would not be allowed to resume those investigations because the law would have no retroactive effect.

"The abolition of the article on illegal enrichment is a step back in the anti-corruption reform of Ukraine ," NABU said in a statement.

"This step ... is politically motivated and contradicts Ukraine's obligations under the United Nations Convention against Corruption, agreements with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union," NABU said.

The IMF did not respond to a request for comment on whether the court's decision could derail the disbursement of new aid.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Editing by Matthias Williams and Hugh Lawson)

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